As program directors and managers, we’re focused on the people in our programs. All too often, this focus means we’re overlooking the ones who have already been through the program.
Don’t neglect these former participants, the ones on track to become organizational leaders. Engaging LDP alumni can reinforce your program’s goals, improve retention, and strengthen the entire organization's structure for years to come.
We talked with a few leadership development program directors about the ways to keep early career development program graduates engaged, and here’s what they had to say.
Avoid the ‘Development Cliff’
LDP participants have opportunities for growth and access that build on the experiences they had in college. But when they graduate and accept permanent roles within the organization, the transition can be a culture shock.
You may have heard of this referred to as “Falling off the development cliff.”
After they’ve accepted a permanent role, after they’ve been in the same level of responsibility for a couple of years or more, program alumni can get antsy. Their professional lives may not be as stimulating as when they were being rotated every six months when they were in-program.
Molly Slepecki, Director of Talent Solutions at Highmark Health, says post-program engagement can mean overcoming the culture shock that graduates can feel.
“You go from being somebody who has a lot of access, where things are planned for you and done for you purposefully. You’re moving together through this program as a cohort and all of a sudden you’re on your own.”
Your program alumni shouldn’t have to give up networking and learning opportunities “cold turkey.”
Graduates Make Great Campus Recruiters
Molly says program graduates are in an excellent position to share what they have learned with others trying to navigate their way through the organization—or with college students trying to figure out the next step. She says Highmark Health’s program keeps alumni engaged with campus recruiting efforts.
Especially if they are returning to their old school, former participants can help build your campus strategy because they know their way around, they know what groups to engage, and they are uniquely qualified to answer students’ questions about early career talent programs.
“The alumni are always happy to go back, so engaging them and keeping them excited about helping build the program further is key,” Molly says. “They have a good story. They’re the proof that these programs are great.”
Build an Alumni Network
A leadership alumni association is another way to engage former participants. Such an association can be a source of peer learning, continuing education, collaboration, joint action, career advancement or a resource for the program itself.
Make sure the association has a stated purpose, such as networking or advocating for change within the organization. For large LDPs with lots of alumni, these groups may be based around a specific geography or business sector. A focus around a particular service project is another approach.
Keeping alumni connected after they complete their program means letting them work together. It also means giving them continuing education opportunities to extend the benefits they enjoyed as a cohort in the program.
Those supporting the alumni association should facilitate coaching and foster a culture that encourages alumni to take action and learn. The association becomes somewhat self-sustaining when the alumni themselves are empowered to plan activities and instigate projects.
The alumni association should be part of your overall corporate strategy. To be on the alumni board, members should meet with other program alumni and get their feedback.
Hiring managers can build an alumni base into their charter. Program alumni should get opportunities to mentor and advise, so they can continue to grow into leadership positions.
Engagement Supports Retention
Many organizations find that three years after program completion, there is generally an attrition risk. That’s why it is especially important for companies to engage program alumni and make them feel valued at this critical milestone.
If they feel they aren’t getting the same level of attention and access they got when they were in the program, you’re at risk of losing them. So show them some love post-program and you’ll see retention rates improve.
Craig Spencer manages the Technical Development Program for Baxter Healthcare Corporation. He says Baxter’s alumni association hosts “coffee chats” for alumni to talk with executives. But a more impactful way to address the culture shock former program participants can feel is to simply check in on their progress on a regular basis.
“The primary thing I’ve found to be helpful is just someone following up on how they’re developing,” he says. “The executive leadership exposure is part of it, sure. But honestly a lot of the development conversations aren’t happening at that level. They’re happening with their peers and their former mentors and former managers.”
Craig meets with each of his program’s alumni once a quarter to check in on their progress.
“Our internal research shows that just having that conversation and not doing anything more than talking, increases engagement by 13 percent.”
Those conversations have done wonders for retention, as well, with 3-year retention up by 12 percent.