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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

TD Magazine: Swap Frameworks for Skills-Based Leadership Development

The following article appeared in the February 2020 edition of TD Magazine (link for ATD members)

The right environment gives people managers the tools and confidence to be successful.

Perhaps when you think of leadership development, you first think about frameworks or models—a clever acronym that describes four steps toward leadership success or a personality inventory that describes a person's greatest strengths based on a set of multiple-choice questions.

As a designer of leadership development programs, I've seen a rising trend of framework fatigue from leaders wary of having the complexities of their vocation reduced to advice from the latest airport bestseller. There's a different way to do leadership development, one that grounds learning in role-specific responsibility and contextual reality.

What it is

Skills-based leadership development is an instructional design philosophy for management training. This development method jettisons frameworks, models, and inventories. Each is replaced by the concrete skills required to perform as a leader in a specific context. It begins with an intensive analysis of the most important skills required to lead in a specific role and the selection of a particular skill on which to focus.

How it works

Skills-based development is effective because it acknowledges that the nuances of people leadership limit the applicability of models and frameworks. Rather, this approach provides a consistent environment in which people leaders can reflect on the specific competencies that matter to their success and listen to how peers are applying the skills in similar contexts.

It doesn't require a training team to teach anything. Instead, it entails the training team creating an environment where leaders synthesize different perspectives into a concrete skill development plan. The training team provides a space in which leaders supply the learning on a peer-to-peer, role-relevant basis.


I create learning experiences for people leaders in Zendesk's customer advocacy organization, a global business comprised of hundreds of customer support professionals. After extensive interviews between the training team and dozens of people leaders, my organization mutually identified coaching as the most critical skill to people leader success. In my department, most customer support advocates are first-career professionals, and most managers are first-time people leaders. We made coaching the focus of our leadership development efforts because it is a powerful source of learning and innovation in an environment of rapid growth and constant change.

With a skill or set of skills identified, the leadership developer sets out to build consistent opportunities to explore, reflect, and self-evaluate on the selected skill. We provide this opportunity through a quarterly coaching skill development meetup, each of which examines a different dimension of workplace coaching. Some explore coaching questions, while others explore coaching in the context of a particular conversation.

Prior to each meetup, the training team enrolls managers in a carefully curated learning path that includes articles with third-party perspectives on coaching skills and podcast-style interviews with managers from our organization.

In these interviews, we ask managers to describe what the skill means to them and how they plan to apply it. We also encourage them to candidly describe the challenges associated with using and developing the skill.

Usually one month after publishing the pathway, we host our quarterly skill meetup, during which we provide managers with three to four case studies related to the skill of workplace coaching. Reflecting on the learning path content and their own experience, managers work as a team to develop a coaching action plan and script coaching conversations for each case study. The meetup concludes with action planning; managers identify how they will put their learning into practice with their team of customer advocates, when they will apply what they have learned, and what may stand in their way.

Between meetups, our learning management system suggests role-relevant resources based on an individual's evaluation of their current skill level. Our LMS curates learning content from a wide spectrum of online resources—from TED Talks and podcasts to blog posts and courses.

What does this look like in practice? One first-time people manager was unfamiliar with workplace coaching before we adopted the skills-based approach. Through the program, the manager discovered the importance of coaching to managing a team of customer support professionals. The manager realized how her peers were applying their coaching skills to career development conversations and envisioned how she might do the same. Via case studies and action planning, she developed a specific and measurable plan for developing her own coaching skill set. Six months into this initiative, she is holding regular coaching conversations with her team and attending recurring meetups to understand how to apply coaching in other contextually relevant scenarios.


While the program is still relatively new, we measure its success based on the number of managers who have made progress against their action plan within 30 days of the meetup. Long term, we plan to encourage managers to rate their coaching skill level on approximately a quarterly basis so that we can track the extent to which participants put the learning into action.

A skills-based approach enables managers to continuously improve the skills that matter most within their context through a synthesis of perspectives and ongoing self-reflection. The next time you're asked to contribute to a leadership development initiative, ask yourself what skill matters most to your learners, how internal and external thought leaders are thinking about that skill, and how you can create an environment that promotes dialogue and reflection. The approach moves leadership development from an abstraction to a concrete driver of business results.

Checklist: Skills-Based Development Process

  • Conduct a needs analysis to identify the most critical skills for leaders in your organization.

  • Create consistent opportunities to build the skills—self-paced and with their peers.

  • Measure the progress leaders make on their action plan and monitor how they self-evaluate their skills over time.

  • Pivot toward different skills as the organization's needs change.


Bika, N. n.d. "How to conduct a skills gap analysis." Workable. https://resources

Buckingham, M. n.d. "Lie 9, Leadership is a thing." Marcus Buckingham Blog.

Degreed. 2019. "Skills: Measure What Matters," May 9.

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