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It's time to update our thinking about the impact of executive development

By Wendy Shepherd
Exploring the practical outcomes of unique Cranfield research that offers a cost-effective process for both managing and measuring the impact of executive development.

The Kirkpatrick Model of Training and Development Evaluation has been widely adopted since it was first published in the 1950s and suggests that evaluation should occur at four levels:  

  • Reaction
  • Learning
  • Behaviour
  • Results.  

In the 1950s the world of work was a very different place.  The pace of change was slower than it is today and organisations were typically more bureaucratic and hierarchical.  To some extent, this is reflected in Kirkpatrick's linear model which assumes that changes in behaviour due to training can be witnessed in changes to simple short-term results. 

The world of work facing today’s leaders is often more complex and volatile, with a higher rate of change.  We now know that no one style of leadership will be effective in all contexts.   

The financial performance of the organisation is subject to multiple factors.  Furthermore, we recognise that it is not just the financial results that matter, equally important is the way the results were achieved - P&O Ferries is a recent case in point. 

In practice, although Kirkpatrick is frequently quoted as a framework for evaluation, data is rarely gathered at the higher and more complex levels of behaviour and results.  This is often as a consequence of the complexity and costs involved.

Research into the impact of Executive Development at Cranfield, conducted over ten years, concludes that investment in leadership development will always have an impact, though it might not be positive for the organisation!  Positive impact is only achieved through careful design and management.

The practical outcome of the research is a cost-effective process for both managing and measuring the impact of development.


The Importance of Impact Drivers

At the heart of this process are five impact drivers that link leadership development with changes in the workplace.

 1.     New conversations and ways of communicating

Developed through the application of theory, the socialisation of participants, the development of new language, and mimicry. 

Changes in conversation and communication generate future knowledge sharing, learning, coordination and leadership within the organisational context.  Many participants go on to share what they have learnt within the development setting with their teams, or initiate their own conversations about the topics discussed.

2.     Changes in sensemaking

Developed through active reflection, witnessing a breadth of perspectives and the application of theory. 

Changes in sensemaking generate problem setting and solving, initiate new or amended actions, and changes in tolerance, empathy and commitment within the organisational context.  

3.     Relationships and networks

Developed through the socialisation of participants and senior sponsors, the development of interpersonal skills and through the application of theory.  Relationships are not just interpersonal, they can also be between functions, units or geographies.

Changes in relationships and networks generate access to resources, and create a sense of community, trust and visibility.   They also generate beneficial behaviours associated with collaboration, learning, efficiencies and innovation.

4.     Alignment of behaviours and priorities  

Developed through activities that generate consensus including inputs by senior leaders and programme sponsors, the application of common frameworks, observation of others and mimicry.

The alignment of behaviours and priorities has implications for the corporate culture and brand, potentially generating synergies and alliances for change.

5.     Engagement

Generated as a consequence of being invested in and labelled as talent; being inspired by others such as tutors, other participants or programme sponsors; and recognising what is required within specific contexts.  Engagement may also be reduced amongst non-participants as a consequence of not being invested in and therefore unintentionally labelled as ‘non-talent’.

Changes in the engagement of participants and non-participants generate changes in discretionary effort and allegiance to the organisation, specific leaders or communities.  There is also a multiplying effect through changes in levels of engagement amongst the participants' direct reports as a consequence of improvements in their leadership.


Practical Application

The five impact drivers have many practical uses, such as to help identify the green shoots of change following development. They can also be used as a tool to design in and manage the development process towards positive outcomes; a process we at Cranfield call Design for Impact™.

The Design for Impact™ process starts by identifying where organisational change is needed for each category of impact driver.  This is achieved through consultation with multiple stakeholders.  This may take time but is an incredibly important part of the process. The outcome is an integrated impact model that can be used to design, manage and measure the development process.  

The impact model does not necessarily change the content of the development, but does change the focus.  For example, a tool to evaluate an organisation’s culture can be used to generate many different conversations depending on how practice activities are positioned.  The conversations generated during practice can be as enlightening and therefore valuable to the participants as the tool itself.  

As development progresses the impact model can be used to provide guidance to tutors and check in on the participants' progress.  This allows concerns to be addressed in real-time, rather than once the development is finished and the opportunity is lost.

Approximately six months after the development has been completed impact can be assessed using a simple questionnaire that identifies the specific organisationally important changes associated with the impact model.  The data gathered is both quantitative and qualitative. 

Over time the gathering of this data allows us to understand differences in delivery methods and better advise our clients about what works best within different contexts.

Learn more information on Cranfield's Design for Impact™ here.


This article was first published on LinkedIn.



Dr Wendy Shepherd - Director of Individual and Organisational Impact at Cranfield Executive Development.​  Wendy has an MBA and Executive Doctorate from Cranfield where her research interest was The Organisational Impact of Executive Development.  In 2021 she won the AMBA and BGA doctoral research prize for the impact of her research.​

Wendy's insights have informed practice at Cranfield including the development of the Design for Impact approach to impact measurement and management.  She is also responsible for launching our Annual Impact Survey and is the lead author of the Cranfield Executive Development Annual Impact Report.​

Prior to taking on her specialist role Wendy designed and Programme Directed senior leadership development interventions in the areas of Strategic Management, Sales and Marketing, Careers Development, Leadership and People Management. She has delivered development programmes in Europe, China, Asia Pacific and the USA.​

Prior to joining Cranfield, Wendy worked as a Senior Leader in the areas of Human Resources and Sales and Marketing. She has experience of working within the IT, FMCG Manufacturing and Engineering sectors.​ Wendy's industry experience includes organisational restructuring from both a human resources and line management perspective; and managing the human resource and sales and marketing issues involved in mergers and acquisitions with a particular focus on integration planning and implementation at an operational and global marketing level.​




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