ATD Blog

Making the Case for Leadership Development in Higher Education: 4 Opportunities to Get Buy-In

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ask a salesperson about objections. She’ll tell you it’s a natural part of the sales cycle. Ask a change leadership expert about resistance. He’ll tell you it’s a natural part of change. Ask anyone else and it’s labeled in a roundabout way as a failure. 

When it comes to leadership development initiatives, we can learn a lot from the fields of sales and change. Objections and resistance are normal when we’re asking people to change. It’s also normal when we’re “selling” ideas and new ways of being. In higher education, there’s resistance to spending money and investing time, skepticism about effectiveness, and fear of the unknown. Despite what many people may think, this is normal.

Getting buy-in is an ongoing activity, one that talent development professionals and higher education leaders must champion to ensure leadership development initiatives are successful. 

We’ve identified four opportunities to overcome resistance and gain buy-in from stakeholders: selling, delivering, implementing, and assessing.


Championing a leadership development initiative starts with building a case statement. Champions should paint a clear and concise picture about the need and expected outcomes. Questions to answer may include: 

  • What is the expected return on investment? 
  • How will this help us better achieve our vision and goals? 
  • Why is this a worthwhile investment of resources? 
  • What’s the cost of doing nothing? 

Pro Tip: There are a few well-researched and widely used leadership development models. These models include impact studies highlighting useful information for a case statement. Choose a model that’s time-tested. 

Similarly to how soil can reject a seed, people can refuse leadership development initiatives too. And after laboring to get this far, it can feel like a throat punch for those championing the cause. Apart from the obvious elements required for optimal learning experiences, champions must take extra steps in preparing the metaphorical soil. Questions to answer include: 

  • What higher education norms do we need to address in the learning experience? 
  • What type of language is needed to avoid or break down the “this isn’t a business” barrier? 
  • How can we incorporate specific higher education examples and case studies into the learning experience?

Pro Tip: Consider partnering with a talent development professional who is well versed in leadership development outside of higher education. While someone with higher education experience can provide instant credibility, bringing in someone with broad experience across industries can help eliminate groupthink, identify blind spots, and open the door for innovation.


We’ve all experienced the infamous training high, usually produced by a training event that leaves us feeling hopeful, energized, and overconfident. For most people, it lasts a day or two at best. Getting buy-in at this stage calls for accountability and understanding. This calls for several post-learning activities, including: 

  • setting clear expectations
  • providing ongoing feedback
  • monitoring performance 
  • reteaching as often as needed
  • giving ongoing support 
  • modeling behaviors
  • allotting time for reflection.

Pro Tip: Change is hard, requires work, and often feels uncomfortable. Acknowledging this up front and incorporating strategies for accountability after training is key. We are creatures of habit, and lasting change takes a plan, discipline, and rewards. 

Being able to assess the impact of a leadership development initiative brings everything full circle. It’s all about answering the question, “Did we achieve what we set out to achieve?” And if so, what contributed to our success (so we can do it again!); if not, what got in the way? If you included specific outcomes in your case statement, make sure you have a way to measure the impact. Being able to show participants and other key stakeholders the impact of a training initiative goes a long way in sustaining buy-in. Questions to answer may include: 

  • What did participants actually learn? 
  • How has what’s been learned been implemented, from both the leader’s and employees’ perspective? 
  • What’s been the impact, from the leader’s, employees’, and other stakeholders’ perspective?
  • In what ways are we different, better, or more efficient?
  • What new initiatives or innovations have occurred? 

Pro Tip: Create executive reports or impact studies to communicate results to key stakeholders. This is especially important if you require additional resources to sustain the initiative. It’s also important to validate information where possible. If a leader says she’s been successful, interview her employees. If someone claims an increase in productivity, support the claim with data. 
Minimizing resistance and proactively overcoming objections is necessary for any leadership development initiative to succeed. It’s also important to maintain buy-in from start to finish, including selling, delivering, implementing, and assessing.

About the Author

Amber Barnes is the founder of StartHuman, an organization on a mission to rehumanize the workplace by building better leaders. For more than a decade, she’s focused on leadership development through coaching, consulting, training, and facilitation. Her clients range from Fortune 50 companies to small nonprofit organizations.  Amber’s background includes a master’s degree in organization development, a bachelor’s degree in education, and several other professional certifications in coaching, facilitation, and training. She is passionate about creating healthy relationships between people and the workplace. She believes this fosters healthier interactions outside work and contributes to making the world a better place.

About the Author

Josh Ashcroft is the chief housing officer at Eastern Washington University (EWU). He has a bachelor’s degree in communication from EWU and a master’s degree in college student services administration from Oregon State University. His experience in housing and student affairs spans three universities and more than 15 years.  Josh combines his enthusiastic approach with a caring attitude and a drive to succeed to create the best possible experience for the students at the university and in the residence hall system. He is a recent graduate of Leadership Spokane and has presented on leadership and student success.  

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