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5 Ways to Strengthen Your Leadership Development Program

At the beginning of every Rockwood Leadership Institute program, each participant is given a simple task: stand in front of the group, speak for two minutes and, at the end, calmly and confidently accept the resulting applause without looking away, squirming or deflecting with humor.

The participants soon find out that this “vision stand” exercise isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Years of observation and evaluation have shown us that the vulnerability revealed in this activity is an important step in participants’ personal and professional development.

Leadership development programs have long played a critical role in preparing emerging leaders to drive much-needed change in their fields. At Rockwood Leadership Institute, we provide social change leaders in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors with training in leadership and collaboration. Through the Schusterman Fellowship, we provide professionals and lay leaders in the Jewish community with training and tools to enhance their skills and tackle complex challenges.

With so much at stake, maximizing the effectiveness of leadership programs is paramount. Yet, despite the quantity and caliber of many leadership initiatives, we have found that surprisingly little evaluation data has been shared regarding the strategies, curricula and points of emphasis that define successful programs.

We decided to collaborate to help fill this knowledge gap. We each worked with the evaluation firm Learning for Action to assess our respective program evaluations and identify common themes for what is working and what is not. Then, we distilled our learnings into a new resource filled with recommendations and practical advice for planning and executing effective leadership and talent programs: The Leadership Development Guide.

Our evaluations pointed toward many positive outcomes: 94 percent of Schusterman Fellows said they were awarded more professional responsibilities after completing the program, while 42 percent reported receiving promotions. Schusterman Fellows also noted positive shifts in many aspects of their leadership because of the Fellowship, including increased confidence, greater self-awareness and a renewed passion and purpose for their work in the Jewish sector.

Rockwood evaluations showed that 98 percent of Rockwood Fellows said they now deal more effectively with leadership challenges, while 90 percent reported that the program had a transformative impact on their lives.

We found that these five common elements of our programs strongly contributed to these positive outcomes:

  1. Set the stage for vulnerability. Just like our “vision stand” exercise at Rockwood demonstrates, laying the groundwork for participants to forge strong bonds requires them to get comfortable being uncomfortable. This means devoting time right off the bat to creating an environment where people feel safe to share ideas and admit weaknesses. Our research found that encouraging vulnerability was an effective starting point: 94 percent of Rockwood alum said that they were more willing to have a “courageous conversation” because of the program, and as one Schusterman Fellow put it: “I feel like I can be vulnerable and that vulnerability feels like a source of strength.”
  2. Focus on emotional intelligence. It may come as a surprise that, when asked about the ideal qualities of good leaders, most people cite “soft skills” connected to emotional and spiritual aspects of leadership before “hard skills” like being tech-savvy or a good public speaker. Our evaluations suggested that participants benefited from developing these “soft skills.” Schusterman Fellows noted positive shifts in many aspects of their leadership, including their confidence and their ability to understand their weaknesses, while one Rockwood alum said the Rockwood program “helped me understand what I internally bring to the fight.”
  3. Be intentional about relationship-building. Participants are often each other’s greatest assets as they work to maximize their leadership potential. Programs should be intentional about sowing the seeds of a lasting participant network by providing consistent opportunities for peer-to-peer engagement, both in-person and using digital communication tools. Upping the frequency of this engagement paid off: 84 percent of Rockwood respondents reported that they built and maintained stronger interdependent relationships as a result of participation in Rockwood programs. Meanwhile, nearly three in four Senior Fellows (Schusterman Fellowship alumni) said they connected with other Fellows for peer coaching, content area expertise, opportunities to collaborate or job inquiries.
  4. Design the right coaching experience. Coaches are often the bread and butter of leadership development programs, able to enhance an individual’s unique strengths and address weaknesses. Both Rockwood initiatives and the Schusterman Fellowship include robust coaching elements, providing participants access to the guidance and encouragement they need to ensure long-term impact. Our findings indicated that this individualized approach was successful: 91 percent of Senior Schusterman Fellows reported that the Fellowship’s coaching component contributed to their growth as leaders.
  5. Encourage sector and cross-sector collaboration. To address sector-wide challenges, leadership development programs need to show participants the value of working together. Demonstrating the benefits of both sector and cross-sector collaboration paid dividends: 75 percent of Schusterman Fellows indicated that the Fellowship contributed to some form of collaboration with another Fellow’s organization, and 86 percent of Rockwood participants felt better equipped to sustain their energy over a lifetime of service with the help of new allies.

We feel it is important to note that the Leadership Development Guide is not necessarily a reflection of everything we have gotten right, but rather the most essential elements of what makes our programs effective. In fact, both of our teams are using insights from our evaluations to make improvements.

At Schusterman, we are learning from Rockwood’s deep experience in grounding its program in diversity, equity and inclusion. We are also developing ways to help Fellows bring their learnings to the workplace and follow through on their real-world plans to bring change to their sectors and communities.

At Rockwood, we are investing in alum engagement by hosting local gatherings and increasing our presence at conferences and events. We are also exploring new locations and models for our programs to help more people and organizations take advantage of our curriculum.

While we certainly do not have everything figured out, we sincerely hope that others can glean helpful insights from our experiences to bolster their work and empower more leaders to tackle the complex challenges facing our communities and our world.

Download the full guide for in-depth recommendations:



Abby Saloma is the Director of Leadership and Talent at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, where she oversees its flagship Schusterman Fellowship program.

Sharon Price is the Director of strategic Initiatives at Rockwood Leadership Institute.

Rockwood Community Call

Cecily Rose Engelhart

Life Coach and Speaker

July 25 | 12 PT / 3 ET