Developing Exceptional Leaders:
Critical Success Factors
James F. Bolt
What does it take to develop really exceptional leaders?
There are 12 key characteristics of great executive/lead-
ership development processes and programs. This chapter
describes each of the characteristics, or success factors,
and ends with a checklist that should prove useful for
assessing and improving your own practices.
The characteristics of these programs are:
1. Linked to strategy
2. Thorough front-end analysis
3. Custom designed
4. Custom leadership profile, feedback,
and development planning
5. Action-oriented learning methods
6. A strategy and system
7. Top-down implementation
8. High-potential identification and development
9. Succession management
10. Integrated talent-management system
11. Measurement
12. Driven by top management
American Management Association
How do we know that these factors are critical? In the last 25 years, I’ve had
the privilege of consulting on executive and leadership development with
half of the Fortune 100 companies and many Global 500 organizations. In
addition, I’ve conducted surveys on trends in executive/leadership develop-
ment approximately every two years since 1983, and have led in-depth
research projects on topics such as talent management, executive coaching,
and identifying/developing high-potential talent. For many years I was for-
tunate to lead peer-to-peer networks made up of the heads of executive
development, leadership development, talent management, organizational
development, human resources, and so on from leading companies all over
the world. This provided a great way to keep abreast of best and innovative
Before we review each of these success factors, note that the words
tive/leader are used broadly throughout to refer to the following:
Members of boards of directors. The chairman of the board,
the CEO, and those who report directly to the CEO. Anyone in
a C-suite position. All elected officers.
Corporate vice presidents (including functional heads). Heads
of/presidents of groups, divisions, business units, or profit centers
and their direct reports. All people included in the executive
compensation program.
High-potential managers. Managers who have been formally
identified as having the potential to fill any of the executive-level
positions noted above.
Executive development refers to any formal activity that is aimed at broaden-
ing or building mindsets, knowledge, skills, and experience and at enhanc-
ing capabilities. Executive development will often be used as shorthand to
include the organization’s executive/leadership development and talent man-
agement strategies, systems, processes, and programs.
Of the 12 critical success factors, several are directly related to executive/
leadership development programs and others are applicable to the broader
talent management system.
62 Part Two Developing People
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1. Linked to Strategy. Our executive development efforts are directly
linked to our organization’s strategy. It is clear how these efforts
help address our business challenges and achieve our strategic
While trying to choose which of the 12 factors are most
important might be a fool’s game, in my mind, this one and the
last (top-management driven) are clearly the most critical because
without them it’s highly unlikely that any investment in executive
development will have a significant impact on either leader
effectiveness or business performance. Of course, they are closely
related. The best way to ensure that executive development is
linked to the strategy is to work with the CEO and her or his team
to ensure that whatever is done is driven by them, and specifically
aimed at achieving their strategic agenda.
2. Thorough Front-End Analysis.
No significant executive
development effort is begun without a thorough front-end needs
Two or three times in my consulting career, I’ve agreed to
design a new executive development strategy and program without
conducting a needs analysis. Big mistake! These were all failures
because they ended up addressing needs that were not on target.
The typical situation included a client who believed that the
organization had been “surveyed to death” and that executives
would not tolerate any kind of needs analysis. As a result, we
essentially had to guess what the development needs were and/or
use the opinions of a small number of senior executives who
were not close enough to the marketplace realities and real needs
of the target audience. In effect, we developed programs that were
not dealing with mission-critical topics and didn’t achieve the
intent of the first characteristic—that is, we were not
linked to
the strategy!
Effective needs assessment is typically done via a combination
of survey and interviews of the target audience and key executives
and other critical stakeholders. Regardless of the method, the
assessment must identify the capabilities (mindset, knowledge,
63Chapter 6 Developing Exceptional Leaders
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