5 Lessons Learned from 16 Years in Leadership Development

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When I started working in corporate learning and development 16 years ago, a few trends were predicted to be inevitable:

  • The classroom would become obsolete
  • Most lessons would be taught online
  • Professors would be replaced by e-learning

Today, not all of these predictions have come true. We continue to see new technologies, fads, and buzzwords (remember Second Life classrooms?) but most of them fade as quickly as they arrive.

So rather than write about another new trend, I wanted to reflect and take stock of some truths that I have found to withstand the test of time.

Below are five lessons I’ve learned about leadership development – lessons that I think will stay relevant even in learning environments full of VR and AI learning.

 

1)    Leadership development is social

Managing and leading people is not a spectator sport. Yet often we think of leadership development primarily as a challenge in how to deliver content - the latest conceptual frameworks, assessments, case studies, and tools.

Too often, we in L&D emphasize content over context and prioritize knowledge acquisition over the creation of social experiences that help individuals develop their leadership and communication skills.

Making tough decisions under pressure, analyzing complex data, identifying patterns in seemingly chaotic situations – all these important leadership skills require the flexing of cognitive thinking and communication muscles.

Flexing these muscles necessitates social practice environments, just like a true performance sport requires a place where an athlete can learn from repeated practice rather than rote memorization. Our job as learning leaders is to create meaningful social learning experiences that allow for such practice to occur, whether in the classroom or, increasingly, online.

How can learning leaders help create these social learning environments? Apart from utilizing leadership simulations - my own area of expertise - I have found that the answer has much to do with making space for leaders to connect in meaningful, personal ways with each other – and allow them to learn from those interactions in both engineered group activities and through the intentional creation of unstructured time away from the ‘content’.

When participating in leadership development events around the world, I am always struck by how much learning and development occurs not in the classroom, but in the hallway as participants share experiences and give each other feedback. I challenge us all not just to embrace these informal learning moments, but to prioritize them.

In the designs of our programs, we often sweat the details of a day’s agenda and then forego creating a social evening program, organizing a happy hour, or inviting local executives to network, share their thoughts, and provide context around the content we teach. It can be hard to ask our participants to give up their evenings when they’ve spent all day working with us to grow, but, if there’s room for it, the benefits often far outweigh the costs.

Allowing learners to interact and communicate in less structured ways requires trusting that learning occurs with less direct control and supervision of the agenda, and it requires trust in the participants and in their ability to take advantage of the social experiences that are being created. This isn’t easy! It’s counterintuitive to let go of the reigns when we’ve so carefully designed our programs, but it is exactly this trust that I have found will be rewarded with true growth in participants’ skills.

Even more powerful than leaving unstructured time for social interactions is the careful design of experiences that can create meaningful social connections. One of my favorite learning leaders at a fast-moving CPG company is doing just that, using a mobile app to match and connect program participants based on an app-based survey. Participants are matched and build their network through careful (and light!) team assignments before and after formal classroom experiences.

What if people can’t travel? In my experience, social learning environments are not confined to the classroom – they can also be created in online environments, as long as participants have the chance to interact with each other in meaningful ways. These days, most synchronous conference tools have breakout room functionality that makes interaction between small groups of learners easy and convenient. Yet not many webinars I have seen have taken full advantage of the opportunity to engage online participants in meaningful small group work and projects.

Yes, content, lectures, self-assessments, and workbook exercises will continue to be important in the development of future leaders, but they are not all there is to leadership development. They don’t replace the task of carefully coordinating an environment that allows for a maximum of social peer interactions among learners.

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2)    Leadership programs require marketing

It’s hard not to see the world through L&D-centric glasses when you spend as much time thinking about learning as we in this business tend to do. We often think of our educational offerings as a gift to employees. After all, who doesn’t want to learn and improve their skillset? Unfortunately, when I talk with many friends outside of L&D, many roll their eyes when asked about their last corporate learning program.

Why this disconnect? As L&D leaders, we love learning! It’s no surprise that we expect our participants to want to learn and take part in our programs. However, we sometimes forget that many people are skeptical about the direct link between participating in a corporate learning program and their own career growth.

The truth is that we have to put in work to explain to learners why they should be excited. It should not be ‘beneath’ us to market our learning experiences – before, during, and after our programs. We should never forget to put ourselves in the shoes of a learner that is asking themselves the ‘what’s in it for me’ question as they undergo our ‘treatment’.

So, how can L&D market our work and make valued employees not dread their next learning experience?

One answer I have found is very simple: Make the learner feel special.

This requires promotion. The world of marketing has many tricks up their sleeves when it comes to effectively promoting products. The most effective L&D departments I have seen take advantage of them.

