Developing a Leadership Program in an IT Company: Best Practices and Lessons Learned

The Global Leadership Forecast by Development Dimensions International (DDI) demonstrated that “organizations with the highest quality leaders were 13 times more likely to outperform their competition in key bottom-line metrics such as financial performance, quality of products and services, employee engagement, and customer satisfaction.”

It’s no wonder that companies that want to gain a competitive advantage focus on grooming their own leaders by investing in leadership programs in both good and bad times (probably even more so in today’s rapidly changing and competitive high-tech market environment).

The question we asked ourselves was, Do we have the right leaders in place to take our business where we want to go?

In the last 15 years, the software development market has changed significantly. Top-notch programming skills cannot guarantee success nowadays. Based on our company’s experience, Auriga’s top managers have proposed the idea of “it is not enough to know how to code” at various events. You can read more about it here and here.

As many years of experience show, one of the essential ingredients for success in software R&D outsourcing is a well-built, transparent communication system between the client and developer. The ability to understand and pursue clients’ goals, communicate constructively on a daily basis, build teams with a focus on a proper engineering culture, take responsibility for results, and strive for perfect quality (i.e., the ability to “lead a project”) often becomes the only reason for project success or failure.

With that in mind, we set out to create a new leadership development program to deliver additional value to our customers and contribute to their growth.

Key Objectives

The key objectives of the soft skills and leadership development program are as follows:

  • Establish a leadership culture in the company
  • Strengthen the managerial, functional, and technical competencies across Auriga to enable superior performance
  • Groom the best talent within the organization to build a strong group of future leaders
  • Build standardized leadership competencies for all Auriga employees
  • Develop employees’ communication skills

Program Modules

The comprehensive training program includes a number of modules that allow us to successfully tackle the challenges of building world-class competencies in the areas of outsourcing and engineering. These are:

  • Combined English/communication skills training project: PMP (Personality, Motivation, Possibilities) aimed at improving employees’ verbal communication, presentation skills, and ability to operate in an international business environment
  • Series of leadership development training sessions for project managers and team leaders
  • Soft skills development training sessions for all employees (topics: mastering persuasion, emotional intelligence, goal setting and pursuing, time management, etc.)
  • Leadership program SENSEItion – a combination of a mentorship and leadership program in which experienced employees introduce newbies to the company’s values and rules, help them adjust, and supervise their activities.
  • New succession pool program Fresh Leads aimed at building a talent pool for the position of Team Leader. The program consists of eight modules that include classroom training sessions, case studies, and workshops.

Best Practices

Further development of the leadership program encouraged us to focus on a few important aspects:

  • Centralized efforts: Auriga has several geographically distributed engineering offices in Russia (Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don) and the European Union (Lithuania). The idea was to see the talent not by geography, business, or function, but rather as a whole. It makes a huge difference, because in this case, you can be sure that if the company’s best talent is needed in another location, a different project, or a new function, he/she will still be a great fit there.
  • Top executive involvement: You can’t really groom leaders without involving your acknowledged leaders. Members of Auriga’s senior executive team take an active part in our leadership program, coaching and mentoring new leaders and sharing their invaluable hands-on experience.

A 2005 study by Hewitt Associates showed that in 100% of the top 20 companies for leadership development, CEOs actively participated in the leadership programs, against 65% of CEOs at other companies.

  • Focus on key processes: When you create a training program, there is a temptation to embrace the unembraceable. We decided to identify the key elements for our new leadership development program, and we realized that the best way is to start with the hiring practices, because when you hire great people, there are more likely to become great leaders. Now, soft skills and communication abilities are assessed at the interview stage and are considered to be among the key factors for making hiring decisions. This ensures that we have the right talent that we can groom to be the leaders we want them to be.
  • Leadership development is a strategic priority: Many leadership development programs often fail to deliver desired results. Of course, that is something we did not want to happen, which is why this program was considered crucial to the company’s success and not just another item to tick off the to-do-list.
  • Building leadership culture: We proposed to not only build leaders but to create a leadership culture across all Auriga locations. The soft skills and communication skills development training that we offer to all employees is aimed at improving these competencies and ensuring that every employee can speak up, make decisions, and take responsibility when required.
  • Creating value: The ultimate goal of leadership programs is creating added value for all interested parties (i.e., the company, customers, and employees). The idea is not just to create leaders but to create leaders who know how to provide value to inside and outside stakeholders.

Lessons Learned

  1. Talk to your employees

Many leadership development programs fail. That is a given. If you Google “why leadership programs fail,” you will get over 26 million search results. Considering this, you would want to do it right the first time. It helps if you get your priorities straight and let your employees know that.

It might be incredibly tough and sometimes—as many people think—next to impossible to explain to software engineers the importance of soft skills and communication abilities that build a foundation for leadership. Employees should have a clear idea of why they need them, and this is only possible if existing leaders convey this message through the proper channels and in a clear-cut and easy-to-understand way.

  1. Leadership training is not the same as leadership development

It might not seem obvious, but you should understand that you can’t groom leaders simply by giving them materials to read, videos to watch, and seminars to attend. Leadership development should be integrated into the real work environment tailored to your business, your customers’ needs, and your employees’ expectations.

The biggest challenge here is to create a leadership program that will enable your employees to apply what they learn to real-life scenarios.

Probably one of the best articles on the topic of major differences between training and development has been published on Forbes. In a nutshell, the idea is that training is finite, while development is infinite, and to groom innovative, critical thinkers able to make the right decisions, you need to focus on development rather than training.

  1. Leadership is about Actions

The structure of the training/development course usually suggests that there are books to read, tests to take, etc. However, when creating our leadership development course, we learned that it should rather focus on creating situations in which people are forced to grow, to challenge their views, mental models, assumptions, and get prepared for situations that they do not deal with on a regular basis.

Ongoing results of Auriga’s leadership development program

  • Two years after the program was first introduced, we can see improvements to the knowledge-transfer process; better adjustment of new company employees; a significant increase in the timely exchange of information, early problem solving, and intelligent decision making; and an overall improved leadership culture.
  • Positive feedback about Auriga’s processes and employees’ communication skills has been received from numerous customers.
  • Employee performance increased 35%, and the level of productivity and motivation is expected to grow by another 20% by the end of 2014.

Vyacheslav Vanyulin, Auriga’s General Manager, says,

“We introduced this new leadership development program because we recognize the value of strong leadership in good and bad times. In the current business environment, grooming your own leaders is not an advantage but rather a necessity. Now, as we see that this program has brought some of the desired results, we plan to expand it, and we hope to spread this leadership culture across Auriga, encompassing all employees at all levels.”