All Articles Leadership Development Toward a better model for leader development

Toward a better model for leader development

Leader development programs could learn a lot from the Mayo Clinic's clinical model, which Art Petty writes has four foundational principles.

7 min read


leader development

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Strengthening leader development and identification is a priority for many organizations. While recent big layoff announcements and a cooling of the post-pandemic job market have quieted the “global talent shortage” drumbeat, I’ve yet to find a senior leader comfortable with the volume or quality of their leadership development pipeline. A consistent message I hear sounds like: “We haven’t solved this problem yet, but we’re taking steps.” One of my CEO clients suggested an even more significant dilemma: “I think we’re solving the leader identification problem in our firm. I lose sleep over how we’ll develop them.”

art petty

I agree with this CEO’s sleep-depriving concern. Our traditional methods for developing leadership talent in our organizations, including check-box training, loose mentoring and limited access to coaching, need to be changed for a world where all organizations need to field talent who can help align, execute and renew at the speed of change.

We need a different model for leader development.

Consider the clinic model of great health care organizations

Fortunately, there’s a robust, successful model in another industry to draw upon as we rethink how we develop the next generation of leaders for our organizations. It’s the clinic model in healthcare as practiced by organizations such as The Mayo Clinic.

Put on your analogical thinking hat and consider how we might adapt the powerful practices of these organizations in creating a leadership clinic model for this important development work.

A personal view to the clinic model

My view of the clinic model of health care comes from navigating challenging situations for myself and my son. At our most vulnerable moments, the approach of the Mayo Clinic and the medical and support staff thankfully created excellent outcomes. As we worked through those situations, I had a first-hand seat to observe the clinic approach in practice, and I wondered why others were not applying it in different settings.

Here’s what inspired me:

  • The needs of the patient come first. Every decision, test and approach must pass this filter. This is an inviolable value.
  • There’s an owner for your situation backed by a carefully tailored team of specialists.
  • The team collaborates to evaluate, diagnose and prescribe a recommended best approach for your situation.
  • Monitoring and measuring outcomes and adjusting plans is a regular process.

You always keep track of the fact that you are the most critical person in the process. I’m still humbled by the world’s leading practitioner in our area of focus — who happened to be the head of the department — gladly fielding questions from a concerned father (me) who had read every New England Journal of Medicine article on the subject. 

For most doctors, that’s a nightmare patient/parent. This doctor welcomed it. To top things off, this august professional remained with us until long after the clinic closed, answering my questions. Then he walked us out to ensure we could get past the locked gates. That alone was a powerful leadership example!

The clinic approach breeds a culture that perpetuates excellence

My favorite example of how well the culture and approach work at Mayo came from a student nurse changing the bedsheets. Far enough along in recovery to regain my curiosity, I asked her, “Why do you want to work here when you finish your program?” She turned and looked at me with an intensity that is hard to describe and offered words I will wager most readers have never heard about their organization. She confidently and committedly said, “Because it is a privilege.”

Rethinking leadership development around a clinic model

The first step in creating a clinic model for leadership development is to embed three core principles in the culture of your organization:

  1. Leadership development efforts are sustained initiatives throughout the individual’s organizational involvement.
  2. Leadership development is personal and must be tailored to the unique needs and situations of the individual.
  3. Leadership development takes a team.

Here’s how I envision the clinic model working in business:

  • The emerging leader assigns a primary sponsor responsible for the individual’s development.
  • The sponsor works with the individual and current and former managers and coworkers to assess the opportunities and areas for development.
  • The sponsor draws upon a team of specialists to diagnose and define an ongoing development regimen.
  • The sponsor and current manager collaborate to monitor and evaluate the emerging leader’s progress. Plans are adjusted accordingly.
  • When needed, training is identified for specific skill sets or exposure to new thinking and approaches. Training is integrated into the plan — it’s not the plan.

This process is an ongoing endeavor where results are monitored and approaches are refreshed based on the emerging leader’s level-up challenges.

Much as the Mayo Clinic and other fine health care organizations do everything to meet the needs of their patients, the integrated, multidisciplinary approach in our new leader development clinic model focuses on delivering the right developmental tool or experience at the right time. Of course, the leader’s needs change over time, and the development experiences are tailored accordingly.

Why I love the leader development clinic approach

I’m excited about the potential of this approach for helping us truly develop leaders versus traditional training-focused methods that mostly hope participants develop into leaders. Here’s why:

  • You have a responsible sponsor guiding and directing the individual and drawing upon other resources as needed.
  • The system, as envisioned, ensures the manager is accountable for their involvement in supporting the leadership development of their team members.
  • Monitoring and measurement are continuous, and adjustments are made by the sponsor, manager or specialist as needed. 
  • The emerging leader is always engaged and empowered in their growth and development and on the receiving end of timely, honest diagnoses and recommended adjustments.

Practical concerns and unlimited opportunities

I understand the complexity and cost implications of adopting this Leader Development Clinic model. There are a million obstacles. Realizing this model reflects a profound transformation effort with all the inherent issues in transformation.

  • The model places accountability on the shoulders of a sponsor — a new role — and the emerging leader’s manager.
  • The approach upends most organizations’ performance evaluation and management systems and steps over several support groups’ toes. (Yet these support groups are critical in helping bring the model to life.)
  • The approach demands the creation of new roles, processes and enabling systems.

The internal political and change initiatives and roadblocks are mind-boggling. Yet, the cost of perpetuating the status quo is an existential issue for your organization. If poor engagement, high turnover, frustration with managers, a lack of innovation, a shortage of initiative and critical thinking, and toxic cultures are OK with you, do nothing. The market will ultimately fix things for you the hard way.

Alternatively, suppose you are excited about finding a way to embed leader development in your organization’s DNA and truly compete on the strength of your people. In that case, the leader development clinic model is worth exploring. Start small; experiment. Find a top-level champion for this experiment, and then draw upon the talents and energies of others to build excitement and bring your version of the clinic model to life.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach, author, speaker and workshop presenter with experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and “Leadership Caffeine” articles.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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