Creating artificial shortages to drive demand and desire may sound untoward to some of us (do we have the right to prevent someone from attending a program?) yet it is a commonly used practice in marketing. It creates demand and the desire to want to be in the learning experience – which improves engagement and thus ultimately learning and business results.

Does your L&D group consciously create shortages that restrict enrollments in new learning programs to establish desirability?

Another often underutilized marketing practice to increase a program’s reputation is to use alumni networks to attract new program participants. Alumni should be our best advocates – they can market our programs and talk about the benefits of it, which, as a bonus, increases their own retention of learning and leadership performance. Yet, how many of us consciously keep track of the people that have gone through our programs once participants are released ‘back into the wild’?

Last but not least, a very simple marketing trick: Celebrate!

Don’t just let the learner walk out the door at the end of a program - provide them with a sense of pride and accomplishment. If your budget allows, print out colorful certificates that can be pinned on a wall to further promote your program. Take a picture of the cohort before everyone leaves. Tweet or post when a cohort finishes their work.

Celebrations are a low-cost, highly effective way to market and promote any leadership program and make learners feel special. Yes, some graduation ceremonies are cheesy and over-the-top, but most are incredibly effective in helping the learner feel special.

In short, the lesson I learned is that successful leadership development programs require the development of a coherent marketing strategy that builds demand and anticipation rather than mandates employees to attend.

As L&D leaders, we should not shy away from this aspect of our jobs. We won’t be effective at our core job of creating better leaders if we don’t also make it our job to create learner motivation and desire.

 

3)    Leadership development requires patience

One of the most frequent questions learning leaders have asked me time and again is: “How do we make the learning stick?” It is maybe the most difficult question in our industry to answer, right behind “How do we show ROI?”  

The origin of both of these questions is a basic fear: If we spent lots of time and money to develop our leaders, but they ‘forget’ the content we delivered, will we have failed to deliver value?

One popular answer to address the retention of knowledge challenge is to design so-called refresher modules intended to remind participants about what they have learned after the main leadership program has concluded. I have found these refresher modules to produce mixed results at best.

The main reason that refresher modules - whether they are nano-learning videos or lunch webinars - don’t produce strong outcomes, is that from a learner’s perspective, they are simply not very interesting. After all, if I know that I have already learned what I was supposed to learn, do I really have time to just ‘refresh’ my knowledge?

Other ways to try to ensure and measure whether the ‘learning has stuck’ in leadership development have had mixed results as well. Measuring simple retention of knowledge through tests can give us a false sense of accomplishment. After all, what is the true business impact of a participant remembering the acronym of a leadership framework? If leadership development is as much about practice as content, what does it actually mean to make the learning ‘stick’?

My lesson here is that maybe the premise of the question is flawed to begin with. If leadership development is about understanding patterns and providing practice environments that allows emerging leaders to draw on their learning later on, then is it even the right question to ask whether ‘content’ is ‘retained’? Isn’t it more relevant to ask what percentage of the learner population received a promotion within two-years after they graduated?

Faced with long odds in measuring knowledge retention and receiving unsatisfactory answers to the difficult question of what makes learning stick, I have seen some learning leaders retreat to not worrying about the long-term impact of their programs at all.

I think that is the wrong response. The most successful L&D departments I have seen - those that have the ears of executives and the proverbial seat at the table - recognize that leadership development is a long-term journey and that designing programs with long-term impact in mind is imperative to success. But rather than finding ways to make the ‘content stick’ and measure “retention of knowledge”, those L&D groups have found other ways to ensure that their learning environments prove useful over time.

How?

They have designed programs that are relevant to a learner’s leadership journey from the day they walk back to their desk and have built direct links back to the learner’s real-world environment that ensures that key skill sets continue to develop over time with further practice and reflection.

They have integrated on-going coaching and mentorship opportunities, involved the learner’s manager in a follow-up plan, engaged alumni in teach-back sessions, and organized reunions that keep learners connected not to the content, but to the context of the learning experience.

They have designed follow-on experiences with new material that is rewarding for the learner and that does the double duty of fighting the forgetting curve as well as demonstrating the longevity and value of the program to all stakeholders.

I always try to come back to the core purpose of leadership development: did the program uncover personal leadership blind-spots, provide meaningful feedback, and trigger the start of a long-term learning journey? If the learners have been able to hone their skills and better understand their unique leadership style, it will show itself in their daily work and the organizational culture. With a focus away from ‘retention of knowledge’, success can be measured by looking at key business outcomes such as internal promotions and employee retention and engagement rates.

