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CTDO Magazine

Leadership Development at Any Level

Friday, October 14, 2022

Solution: A leadership development program to prepare high potentials to move into middle management roles

Business impact highlight: Comerica quickly and confidently filled vacancies with program successors. Half of the program alumni are now vice presidents.

Succession management and the associated leadership development activities are part of federal risk regulations that govern a bank's operations. Although the regulatory focus is on executive and key senior leader positions, the pipeline of potential successors and their development are integral to thriving as a company.

Since 2010, Comerica Bank has offered a robust leadership development program focused on individuals at the vice president level. Program graduates are high-performing employees who are routinely sought after for stretch and formal assignments, and they are successors for senior vice president positions.


However, the company identified a gap in its prospective leaders who could step up into the vice president role. HR business partners and senior leaders likewise noticed that some key employees had left the company because they were not being prepared for higher-level positions. The bank needed to urgently develop an emerging leaders program (ELP) that would increase the number of identified VP successors and develop them to fill vacancies.

Understanding leadership needs

Comerica conducted an internal analysis, including a review of existing programs, and interviewed business unit leaders, managers, and HR business partners to understand the company's current and future succession needs as well as determine program components. The analysis revealed urgent demand for a robust program, particularly because some individuals below the VP level perceived that Comerica did not value them.

The data also showed that the bank did not have a systematic approach to developing employees as lower-level leaders. The existing training focused on management-related skills, such as delegation and budgeting, but not on leadership skills and especially not at higher levels.

Via an external analysis, the company gathered leadership research and insights from third-party leadership resources. Based on the results, Comerica identified specific competencies that prospective leaders needed to develop early, including managing change and dealing with ambiguity, perspective, managing vision and purpose, organizational agility, political savviness, and presentation skills.

Confidence to lead

With support from an engaged and enthusiastic executive team, the L&D team designed the ELP to be a meaningful, prestigious leadership development experience, similar to the established leadership development program. The team anchored the ELP in James Kouzes and Barry Posner's The Leadership Challenge model and paired that with custom design elements to provide a high-quality program in a short amount of time.

The model aligns with the bank's core values framework and culture and leadership competency model. It also includes a 360-degree assessment that reveals individuals' leadership strengths and opportunities for this level and the next. The content is practical, relatable, and implementable regardless of whether participants are managers.

The ELP incorporates opportunities and experiences that participants cannot gain from other internal or external programs. Further, the program aims to shift participants' tactical mindsets with a stretch opportunity that would lead them to believe "If I can do ELP, I can do anything."

The program has five tenets:

  • Be relevant to all participants, managers, and nonmanagers.
  • Deliver consistently in every market, regardless of market size.
  • Develop a program that is repeatable and sustainable.
  • Provide enterprise-wide networking opportunities.
  • Bridge the executive level to the ELP level with executive interactions and a headquarters experience.

Whereas the leadership development program focuses on professional capability development, ELP focuses on personal capability. Key program components are:

  • A 360-degree assessment—a first assessment experience for most participants
  • A personality assessment for awareness and growth as individuals and for teamwork
  • A capstone individual formal presentation
  • A headquarters event requiring travel, for many their first trip to headquarters
  • Exposure to executive and senior leaders in safe and informal settings
  • Participation in formal corporate networking events

The program has cohorts of 30–45 people. In addition to the Myers-Briggs and Leadership Practices Inventory 360 tools, the program incorporates individual development plans for personal accountability. Structured networking and business events, such as quarterly earnings calls and employee owner meetings, help participants become accustomed to spotlighted leadership events. Participants also receive personalized coaching.

The ELP uses a blended approach, in part because participants work in different markets, states, and business units. The program includes self-paced and online interpersonal skills learning and in-market and on-site presentation skills workshops, virtual synchronous and asynchronous sessions, one-on-one coaching sessions, cohort discussions, and self-study activities. There is also an online community discussion board for the cohorts and subgroups.

