image of book and ladders representing concept of how to scale leadership development curriculum for executive development programs

As continuing education programs and executive education institutions focus on recruiting top talent, they often face similar challenges: They need ways to diversify their revenue. They want to retain their students and activate their alumni. And they strive to position their graduates — undergrads, graduate students, and adult professionals — for success, both in their careers and as leaders in their communities.

Time and time again, research has shown that strong interpersonal skills allow leaders to take their newly developed hard skills back to their organizations and make an impact.

That’s why college and university administrators who design programs for adult learners aim to offer a well-rounded education that combines technical skill advancement along with a leadership development curriculum that fosters growth in people skills at the same time.

Yet, institutions’ limited human and financial resources can often stand in the way of their ability to incorporate soft skills training into their larger existing programs. It’s not easy to design an engaging leadership development curriculum — especially when a school or institution has a multitude of other priorities, including marketing overall program offerings, expanding its reach within the community, retaining existing clients, and adopting and integrating new technologies to keep pace with student expectations for virtual delivery.

Based on decades of experience in the field, our experts in higher education leadership development recommend 4 best practices for incorporating a robust leadership development curriculum into executive and continuing education programs.

Whether colleges and universities are considering adding short courses in leadership, leadership certificate programs, workshops, or credentialing opportunities, following these guidelines will help you incorporate a leadership development curriculum into your offerings and position your program (and its graduates) for future success.

4 Best Practices for Incorporating a Leadership Development Curriculum Into Higher Ed Programs

1. Develop research-backed leader level offerings.

Most higher education institutions offer continuing or executive education programs targeted to a specific leader level. However, all too often the leadership development program curriculum doesn’t take into account the common challenges faced and different skills needed to succeed at each leader level. To be most effective, the leadership development curriculum should offer research-backed tools and resources tailored for each leader level — from leading self, to leading others, to leading a business function, all the way up to leading an entire organization.

For example, first-time managers face unique challenges , as they must learn how to transition from getting the work done themselves to getting work done through other people. Rather than focusing on their own performance, they have to consider how their team collaborates, whether their group is committed and engaged, and how individual motivations and needs are connected to the work and the organization.

The capabilities new managers need to develop are different from the senior leadership skills needed by experienced executives , who may need help developing clear action plans that address organizational challenges and priorities.

A leadership development curriculum that’s tailored to the leader-level needs of your particular program’s student body will be more effective, engaging, and impactful.

2. Leverage leadership competency assessments.

Executive and continuing education programs can use competency assessments to identify leadership skill gaps and opportunities for improvement. These competencies can assess the skills of individuals, teams, and/or organizations. This qualitative data is critically important for benchmarking and evaluating program success.

For example, a university with an executive education program focused on artificial intelligence may use a 360 degree assessment to determine which leadership competencies their adult learners already have, as well as where and how to target future development.

If the assessment shows that their cohort of AI engineers are largely lacking in the ability to be agile and flexible with change, the university could incorporate an off-the-shelf workshop that’s targeted for developing skill at leading people through change or increasing learning agility.

Institutions should consider partnering with a leadership development curriculum provider who can help develop a customized competency assessment tailored to their organization’s unique context, student population, and course offerings, to understand adult learners’ strengths and areas for development, weighted by importance.

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3. Create dynamic leadership journeys — both virtually and in person — that are scalable and stackable.

When organizations shifted to everything being virtual, given the pandemic in 2020, many realized that in-person events and experiences weren’t always required. Adult learners and their employers no longer saw a need to be on campus for a specific number of hours in order to earn a certificate.

With this shift, colleges and universities began to shift their approach towards one of viewing development as a journey, rather than a one-time experience.

And when it comes to designing an effective leadership development program curriculum, this journey is critical for success because it gives adult learners an opportunity to combine real-world and classroom experience with multiple types of learning.

As with other classes, a leadership development curriculum is most successful when it incorporates asynchronous learning videos with live class discussions, small group activities, and office hours with the instructor — along with course reading, webinars, and discussion threads.

Not only do these experiences require participants to commit to fewer hours “out of the office,” but they also offer richer and more rewarding lessons that ensure sustainable leadership development.

Institutions can leverage scalable options to offer learning opportunities across many different clients and student populations — reducing the bandwidth necessary to design from scratch, and diversify their offerings by bundling or “stacking” multiple solutions together. For example, they could use preassembled workshop kits — complete with PowerPoint presentations based on industry-leading research, classroom posters, facilitator discussion guides, and participant workbooks — to offer their learners short courses or targeted leadership workshops on different topics , including communication, influence, self-awareness, and leading people through change.

4. Build robust strategic partnerships.

As employers identify gaps in skills and abilities — both among current employees and applicants — they recognize a growing need to partner with neighboring colleges and universities to develop executive education programs that fill those gaps.

At the same time, colleges and universities can work to identify and refine their target markets and then develop relationships with organizations that have strong connections with those same populations.

For example, if a university in the American Midwest wanted to create an executive education program geared toward dairy farming and manufacturing, they might start by developing a strategic partnership with a large regional dairy association or manufacturing association.

That association could help market the executive education program’s course offerings and certificate programs to key future student segments and prospective alumni employers: individual dairy farmers and family-run manufacturers or distributors. Meanwhile, the university would be freed up to focus on delivering the certificate program and cultivating alumni relationships. Through this strategic partnership, both organizations would be positioned to expand their reach and accelerate their businesses.

By partnering with neighboring employers and other organizations, universities are able to design executive education opportunities that make an immediate impact, both on adult learners’ futures and on their local community’s economic health.

And by designing executive education programs that incorporate a leadership development curriculum, these universities produce more professionals who are equipped with the people skills needed to drive innovation and shape their organizations’ culture and strategy — a powerful combination that builds committed, engaged alumni and a deep and rich talent pipeline.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Evaluate your institution’s readiness for incorporating a leadership development curriculum or offerings into your program by downloading our free readiness checklist below.

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Download our complimentary readiness checklist to help you evaluate your institution’s opportunities for growing revenue and enrollment through incorporating leadership development into your curriculum offerings.

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November 12, 2021
Leading Effectively Staff
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Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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