Selecting participants for a leadership development program sounds easy. It isn’t. And if done incorrectly, you’ll start your program with exactly the wrong tone. We did. Once…

Selecting Coaching Participants

Being selected for a coaching or leadership development program should be a privilege, not a pain. The challenge is that in today’s busy workplace, where the urgent rules the day, participants don’t always see it that way. And if coaching participants misinterpret their selection into a leadership development or coaching program as “one more thing” on their never-ending to do list, the program is doomed from the beginning. I don’t care how good your content is or how inspiring your coaches and facilitators are.

Costly Selection Mistakes


Here are some common and costly mistakes to steer clear of when selecting your leadership development program participants:

  • Not giving participants enough time to process, plan and prepare against all of the other demands on their time.
  • Not involving and preparing the participant’s managers prior to selection.
  • Projecting a perception that the program is about “fixing” their issues.
  • Not providing an element of choice for participants after they’ve been selected.


How do we know these are issues?


Because we recently piled on all of these mistakes, unintentionally of course, into a selection process for a 7-month leadership development program. We were working with a high tech client in Atlanta to select 12 high potential leaders for a program that was going to truly be an investment in their people. We were shocked when participants left the initial 90-minute kick-off meeting informed, eager and pissed off. All of the issues stemmed from the fact that we rushed through the selection process and informed participants too late.

How do you build commitment from the beginning?

Building Commitment

The challenge with leadership development is that it’s almost never urgent. Well, it may seem urgent, but when compared to a pressing customer visit or software bug that has to be fixed, it’s not. There’s almost always something more pressing. But, without leadership development, things usually don’t change, as indicated by the image above that I first saw from executive coach Rich Litvin. Do you want to change the default future of your leaders? Then you have to help them change what they are doing, because what’s made them successful today won’t be what makes them successful in the future.


The selection process becomes critical to the success of your program. Here’s what we’ve learned about the selection process that leads to committed participants at the program start.


Educate Managers (of the Participants): Managers of participants need to have clear expectations about the program and understand the time commitment required of their team members. We help educate managers by having an executive sponsor send a manager overview letter that provides information such as a description of the program, expected outcomes, monthly time commitments, and information about the role of the manager in supporting their team member throughout the program. We also meet with the managers ahead of time to share similar information in person and to answer questions. Additionally, we check-in with managers via quick phone calls to (1) learn what changes they are noticing about their team members in the program and (2) hear about where we can support their team members best throughout the remainder of the program.

Make Personal Invitations: Managers should personally (yes – in person and not via email) invite participants into the program. This personal conversation could include:

  • The purpose of the program and why the participant was selected. This has to be aspirational and the participant has to see this as an investment in their future.
  • Why leadership development is a business imperative now. The manager should make a strong case that more effective leadership is directly correlated to better business results.
  • Expectations and time commitments required to be in the program.


Send a commitment letter from an Executive: The commitment letter provides a summary of the program in writing. It has three purposes: (1) to clearly layout expectations, (2) to garner commitment from the participant, and (3) to understand the participant’s baseline goals for the program. The commitment letter, sent from an executive sponsor, ultimately provides the participant with the option to opt into (or out of) the program with eyes wide open. The participant is either in or not. Either “yes” or “no” to participating in the program are both good answers, and if the answer is a “yes” the participant will clearly understand expectations.


Make time for the program: Managers should help the participant balance and prioritize workload so that participants know that they have time dedicated for the program.


Prioritize to the level of customer visits. Being part of a leadership or coaching program has to be seen as important as a customer visit or other critical business tasks. One of our clients recently said, “High growth businesses are a marathon made up of lots of sprints – leadership development is all about the marathon.” And if you don’t train for the marathon, the sprints will hurt even more.


Engage Participants early: We’ll often provide toolkits and an initial assignment through Coachmetrix as soon as the participant is enrolled. It doesn’t take a lot of effort and generates enthusiasm and excitement about the program. Additionally, with the Coachmetrix “Resources” feature, we can make Resources and Collections completely repeatable across projects. For example, if a participant is going through a 360 process, we don’t have to resend a Rater spreadsheet and “heads up” email to Raters. It’s already built and in the system.

How to Apply this to Your Programs


Think about your current participant selection process, whether it’s a 1-1 coaching engagement, a leadership development program or a team member you are directly coaching.


How would you feel if you experienced the process? Would you be committed or compliant?


Adjust your process to make it smoother and allow for the planning and processing that is required to build an engaged group of participants.


And, of course, we’d love to hear from you. How do you build participant commitment in your coaching and leadership development initiatives?

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