Company executives, managers, and HR business partners are active in the program and give of their time and energy freely. The on-site headquarters event incorporates meetings with C-suite executives in their offices where senior leaders share stories about their successes and failures, demonstrating the human side of leadership.

At the end of the program, participants give individual capstone presentations related to their personal, and often, emotional leadership profile and journey.

Business impact

The L&D team designed and launched the ELP in less than six months and to date has had two cohorts. Comerica asked managers to use a five-point scale to rate any improvements they have noticed in employees' leadership competencies that were pre-identified as necessary to develop early.

The results reveal that program participants' leadership behaviors are stronger and are solid VP successors, achieving an organizational goal. More than two-thirds of managers said participants' political savviness and organizational agility have increased to a great or very great extent.


At least half said the same for their presentation skills and ability to manage change and deal with ambiguity. And 42 percent said participants' perspective and their ability to manage vision and purpose have increased to a great or very great extent.

Twelve months following program completion, Comerica reassessed participants' leadership skills using the same 360-degree assessment tools that participants used at the start of the program. The outcomes show at least a 5 percent increase in their skills. Alumni participate in a one-on-one development coaching session to review the results and update their individual development plans. As a practice, Comerica compares the before and after scores within and across the cohorts to better calibrate program themes.

One of the most effective and visually sustainable aspects of the ELP is during talent review meetings. At those meetings, the company discusses and recognizes ELP participants, identifies them as successors, and provides them with stretch projects. More than 90 active ELP alumni are well positioned for future leadership roles.

As ELP participants are promoted, they become candidates for the leadership development program. Comerica communicates those promotions and recognizes employees' participation in the ELP, calling attention to the employee, program, and the ELP's effectiveness. More than half of the first cohort and 43 percent of the second cohort have been promoted. Half are now VPs. Of those new VPs, one-quarter are minorities and two-thirds are women.

Sharing growth

The ELP has resulted in an esprit de corps—a feeling of pride, fellowship, and loyalty—among the participants and managers, including the business leaders. That is evidenced, in part, by the attendance at the market graduation events, both in person and via the livestream.

"The day of the ELP presentations is one of my favorite days of the year," one executive commented. "The employees deliver their end-of-program presentations sharing what they learned and what commitment the company can expect from them. These short but impactful presentations are energizing, personal, and genuine."

The executive continued: "Some make the audience laugh and others bring everyone to tears. I am struck by the camaraderie of the participants and am blown away by their inspirational life stories. I end the day with an overwhelmingly hopeful feeling that I know I share with many in the audience—the future of our company is in good hands based on the amazing employees I got to know that day."

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Debbie Herd leads the talent management and learning activities for Comerica Bank. Her responsibilities include the training, development, mentoring, coaching, competency management, career management, employee engagement, orientation and onboarding, organizational change management, performance management, and succession planning programs.

Debbie joined Comerica in 2008. She previously worked for JCPenney and Hanson North America in a variety of sales, management, and HR leadership positions.

She holds a doctorate in organizational development and change. Her research focus is on performance management and teams. She also has a Master of Sciences in organizational development and leadership and a Master in Business Administration. She has earned various certifications in her field, including Certified Professional in Learning & Performance, Sr. Professional in HR, Certified Compensation Professional, Certified Compensation Professional, and ATD Instructional Designer.

She has developed or led many of Comerica’s premier programs, including but not limited to the award-winning Leadership Development and Emerging Leaders Programs, the Trusted Advisor sales program, talent review/management strategy, and the Voice of the Colleague employee engagement initiative.

Debbie is a sought-after speaker on the topics of leadership, development, performance, and succession. She serves on the American Bankers Association Professional Development Council where she helps guide the skills needed for bank employees across the industry. She is also on BAI’s Learning & Development Council where she works with industry peers to achieve higher employee performance. She is an active volunteer in her church and community.

She grew up in small town east of Lubbock, Texas, and comes from a close Mexican American family. She resides in Frisco, Texas, with her husband, son, and two dogs. When not at work, she enjoys traveling, cheering for Texas Tech, and reading.

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