Case study: Designing HIPO programs that work

The University of Alabama Birmingham, UAB, created a High Potential program, called the “Institute for Leadership.” Since the executive team has ongoing access to the leadership development office, the aim of the program is to promote leadership skills of upper-middle management.

To address a much-needed gap in their overall leadership development strategy, The University of Alabama Birmingham, UAB, created a High Potential program, called the “Institute for Leadership.” Since the executive team has ongoing access to the leadership development office, the aim of the program is to promote leadership skills of upper-middle management.

The UAB Medicine Leadership Development Office, LDO, is uniquely and strategically positioned as a stand-alone department which operates in both the School of Medicine and the Health System. This is strategic in that there is a great deal of opportunity in building a cohesive leadership framework across the entire clinical enterprise.

Since the office was founded by Jean Ann Larson in mid-2016, the approach has been one of rapport-building and skill-building with senior leaders. This has been a strategic endeavor from the start as it develops trust and builds a solid leadership framework right at the top. They engage key stakeholders through executive coaching, workshop series, teambuilding programs, strategic retreats or ad hoc interventions for them and their direct reports.

Matthew Painter joined UAB Medicine in fall 2018 and together with Larson developed the UAB Medicine Leadership Competency Model. This model was inspired by, but not confined to the work of Dave Ulrich et al., in their book “The Leadership Code: 5 Rules to Lead By.” Other leadership competency models were consulted to ensure the model was comprehensive.

The model consists of five domains: personal proficiency, talent management, execution, strategy and talent development. These domains account for 19 total competencies and are defined loosely enough for managers throughout the system to define with additional clarity and applicability by level and functional area. For example, a senior executive can provide clarity to how the competencies in talent management would show up in associate vice presidents or senior directors. These same individuals can have similar conversations with their direct reports.

Once this initial groundwork was laid, it became evident that investing in the next layer of leadership would be paramount to retaining talent, informing pipelines and promoting talent mobility and succession through leadership development. With the leadership competency model developed, Painter and Larson embarked on designing a world class high potential leadership development program that was designed directly from the competency model.

The Institute for Leadership was born from this groundwork. Painter and Larson set out to identify the program elements that would add the most value: executive involvement, careful selection process, topical alignment to the competency model, a leader-as-instrument design, a combination of learning modalities, a program deliverable, executive mentoring and increased visibility. Painter and Larson outline their process below.


Executive involvement: From the beginning, our senior-most executives have been involved. This includes support for the development of our competency model and the investment in our Institute for Leadership. These executives make regular appearances in our program and provide guest lectures, participate on panels, serve as mentors and speak at graduation. This type of visibility sends a strong message of importance to our current and future participants that the program is a worthy investment. It also offers opportunities for the senior executives and participants to get to know each other better, building visibility for the participants as well as the executives.

Framework: The entire program is founded in our leadership competency model. Our unique, Leader-As-Instrument approach begins with a battery of assessments. A strong leader is a self-reflective one. Therefore, before the program begins, we have every participant complete the DISC, the Gallup Strengthsfinder, Emotional Intelligence EQ assessment and the Leadership Practices Inventory 360 instrument, based on the research of Kouzes and Posner. Each person meets with one of us individually to help identify key areas of strengths and opportunities. We also provide executive coaching on how to manage potential liabilities with their personal brand.

Out of a total of seven, 4-hour sessions, one is dedicated to debriefing the assessments, five are dedicated to one of each of the five competency domains and the final one is a lab. While we cannot cover all 19 competencies; we choose several from each domain on which to focus.

We also guide participants in using the competency model in their own areas by helping those they work with to identify leadership gaps and discuss the specific actions that would serve as evidence of the competency. One of our guest speakers completed this exercise for all the managers in her area and can share the experience and answer questions.

The Institute for Leadership runs twice per year and is comprised of 16 participants per cohort. These participants meet every three weeks to keep information fresh and to allow application during the off weeks.

Our sessions include a meal, an internal guest executive speaker, an overview of leadership topics from us as well as a robust group discussion. Each session has a short case study that directly relates to the topic. articless and homework are assigned to help reinforce the concepts through applied learning. At the end of the program, we also host a lab session that gives the participants an opportunity to hear various leadership perspectives from leaders throughout UAB Medicine.

Selection: While we believe all our managers need leadership development and should have access to it, we adopted a stricter selection process for our high-potential program. This program was specifically created to make intentional investments in our upper-middle management. These titles typically include vice chair, executive administrator, associate vice president or senior director.

Since the primary audience of the LDO are senior executives, we asked those leaders whom we have worked with in the past which upper-middle managers they would like to nominate first. This is critical because we want to develop leaders who will be supported in their leadership journey and work for a manager who both understands and role-models the leadership principles participants would learn.

Therefore, we do not solicit nominations from managers we have not worked with, as we cannot ensure the nominator will be a good role-model in our participants’ development. Once nominations are received, they are reviewed to make sure they are right for the program, the timing makes sense and the cohort is comprised from professionals with varying backgrounds.

The program deliverable is a personal development plan that takes the form of a poster presentation.

Deliverable: The program deliverable is a personal development plan that takes the form of a poster presentation (See Figure). This development plan begins with an inventory of “what they brought” to the program, such as their experiences and strengths. It also highlights the key areas of “what they learned,” unique to each individual.

There is also a section called, “where I’m going” which articulates the participant’s vision and action items that will inform their leadership journey going forward. The poster also includes selected values that serve as a decision-making compass on this journey. The last section is a summary of personal and team impact where participants can publish the changes and associated impact of their involvement in the program on themselves and their departments.

These posters serve as their personal development plan and are also printed, bound and distributed to our executive team. They are a means of holding our participants accountable to their actions and promote visibility for talent mobility and succession.

Executive mentoring: Each participant is encouraged to reflect on their potential career paths. Through this process they may identify additional areas of exploration or solidify areas where they want to work in the future. Once their interests have been identified they can request an executive mentor through our office. We then make introductions with our volunteer executive mentors. The participants are equipped with a mentoring resource packet to help them identify their goals for the mentoring program which lasts approximately six months and is driven by the mentee.


Since the program is designed as a leader-as-instrument program, much of the results are realized through personal changes in leadership styles. For example, many of our alums have reported more proactive strategic planning, improved performance management through coaching and one-on-one conversations and more intentionality about managing their personal brand. As each person brings a unique background to the program, the results are often individualized.

One key aspect of this transformation is our use of pre and post 360 assessments. The LPI is a robust instrument that captures observable behaviors. Between six months and one year after the program, we re-administer the assessment and provide them with a re-assessment report. This report highlights where they have grown and identifies areas for improvement.

Additionally, as evidenced by each participant’s poster, we capture departmental impacts such as improved communication practices, more efficient workflows and increased collaboration and change management practices. An alumni survey is also conducted annually to identity thoughts on the program, where they are in their leadership journey and identify areas where they may need additional leadership development.

Many of our alums have also received promotions in part due to their involvement in the program. Future plans include an annual discussion amongst top senior leaders to identify Institute participants who are ready to take on new critical roles as the organization continues to grow.