For most working folks, an invitation to participate in their organization's leadership-development program is just like an underclassman being asked to the senior prom, in that it's usually reserved for a select few and is an enviable badge of an ascendant status within the hierarchy.
So it may come as a surprise that nearly one in 10 employers that have leadership-development programs open them to all workers, according to a survey of senior-level business, human resource and management professionals by the New York-based American Management Association, in partnership with the Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity.
When asked "What level of employee in your organization participates in your most high-profile leadership-development programs?" about two-thirds (65 percent) of the 939 respondents listed director.
Vice president, at 63 percent, was next, closely followed by "targeted high potential," at 62 percent.
Nearly 10 percent of the organizations responded by saying their programs are open to anyone in the organization.
"To be sure, the great majority of organizations focus their development resources on high-potential managers presumed to be headed for positions of responsibility," says Sandi Edwards, senior vice president for AMA's Corporate Learning Solutions.
"But we found that an unexpected percentage of employers offer leadership development across the board," she says. "They may feel the policy addresses the growing demand by individuals for opportunities to learn and grow, and that it thereby boosts their commitment while also bolstering their overall organizational performance."
But, Edwards says, most organizations believe selectivity is the key to running a practical and effective leadership-development program.
"Not only does it leverage limited development dollars, but it may also serve as an incentive for mid-level people who want to be included on the fast-track to more expanded roles," she says.
She adds that smaller organizations are more likely to open their leadership-development programs to all employees.
"Likewise, the largest organizations would find it impossible to open up programs to everyone," she says.
While allowing all employees to opt in to such programs may not be feasible, organizations may be able to offer other development opportunities, she says -- such as functional-skill training that enhances job performance in areas such as project management, customer service, communications, business writing, sales and fundamentals of finance.
Opening up task forces, problem-solving efforts and cross-functional teams to all -- or at least more -- employees can lead to positive exposure throughout the organization, Edwards says.
"And those who distinguish themselves in such programs may in turn be targeted for leadership ones," she says. "Everyone can't be on the 'all-star' team, but everyone can strive to get there."
Lauren Herring, president and CEO of St. Louis-based consultancy IMPACT Group, says there are a number of benefits to opening a leadership-development program to all employees.
"With organizations becoming flatter, leadership can come from anywhere within the company," she says.
"In addition, with cross-functional teams, leadership abilities among team members are a very useful skill set. Imagine an organization which embodies a workforce with a common knowledge base, language and expectation of what leadership in a company means and how it is demonstrated ... that has the potential [to be] a productive, high-morale and engaged organization," she says.
Of course, there are also some disadvantages to doing so as well, she says.
"First, it can be costly. Secondly, it may create an expectation regarding potential future opportunities that they may not be able to achieve," she says. "Now that the employee has newly acquired knowledge and skills, will there be the opportunity for them to put them to use?"
Gerry Crispin, co-founder of CareerXroads, a Kendall Park, N.J.-based career consultancy, agrees there are valid concerns to opening up leadership-development programs to everyone. Doing so could actually harm retention efforts, he says.
"In fact, the program itself will make the participants more valuable to a firm that wants to steal them away," he says. "Participation is no guarantee of retention. However, coupling what is learned in the program with an active succession planning/replacement conversation at high levels would make a difference."
And while Crispin does not think more organizations should open their leadership-development programs up to all workers, he does think there should be training for the rank and file.
"All workers are not capable of leadership," he says. "Some would be better served attending a 'Follower Development Program,' designed to support and empower workers to do even more."
Regardless of how an organization approaches the question of providing opportunities for its employees to hone career skills, Edwards says, the reality of the business world makes global-leadership training, at the very least, a must for the top leaders of an organization.
"Whether you consider your company to be global or not, your leaders and products are still competing in a global marketplace," she says, "and they absolutely must be optimally equipped to meet that challenge."