 

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4) Leadership development requires executive involvement

A key lesson I have learned about corporate leadership development is that our job as learning leaders is to ensure that our programs receive consistent and sustained executive support and sponsorship; without that support it is better to drop a program altogether and save the company money until the value of a program is fully recognized and supported, not just in terms of financial resources but also in terms of executive time.

I have seen many leadership development programs that involve an executive sponsor who enters the room for five minutes, welcomes the participants, and leaves. This type of interaction takes quite a bit of coordinating and work to accomplish, so, if at all possible, I encourage us to seize the opportunity it provides and engage our executives to a greater extent.

If we, as learning leaders, want to create a link between the development experience we provide and the career growth that participants are seeking, it is imperative to secure deep, personal investments by key senior stakeholders that show a vested interest in the overall success of the participants. Then we need to translate that deep investment into meaningful moments and memories for participants.

In an ideal world, we’re able to design participant-executive interactions where it is possible for executives to share not just company slides, but connect with participants in more meaningful ways, open up about their own failures in confidential forums, and provide an opportunity for participants to picture themselves in the executive’s shoes down the road.

All too often, we are far too worried about the flow of a PowerPoint slide without spending time thinking about how to secure and then translate executive sponsorship into valuable learning moments. I have come to believe that those learning moments are an absolutely vital aspect of L&D initiatives.

In my work helping companies design the best corporate learning environments possible, I continuously ask my partners to push the boundaries of what is possible in terms of executive involvement: Create mixed-group think tanks with multiple executives, break down silos by encouraging deep cross-functional conversation around strategy and goal-setting, and allow for unexpected outcomes when executives mix with high-potential employees.

Use the development program as an opportunity to build executive role-models for your learners; this will help them connect the dots from the learning journey to their career aspirations as they see themselves growing into executive roles in the future.

 

5) We learn through stories.

Why is it that we love TED talks but dread our next e-learning assignment? I think the answer lies in the fact that TED talks inspire with personal stories while many e-learning designers I know are not encouraged to be storytellers (instructional design programs – taking their cues from the world of academic textbooks - rarely focus on personal storytelling as a core discipline).

In today’s complex world, we cannot possibly absorb and make sense of all the facts swirling around us. No formula or acronym can give us the right answer when we are faced with a difficult decision as a leader that involves complex relationships and competing priorities; often, we have to rely on past stories to connect the dots, make sense of the data that is around us, and make decisions.

How do stories fit into leadership development? One of my mentors used to say: “that which is most personal is most universal”. This wise saying applies to all of our work in leadership development; learners see universal truths, relationships, and patterns most clearly through stories that are the most deeply personal. Leadership frameworks and acronyms are helpful, but it is personal stories – from mentors, coaches, program faculty, and peers – that most often provide useful guidance and help as we learn to be better leaders and managers in our jobs.

Cautionary tales are a key part of growing up. They kept us out of trouble when we were young, and they continue to keep their power over us as we grow as leaders and human beings. Yet too often, these powerful learning instruments are overlooked as an integral leadership development tool, set aside to make room for a lecture on the latest leadership buzzwords or catch-phrases (agile, grow, neuro-science, etc.)

As L&D practitioners, we can engage learners the most by engineering stories and cautionary tales into our programs and by using them as an integral part of our leadership development experiences, not as breaks from the ‘real’ lessons. They are the real lesson.

 

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Effective leadership development is, at its core, a long-term process that requires many things: Intrinsic learner motivation, plentiful peer interactions, repeated practice, a long-term development roadmap, executive encouragement and commitment, mentors, coaches, stories, and – most of all – patience and trust that learning occurs when the right ingredients are mixed together.

There are no easy short-cuts and no fool-proof ROI-generating learning modules that can be taken online. No five-minute nano-learning bursts that magically turn a stumbling manager into a brilliant leader. No Matrix-like software that can be uploaded to the brain.

Much money and time is wasted by companies doing leadership development half-heartedly, treating it primarily as a content curation and delivery challenge, and placing it next to the compliance safety e-learning on a company’s LMS.

In the same way that pilots don’t fly airplanes after memorizing a manual, leadership development should not be about content acquisition and the hope that “knowledge will be retained”. Just like the coaching of athletes in a performance sport, true leadership development is a multi-disciplinary, long-term process that requires stretching individuals, putting them under uncomfortable pressures, offering coaching and feedback, and providing learners with a carefully crafted mix of helpful tools, practice environments, stories and personal encouragement over months and years.

Designing such rich experiences has been the pleasure of a lifetime for me – and I am sure I will learn as much in the next 16 years as I have learned so far.

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