Capture the Loyalty of Young Professionals with Leadership Development Cohorts

A growing number of associations are now offering cohort programs, according to my unscientific Twitter searches. Leadership development cohorts are especially popular.

Why? Cohorts solve challenges associations face. For example, they attract young professionals who want to acquire new competencies and build relationships with peers. They also help fill the leadership pipeline at associations and chapters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You might wonder, what the heck is a cohort program?

Introducing cohort programs

In a cohort program, a group of learners progresses through educational content together. The program is a mix of live and asynchronous (self-study) online learning, facilitated by instructors, coaches, and/or advisors. In longer programs, learners might also meet in-person once or twice.

Cohort programs have fixed start and end dates, usually a few months, but leadership development cohorts often stay together longer. In the for-profit world, some cohort programs offer lifetime access to resources and an alumni networking group.

Cohorts outperform other learning formats, said Todd Earwood, an executive who’s participated in over 100 cohorts and reviewed studies about them. He found that cohorts have extremely high attendance and completion rates compared to other learning formats. Strangely enough, “students show up when there are more, not less, classes” despite the greater time commitment.

What you’re really selling when you sell cohort programs

Cohort programs are an extended onetime experience. If learners don’t show up, they miss out. Earwood said, “Scarcity drives attention and commitment… Students know classes begin and end on a certain date and there may be replays, but the magic is in the live class.”

You’re selling valuable educational content, of course: microlearning and short-form content for the self-study portions of the program, plus live instruction or facilitation. But the real value of a cohort lies in the experiences that learners enjoy together.

Besides live instructor-led sessions, cohort programs usually feature regular online meetups where students discuss program content with each other and often with facilitators or coaches, practicing what they’re learning, or talking about whatever else is on their mind. These conversations are the glue that holds the cohort together.

Cohorts serve as an accountability group for learners who are serious about their career goals. Besides developing relationships with their peers in the cohort, learners also get to know more experienced program advisors, facilitators, and/or coaches. These roles offer a valuable microvolunteering experience for members who want to help the next generation succeed.

In many cohort programs, participants work in groups on a capstone or community service project. The “community” might be other young professionals, members, or people in an external audience.

Instead of group projects, cohort participants might commit instead to a volunteer role that allows them to practice what they’re learning. They could serve on an association advisory council or task force, or serve as an advisor to a committee or other governance group.

leadership development cohorts - an example of a Zoom gathering

Examples of association leadership development cohorts

Start your cohort planning research by finding out what leadership competencies young people in your industry want and need. Talk to both young professionals and their employers. Take into consideration your association and chapters’ leadership needs too.

Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) is a model to follow if you first want to take a dip-your-toe-in approach to cohorts. They offer GALA Academy once per quarter, for example, 90-minute sessions on four Tuesdays in a row. Each Academy focuses on a top industry topic. Members of all career stages attend. Between sessions, participants use a collaboration platform to share ideas and network.

Transportation Intermediaries Association’s (TIA) hybrid Executive Leadership Development Program is an Executive MBA-style program that develops future leaders of member companies by providing an in-depth understanding of all facets of running a successful freight brokerage. Besides online instructor-led training, the program starts and ends with in-person sessions at two of TIA’s annual conferences.

Family Child Care Professional Leadership Academy is an in-person and virtual learning series offered by National Association for Family Child Care. 15 association leaders and 15 emerging leaders participate in this mixed-age Leaders Shaping Leaders program, which includes 30 sessions of interactive education and networking. The year-long cohort focuses on leadership development and knowledge transfer in four pillars: strategic leadership, financial literacy, advocacy, and public policy.

At the state level, the Developing Leaders Program offered by New York Library Association helps participants cultivate their interpersonal and technical competencies in personal and organizational leadership. The six-month program includes 35.5 hours in live sessions plus 14.5 hours of time outside scheduled sessions when teams work together on their group capstone projects. Each participant is matched with a mentor. The first and last sessions are in person.

Consider including membership in your program. Designed with the needs of entrepreneurs in mind, American Council on Renewable Energy’s (ACORE) Accelerate Membership Program offers a cohort learning experience plus membership to representatives of emerging women- and minority-led renewable energy companies.

It gets better: “Over the two-year program, Accelerate members receive complimentary access to paid events, exclusive briefings, tools, and advocacy. Members build relationships across ACORE’s influential network of financial institutions, major corporate renewable energy buyers, utilities, academic institutions, and allied nonprofit groups and are eligible to serve a year-long term on ACORE’s Board of Directors.”

One issue continues to cross my mind as I read about these programs and maybe it’s crossed yours too: how can young professionals afford them? You could:

•    Subsidize the program with sponsorships, like GALA 
•    Include membership as part of the experience, like ACORE
•    Offer scholarships
•    Encourage employer matching
•    Allow pay-as-you-go plans

Based on what I’ve seen in my research, participants rave about their cohort experience. One TIA alumni described his cohort as a close-knit group who continue to keep in touch and catch up on work and life. Consider offering this career-transforming experience to your association and industry’s next generation of leaders. 

cohort programs
leadership training
young professionals
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