When Leaders Meet To Learn
By Rick Koonce and Alyson Lyon
Cohort-based executive development programs can be a powerful way to develop leaders at all levels.
In today’s turbulent, fast-moving business environment, what’s the best way to build intellectually nimble, innovative and self-confident leaders, equipped for the challenges of constant change?

As executive coaches, we’ve found that cohort-based executive development programs that integrate four specific learning components — group learning, executive and peer coaching, experiential/action learning activities and a strong emphasis on personal development and self-awareness — offer a powerful way to rapidly develop leaders at any level. Moreover, the cohort (community-based) nature of such leadership development programs helps nurture the traits of collaboration, teamwork, empathy, communication, social dexterity and emotional intelligence that are so essential to effective leadership of others in modern-day work settings and organizational environments.

When Leaders Meet To Learn
By Rick Koonce and Alyson Lyon
Cohort-based executive development programs can be a powerful way to develop leaders at all levels.
In today’s turbulent, fast-moving business environment, what’s the best way to build intellectually nimble, innovative and self-confident leaders, equipped for the challenges of constant change?

As executive coaches, we’ve found that cohort-based executive development programs that integrate four specific learning components — group learning, executive and peer coaching, experiential/action learning activities and a strong emphasis on personal development and self-awareness — offer a powerful way to rapidly develop leaders at any level. Moreover, the cohort (community-based) nature of such leadership development programs helps nurture the traits of collaboration, teamwork, empathy, communication, social dexterity and emotional intelligence that are so essential to effective leadership of others in modern-day work settings and organizational environments.

When managed over time, generally six to 12 months, cohort-based executive learning can “skill up” key cadres of leaders within a single business or operating unit or across an entire organization. The goal might be to prepare established leaders to deal with new marketplace and competitive challenges. Or, to help high-potential or emerging leaders onboard into new roles, manage change, develop teams, work effectively with others on an enterprisewide basis or execute on challenging new business objectives.
Cohort-centered programs require support and championing from executives in the C-suite.
Each of us has facilitated numerous cohort-based leadership development programs in corporate and academic contexts. And we’ve found that designing powerful cohort-based executive development programs requires that seven “success factors” be in place to ensure programmatic success.
No. 1: Senior Leaders Must Be Strong and Visible Champions of Development
Cohort-centered leadership development programs require strong support and championing from executives in a company’s C-suite. In programs we’ve facilitated, senior leaders become visible champions of leadership development in many ways. They emphasize the direct link between leadership bench strength and organizational adaptability and resilience. They serve as formal sponsors of leadership development within key functional areas of the business (e.g., legal, IT, marketing, digital commerce, accounting, budgeting, operations, product development, research and development). They identify and nominate emerging leaders for participation in leadership development programs. And they often host and speak at leadership development events, sharing personal stories of how they became leaders themselves. Such displays of openness and authenticity by senior leaders are a powerful way to encourage younger emerging leaders to embrace their own professional development and see its strategic value, both to their organization and their career.

In many cases, senior leaders also explicitly link executive development (and learning objectives) to a company’s overall operating values and business standards. In one company where we both coach, senior leaders assign group projects for teams to complete as part of their participation in the company’s flagship leadership development program. Completion of the projects serves as a leadership “incubator” for participants, giving individuals a chance to work in a team setting with peers to address issues that require high levels of cooperation, research, collaboration and joint decision-making. At the end of each cohort, program participants deliver presentations on their projects to the company’s C-suite, including the CEO, CFO, CMO and general counsel.

No. 2: Cohort Learning Programs Should Be Designed to Support Current or Emerging Business Goals
To ensure optimal results, cohort-based learning programs should be designed to develop leadership competencies closely linked to a company’s success and recruit, as participants, established and emerging leaders from all functional areas who are critical to future business performance. The priority may be to develop a leadership team within a single business unit, such as R&D or product development. Alternatively, cohorts may intentionally comprise participants from across many functional areas to give members of a single cohort broad exposure to their peers in other areas of the business or to facilitate the sharing of leadership learnings and best practices across many functional areas.

Frequently (though not always) cohort-based leadership development programs include hard skills training (marketing, finance, strategic planning, etc.) blended with cohort-based action learning, experimentation and application. As noted earlier, a great way to operationalize leaders’ learning in a cohort context is to have individuals participate in action learning projects closely tied to the needs and priorities of the business. Sometimes these projects are suggested by top management or key process owners. In other cases, cohort teams choose projects with immediate relevance and application back in their jobs. Either way, working on action learning project teams gives cohort members an opportunity not only to work with others on initiatives critical to the business, but also to cultivate skills in collaboration, communication and team decision-making.

Many leaders report that the experience of working with others on action learning projects is the single biggest takeaway for them from cohort learning programs. Not only do they develop a strong peer network of fellow leaders, they also benefit from direct, timely and actionable feedback — the kind one rarely gets from direct reports or a boss.

