Networking Matters Most

Despite the business world’s growing interest in customized leadership programs, the concrete impact of such programs has been underexplored. Emma Leino wanted to find out how Aalto EE’s customers perceive the impact of company-specific development programs and studied the topic for her master’s thesis.

Emma Leino, 29.02.2024

When I began my master’s thesis research journey at Aalto EE, there were multiple questions running in my mind. One of the most fundamental ones was: “What is the true impact of our leadership development programs?”

Leadership development programs play a crucial role in advancing leadership capabilities and enhancing organizational resilience. In a world where billions of euros are invested annually in developing organizational leadership, understanding the real changes or impacts these efforts generate is highly important for both buyers and service providers.

Recently, customized leadership development programs, in particular, have gained visibility and sparked growing interest in the business world. However, understanding their concrete impact remains a challenge that has been relatively underexplored.

The question arises: does the development have real significance for the organization if the participants don’t gain anything seemingly tangible?"

While many participants surely enjoy listening to inspiring speakers and developing themselves, the question arises: does the development have real significance for the organization if the participants don’t gain anything seemingly tangible?

Therefore, in my thesis, I focused on examining how the impacts of a leadership development programs customized for a specific organization are manifested at both the organizational and individual participant levels, and how the organizations themselves define the impact of these programs.

I interviewed purchasers of selected company-specific development programs with the aim to understand the value customers seek from these programs, how they evaluate the programs’ impact, and the factors they perceive important in creating the impact.

The impact comes through networks and the breakdown of silos

Contrary to perhaps the usual initial assumptions, most interviewees emphasized the crucial role of networking and feeling of community in leadership development programs. The impact was not primarily seen as coming through new knowledge and concrete learnings but rather through the creation of networks and the breakdown of silos.

After the programs, participants could leverage these informal, invisible networks and continue sharing thoughts with individuals from different roles and backgrounds, constantly learning and developing themselves.

The program format played a significant role in achieving these effects – in online programs, connecting and networking were not nearly as successful as in face-to-face interactions, although the online programs received otherwise positive feedback.

The investment can pay off in many ways

The interviewees thought that the program pays off their price through the networks. As an example, as participants got to know each other and each other’s skills and strengths, it enables direct communication later, leading to leaner processes and efficiency.

Additionally, the participants could develop themselves into new roles within the organization and take on more responsibility or challenging tasks afterwards. Individual growth can always bring additional value to the organization as well.

No matter how expensive it is, the program never costs more per person than what it costs if that person leaves the organization."

Participants' increasing commitment to the organization was seen as a concrete part of the payoff. As one interviewee put it: “No matter how expensive it is, the program never costs more per person than what it costs if that person leaves the organization. --- Training a new person for an established leadership role is always more expensive.”

Although the effectiveness of leadership development programs primarily emerged from the above-mentioned themes, the interviewees also emphasized the role of interesting, topical, and science-based content, especially in choosing the service provider, as such content was considered an important part of maintaining participant motivation.

Several people mentioned that the programs succeeded in unifying the organization’s leadership practices through content and initiating a broader cultural change within the organization. It became clear from feedback collected from both participants and their team members that many participants’ leadership skills improved after the program.

Customization seems to be important in terms of enhancing program impact

It seems that customization is a key factor in enhancing program impact, in the short and long term, as it adapts the program to the unique needs and goals of participants and organizations.

Based on my findings, I suggest the service providers, such as Aalto EE, to pay attention to program customization, not only in terms of content but also in being more actively involved in the program's preparation phase, as this phase plays a crucial role in creating participant motivation.

This was of course an individual study in which the number of cases examined was relatively small. To enable continuous development, achieve generalizable results, and increase understanding of the topic, more information and research are needed – especially from the customer's perspective.

Emma Leino works as Learning Solutions Specialist at Aalto EE. She completed a master’s degree in industrial engineering and management at Tampere University at the end of 2023. In her research, she combined interviews with purchasers of selected customized programs to a literature review with an analysis of feedback materials from selected leadership development programs previously conducted by Aalto EE. Her thesis, titled “Assessing Impact Creation in Customized Leadership Development Programs”, can be found here.

With over 50 years of experience, Aalto EE develops world-class competence development solutions that utilize Aalto University’s multidisciplinary faculty and approach. Read more about our services here.

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