Janine Perri
Janine Perri
January 04, 2020
4 minute read

What Is A Leadership Development Program?

Here's what you should know about this strategic start to your career.

What Is A Leadership Development Program?

Searching for that perfect first job after graduation can be a daunting task. This is especially true if you are a high-achieving student leader looking for a company that will provide opportunities for professional development, mentorship, and career advancement. While many new graduates assume that applying for an entry-level job is the way to check off all those boxes, that’s not the only option. In fact, participating in a “leadership development program” instead can fulfill all these criteria, as well as providing a “fast-track” to a leadership role within a specific company.

Many companies offer a “leadership development” program in addition to (or as an alternate to) entry-level positions. However, academic programs don’t alway highlight this career path or why it could be a great first step for graduating seniors. If you envision yourself in a management role or want to advance rapidly in an organization, here’s what to expect from a leadership development program and why it could be the best fit for your career.

What is a leadership/management development program?

Leadership or management development programs are offered to young professionals in the early stages of their career. These types of programs enable recent graduates to gain a deeper understanding of a specific company, while refining their leadership skills with the goal of quickly advancing to a management role within that company. 

Leadership development programs have a lot in common with “rotational programs,” in which early-career professionals gain exposure to different business areas within a company, such as sales, marketing, HR, etc., by spending a certain amount of time working within each area. By contrast, leadership development programs tend to offer more targeted training within one specific business area, such as finance or operations. For example, in a company’s leadership development program, you might join the finance team and be exposed to several functional areas within that discipline, such as financial planning & analysis, capital management, and underwriting. 

The length of a leadership development program varies by company. Generally, leadership development programs last for 1-2 years, in which participants cycle through different business areas before receiving a more specific path. These programs are also typically housed within large companies, but have a small cohort each year.  

Leadership development programs are offered in a variety of industries, ranging from financial services to media, and job functions, ranging from sales to engineering. Some well-known companies with leadership development programs include Lockheed Martin, Vanguard, NBCUniversal, Cigna, Geico, and Ford.

What are the benefits of a leadership development program?

There are several benefits associated with a leadership development program when compared to a typical entry-level position. The main benefit is that these programs often serve as a pipeline to management at the company. For example, a recent graduate who enrolls in a company’s leadership development program in their finance division might finish the program and be offered a position as a junior level manager within finance.  

Another major advantage is that leadership development programs invest a lot of resources in professional development. Since the company chooses participants in leadership development programs with an eye toward placing them in management roles later on, these programs will often include formal mentorships and coursework, in addition to on-the-job training.

Since you will gain exposure to a variety of departments or business areas within the company as part of a leadership development program, you will also expand your network and develop stronger relationships with other professionals. You will be less likely to be siloed and can better draw connections across company functions, whether that is across departments like marketing and finance or within different job functions with a finance department. In some programs, you may also work at different company locations during your rotations, learning more about how different offices operate and ultimately work together. 

Who is a good fit for a leadership development program?

An ideal candidate is a recent grad or graduate student with a deep interest in their field who wants to gain leadership skills and a larger network within an established company. Candidates will likely have prior leadership experience either through jobs and internships or through campus organizations. Candidates should also be willing to make the necessary commitment in order to complete the program, and they should foresee themselves working for the company in the long term. If you know that your dream company offers a leadership development program or envision yourself climbing the corporate ladder at a single organization, then this could be the best path for you!

Interested in a leadership development program? Recruitment often takes place in the fall semester, although specific timelines will vary from company to company. Keep in mind that these programs can be highly competitive and will only accept a small number of individuals per year, so you will want to make the most of your application materials such as your resume and cover letter to highlight your existing leadership experience and why you would be a good fit. 

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