No. 3: Choose Appropriate Participants for Your Program
The key to the success of any cohort-based leadership development program is selection of the right participants. Typically, a company draws from existing pools of emerging and high-potential leaders to identify candidates for such programs. Candidates are then vetted and nominated by their boss, a mentor or senior leader in the organization. Besides demonstrating business acumen, mastery of specific technical skills, a track record of success and a drive to achieve, other factors to weigh when considering candidates for cohort-based leadership development programs are personal adaptability, learning agility, strategic thinking and EQ.
No 4: Incorporate 1:1 Coaching and Completion of a 360-degree Leadership Assessment Into the Design of Cohort Learning Programs
One-on-one executive coaching is a key component to incorporate into any cohort learning leadership development program. Coaching facilitates new learning and self-exploration by individual cohort members by providing a confidential place in which an individual, working with a trusted adviser, can synthesize takeaways and insights from their participation in the cohort program and discuss specific professional challenges they may be facing back at their job. Coaching sessions typically begin with review of a 360-degree leadership assessment completed by the cohort participant and his or her raters before the leadership development program starts. Discussion of assessment findings with the coach helps the coachee to identify and target areas of developmental opportunity and lay the foundation for a leadership development action plan to support developmental needs and objectives. (Note: There are many good assessments an organization can use in leadership development programs, including the Hogan Personality Inventory, DiSC, TalentSmart, LMAP, PRINT and others.) Coaching sessions occur at key points throughout the life of a cohort-based leadership development program to provide anchor points for learning, reflection and future action-planning.

Peer coaching is an equally important component of cohort leadership development programs. Peer coaching often takes the form of “learning pair” discussions that occur between program participants at regular intervals throughout the duration of the leadership development engagement. Peer-to-peer conversations offer participants an opportunity for deep-dive conversations with their cohort colleagues, giving individuals the chance to share experiences and best practices with one another, ask for advice and feedback, and offer one another support and friendship. Peer discussions build on topics or issues raised in group sessions, but they go deeper. To be maximally effective, it’s valuable for individuals to work with different learning partners over the full course of a cohort leadership development program.

No. 5: Engage Participants’ Managers as Partners in the Process
In any coaching engagement, an individual’s boss plays a critical role as that person’s champion, performance coach and advocate of leadership learning. This holds true in cohort-based learning programs. The boss of a leadership development program participant is in a great position to offer critical perspective, suggest specific leadership goals, and to help an individual process their experience in a leadership development program and apply leadership learnings and insights back at work.
Key to the success of any cohort-​based leadership development program is selection of the right participants.
In programs we’ve facilitated, managers typically become involved early on as program sponsors, suggesting individuals for participation in leadership development programs and emphasizing the importance of continuous leadership learning to the business. Frequently, individuals who recommend direct reports for cohort-based programs are alumni of such programs themselves.
No. 6: Introduce Participants to the Latest Thinking, Models and Frameworks of Leadership
As part of any cohort-based leadership development program, it’s critical to introduce participants to various leadership approaches, models and frameworks. The emphasis here is not academic but practical. By giving participants exposure to such frameworks, a good cohort program provides participants with valuable tools to use in their leadership of others, managing teams, orchestrating change in their organization, maximizing employee engagement, communicating effectively and leading through influence and persuasion.

We typically introduce program participants to a wide range of leadership tools and resources, including tools that can help enhance interpersonal effectiveness, drive team/group decision-making, forge consensus or help a leader communicate a vision to others with clarity, consistency and self-confidence. We also draw on our own extensive leadership libraries to expose participants to the latest thinking on topics such as leadership, organization development, emotional intelligence, change management, strategy development and execution, and team development.

No. 7: Incorporate Experiential and Action Learning into Program Design
Finally, no cohort-based leadership development program is complete without including multiple experiential elements and activities (e.g., action learning, adventuring, physical challenge components, community building, somatic activities and self-reflection exercises) to help nurture individual self-awareness and forge trust and chemistry among cohort members. These activities can take many forms — from the social to the physically challenging — and serve to help participants commit to personal learning goals and to building bonds of connection with their fellow cohort members. In one cohort program we facilitated, cohort members spent time climbing ropes and preparing a meal together, complete with the assistance of a master sommelier. In other sessions we’ve conducted, cohort members have taken part in light physical exercises, intended to build trust and chemistry. We heartily recommend that action and experiential learning components be incorporated into cohort program design at key points — most importantly at the beginning and midpoint.
Meeting the Needs of Modern Organizations
Cohort-based leadership development programs can be of value to modern organizations in many ways. Such programs can skill leaders up to meet a variety of current or emerging business challenges. The community-based nature of such learning fosters the development of critical interpersonal skills among leaders (collaboration, communication, emotional intelligence and relationship management). Finally, cohort-based leadership development programs foster the sharing of critical leadership perspectives, experiences and insights across functional/organizational boundaries and encourage robust exploration of ideas and practices that can contribute to the development of adaptive leaders and to agile, high-performing organizations.
Rick Koonce is a Boston-based executive coach, author and consultant who coaches in the Advanced Management Program at the Wharton School. Alyson Lyon is a Pittsburgh-based executive coach and consultant who serves on the leadership development faculty at Duquesne University.