Leadership Development: What’s the Best Approach?

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Charlie Wagstaff, Managing Director at Criticaleye, delves into the importance of continuous learning and development even when you’ve reached the top.

In today’s fast-paced environment with disruptive competitors around every corner, most CEOs and C-suite executives accept that knowing everything as a leader is no longer possible (perhaps it never was). As a general rule, the skills, experiences and capabilities built up throughout your career, and which enabled you to reach the top job in the first place, won’t necessarily help you excel as a CEO. Similarly, just as businesses would eventually fail if they stood still and did not seek to innovate their product or service, so too do CEOs quickly become out-of-touch and ineffective if they believe they have nothing more to learn when they reach the top of an organisation.

In this context, leadership development has never been more important and encouragingly, most CEOs seem to agree. In our own CEO Research 2019, which is conducted annually at our CEO Retreat, 42% told us they intend to focus more on leadership development going forward and 39% said it was already an area of significant investment, up from 26% the previous year. But what sort of development should leaders be looking for? What challenges might senior executives encounter with leadership development programmes? And what should they ultimately get out of the time and commitment they put in?

Above all, leadership development must empower and inspire the CEO. It should offer fresh perspectives and challenge their way of thinking, as well as connecting them to others who have faced similar experiences.

Above all, leadership development must empower and inspire the CEO.

Leadership development: challenges for CEOs

Going back to our CEO Research, we know that almost all leaders (91%) are now operating in a disruptive environment, and only 6% are fully confident their top team can respond (down from 17% in 2018). We also know that 65% think their leadership team could improve the quality of strategic debate around the boardroom table and that retaining the right talent and skills for the future has been the number one challenge for CEOs over the last two years.

In 2019, we also asked CEOs about what type of development opportunities they found most effective. Bearing in mind that disruption is as likely to come from outside your sector as it is from within, a significant number (62%) said that having access to external reference points, namely peers and leaders from other industries who could assist and advise based on their own leadership successes and failures, improved business performance.

Similarly, mentoring was cited as one of the top leadership development tools according to CEOs. The effectiveness of any mentoring relationship does, of course, depend on the type of mentor selected. For example, we believe true and effective mentors should be able to offer impartial advice and support on the basis of having been in leadership positions themselves and therefore have a full understanding of the challenges and pressures their CEO mentee is under.

Finally, we asked CEOs about the areas where they most need to improve and ‘seeking inspiration and fresh thinking from other sectors’ came top of the list. The evidence is clear. CEOs understand that they should be looking outside their organisation to the disruptive threats and opportunities beyond their immediate marketplace. Looking for a leadership development programme which mirrors CEOs’ priorities, and which enables a more informed and inspired approach to leadership is, therefore, a key consideration.

Setting your leadership development criteria

There are some key points to consider before embarking on any programme of leadership development. Often the organisation’s HR Director will initiate and introduce a solution, but it’s vital that participants buy-in prior to starting any development programme and are ready to engage. Some key considerations include:

  • What impact will the leadership development programme have on both mine and my company’s performance?
  • How will the solution fit around my role and extremely busy schedule – who will manage this?
  • How will the programme inform my leadership style, especially taking into account more complex stakeholder relationships?
  • How do I get access to different viewpoints that challenge my own – especially those from other sectors and disciplines?
  • Will I get a mentor to provide an experienced and independent sounding board? Will this individual be selected from a wide range of mentors to individually suit my needs?

As CEO, your leadership development programme should be specifically tailored to you. It needs to consider your role as a leader and the impact of this professionally but also from a personal standpoint.

Most importantly, you should come away from each interaction you have on a leadership development programme with a sense of rejuvenation and empowerment; of having been inspired by new contacts and discussions that will help shape your strategy for the future.

As CEO, your leadership development programme should be specifically tailored to you.


Mentoring can be invaluable at any stage of your career, but especially when you reach a senior leadership role. Mentors provide an independent sounding board – they aren’t there to instruct, but rather guide their mentee, make suggestions, tease out questions and ultimately enable them to make their own decisions. They can offer access to their own networks and the benefit of their experience having faced similar challenges and situations in their own careers.

During a senior leader’s executive career, they may go through several mentors depending on their needs at the time. Here at Criticaleye we’ve worked with leaders for almost twenty years and paired hundreds of CEOs with experienced mentors, the latter of which are all former operational leaders with a wide range of experiences and leadership stories to draw from.

We know leaders who invest time in a successful mentoring partnership, as part of a leadership development programme, reap the rewards of this relationship. This is probably why so many CEOs (97%) believe external mentoring improves the performance of senior executives.


Having invested time and committed to a programme of leadership development, what should CEOs expect in return? Ultimately the fulfilment of their original objectives at the start of the programme, measurable improvement in their performance and perhaps the bottom line of the organisation and a more informed and experienced approach to leadership, stakeholder management and setting of strategy.

Having access to experienced individuals and other CEOs, Chairs, Non-executive Directors and senior executives across a range of industries, as well as a programme which is utilising your limited time to meet the right people and have the right discussions at the right time is vital. Bearing in mind the seniority of the CEO’s role, development programmes should be heavily managed and orchestrated around busy schedules, plus they need to adapt and flex according to the needs of the leader and the challenges their organisation and senior team are facing at the time.

Accepting the idea that leaders are operating in a more complex world with many more unknowns, effective leadership development provides the ideal opportunity for senior executives to ask questions, share strategies and learn from their peers in a confidential and supportive way.

About Criticaleye:

Charlie Wagstaff – CriticalEye

Established in 2003, Criticaleye is the peer to peer Board Community for CEOs, C-suite executives and global leadership teams. Comprising primarily of CEOs, CFOs, CHROs, HRDs, Chairpersons, Non-executive Directors, Managing Directors and Divisional Managing Directors, Criticaleye inspires leaders to succeed by providing a personalised and highly bespoke leadership development framework focused on strategy, leadership and stakeholder challenges. We enhance leadership performance by reinforcing the role of the CEO, promoting the importance of accountability and enabling executives to collaborate, break down silos and build trust.

Criticaleye is a global community, supporting leaders by helping them overcome challenges and reach structured outcomes. Our Members represents a large number of global companies, alongside some of the business world’s most influential thought leaders. We advocate collaboration, challenge, respect, trust and integrity across our Community, in terms of our own interactions with Members as well as their participation in Criticaleye and with their own executive teams.

For more information, please visit: www.criticaleye.com

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