Leaders Digest: ten questions to help you design a leadership programme


Leadership programmes come in all shapes and sizes. They are designed to meet various purposes and delivered in a wide range of formats. What do we know about effective design? Are there common features across them?

CES is interested in leadership, as we know that it is essential to implementing and sustaining change in public services, and bringing about better outcomes for people who use them. Through our work on the Goal Programme for Public Service Reform and Innovation, we have been working on nine different projects which are testing new ways of working in government departments in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Leadership is emerging as a strong theme in the evaluation of the Programme, but was also the focus of one of the projects. ‘Leading for the Future’ – was a leadership development programme, co-designed and delivered together with the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). The Programme was developed to support senior leaders in the context of significant changes in the external environment, and a new, Outcomes focused Programme for Government.

Evidence about leadership, together with the experience of the Programme, suggests ten questions which can help in commissioning, planning and delivering leadership initiatives.


1. What is the purpose of the Leadership Programme?

This is the big ‘why’ of the Programme and provides a focus throughout the various design stages. For example, is the intent to develop individual leaders or to develop leadership collectively? Is the ‘why’ about strengthening leadership through a period of organisation change, linked to succession planning or enabling cross sector working? This has to be clarified ahead of design.


2. Who is responsible for what?

Are you commissioning, designing or delivering the Programme? If you are commissioning the Programme, then you need to be clear about your ethos, expectations, wishes, bottom lines and goals. What is your role as the programme develops; for example, will you act an advocate, an enabler, a communicator or an overseer? How will you show the level of commitment to the programme within an organisation? Senior level commitment is a significant enabler for leadership development.

If you are delivering the Programme, then you must be clear about who is the commissioner or ‘client’.



3. Who are the participants?

When you design a leadership programme, you want to build a learning community of leaders. Participants may come from different organisations, hold varying responsibilities and have different expectations. Powerful learning experiences take account of ‘who’ the leaders are and what they need in their context and experience. Design elements of the Programme will be different if leaders are from the same or different occupational groups, organisations, sectors, and/or systems.


4. What do participants want and need?

Begin designing the Programme with where people are at. Leadership development must be relevant to the context in which leaders are operating and enable exploration of the internal and external challenges faced. Taking time up front to explore with potential participants their context and the demands on them will provide a sound foundation for the work. Ask open questions through one-to-one interviews and focus groups. Bring findings and initial design to a co-design event. Test out understanding of the context, the purpose, the outcomes, the group, the format, the design elements and the success criteria. Tease out the difference between want and need. Design the programme to meet agreed development needs – what developmental activities will support delivery of the behaviour changes required?


5. How can you involve the participants in the design of the Programme?

If people are active in decisions affecting them they are more likely to adopt new ways of behaving. Co-design and co-production are essential. Involve participants in the identifying their needs, the design of the programme and its delivery. Test out what has been said as well as what is unsaid – explore the elephants in the room.


6. What are the development outcomes?

In other words, how will participants be different in the future – what new knowledge, skill and experience will they demonstrate? These differences can be captured as Programme outcomes. Some of these may be realised in the medium term; some will require ongoing experimentation and practice, and will be part of a lifetime’s work and learning.


7. What is the best learning style for a Programme?

Individuals have different learning preferences. Recognise that there are different learning styles and that learning requires participants to flex parts that they may not be so comfortable with; that is, the extravert who needs to learn to listen and reflect: the introvert who needs to learn to take part in activities that don’t immediately have importance for themselves. Learning to learn is a core skill of leadership. Effective learners want to learn, are self-aware, reflect on their actions, bring experience and theory into their learning and commit to try out new ways of doing things and new ways of being, Behaviour change is difficult. We all have a natural immunity to change. Consequently leadership development is about creating a learning environment with sufficient challenge and support, assessment and feedback, activity and space for reflection, motivation to commit to changing and sustaining behaviour change.


8. How can evidence inform the design of the programme?

There is a rich evidence base to support the development of individual leaders and leadership within organisations. Research supports a move away from the importance of developing single heroic leaders through to a more collaborative view of leadership and a similar theme is emerging in the evaluation of Goal . It is helpful to consider the evidence about development of individuals, groups/teams, organisations and systems.


9. What activities can help to deliver the outcomes?

The shape, content and duration of the Programme follows on from the purpose and agreed outcomes – ‘form follows function’. All good development experiences blend approaches to ensure effective learning. Some approaches will focus on the individual (e.g. coaching), some on group development (e.g. group challenges) and some will explore whole system problems (e.g. Future Search). Each will have aspects of assessment, challenge, feedback, reflection and support to enable learning and behaviour change.


It is important that the delivery team (or individual) recognise and manage their own biases.

10. Who is needed on the Delivery Team?

Leadership development requires expertise. That expertise is in leadership design, theory, context and facilitation. How will you build credibility and trust with the group? It is important that the delivery team (or individual) recognise and manage their own biases. For example, a need to be liked could result in insufficient challenge in the programme; a need to be seen as an expert could lead to participant dependency. Focus on what is best to support the development of those on the Programme and manage your own needs. Recognise that everything that you say and do is an intervention. As developers of others we carry huge responsibility for ensuring that we create safe spaces for development. Safe does not equal cosy. Safe is a space where participants are able to trust the delivery team, colleagues and the commissioner of the work to be open to self-assessment, challenge, experimentation and feedback.

Irene Hewitt is an independent consultant working in the public and third sectors. She is an Associate Consultant in Leadership with The King’s Fund, London, and a CES Associate. Irene specialises in leadership and organisation development and has designed and led numerous leadership programmes. She is a former Executive Director of Human Resources with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, and a former Chief Executive of the Beeches Management Centre (the leadership centre for health and social care in Northern Ireland).