The 6 Things You Need To Make Leadership Development Effective

by Rick Lepsinger
Republished from Business 2 Community, April 21, 2018

The modern workplace is vastly different from what it once was. Today, organizations of all sizes and industries face increasingly globalized markets, remotely-located employees/teams, and the need for cross-disciplinary teams. To meet the demands of customers, it is imperative to have agile leaders who can balance people, processes, and innovation to keep the organization moving forward.

These agile leaders, in turn, need to have a diverse array of both technical and soft skills.

Unfortunately, many leaders struggle to meet performance goals despite having attended leadership development programs. The problem, as highlighted in research cited by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) is that “Our primary method of developing leaders is antithetical to the type of leadership we need.”

In other words, leadership development programs are often stuck in old ideologies and methodologies—which makes them ineffective at creating leaders who can thrive in a modern business setting. So, what does your leadership development program need to create agile leaders who can excel?

A few of the most important characteristics include:

1: Experiential Learning

It’s one thing to learn the theory behind a particular skill, but another thing entirely to take that theory and put it into practice. One problem that many leadership development programs run into is that the training environment and resources aren’t really applicable to the leader’s everyday work environment. Without a link between the lesson and real-world situations, it can be difficult for developing leaders to fully grasp how to apply these lessons to their work.

Experiential learning, or the practice of “learning by doing,” is designed to take advantage of the human brain’s tendency to better remember and understand new concepts when they follow active participation in a task.

If learning activities closely resemble real-world conditions that the learner will encounter, the lessons will benefit from a phenomenon known as “state-dependent memory.” The idea is that, as noted in Core Psychiatry (third edition), the “retrieval of information is generally better given similar rather than different contextual cues.”

By having leaders participate in activities that directly relate to the situations they will actually encounter at work, it is possible to improve their learning engagement, retention of information, and application of lessons to their work.

Experiential learning can be further reinforced with on-the-job learning opportunities such as targeted job assignments and job rotation. This helps expose leaders to a wider variety of situations and responsibilities—which is invaluable for leading cross-functional teams consisting of people from different business units.

2: Multiple Types of Learning Content

Another issue is the tendency to rely on just one kind of content. The problem with this is that different people learn things in different ways. As noted in one Rasmussen College article on the subject, learners frequently fall into one of four different types:

  1. Visual Learners
  2. Auditory Learners
  3. Kinesthetic Learners
  4. Reading & Writing Learners

Each of these “learner types” responds differently depending on how learning content is presented. For example, visual learners learn best by “visualizing relationships and ideas,” such as in an infographic. Auditory learners, on the other hand, “prefer listening to information,” such as a podcast or webinar. Kinesthetic learners will benefit most from “learning by doing,” which may include hands-on lessons and experiential learning. Reading and writing learners may benefit most from eBooks and other written exercises.

By delivering content in a variety of ways that includes written, auditory, visual, and activity-based elements, it’s possible to make lessons more engaging for a wider variety of learners.

3: Content That is Aligned to Development Needs

Not every developing leader has the same needs—one size does not fit everyone. However, many development programs have inflexible lesson plans, forcing every learner to sit through the same lessons—regardless of whether or not it applies to them.

The problem with this is that forcing every person to sit through the same exact content regardless of their learning needs can lead to disengagement with the development program. This, in turn, can reduce the retention of information and ability of learners to meet program goals.

So, when placing people into a leadership development program, it’s important to assess their strengths and development needs so they can target and participate in programs that will actually have value to them. The use of data, such as performance reviews, self-assessments and 360 feedback, can help organizations as well as individuals prioritize learning needs.

This is a basic tenet of adult learning theory that can have significant influence on the success of a leadership development program—and one that many such programs lack.

4: Senior Leaders Who Model Effective Leadership Behaviors

In another HBR article on why leadership training fails, the author points out a common problem with leadership training:

“[Although] one program had succeeded in changing frontline supervisors’ attitudes about how they should manage, a follow-up study revealed that most supervisors had then regressed to their pre-training views. The only exceptions were those whose bosses practiced and believed in the new leadership style the program was designed to teach.”

In other words, the team leaders and team members would adopt the practices covered in a leadership development training program for a little while, then backslide into old habits. However, those individuals who observed senior leaders using the skills and concepts covered in the training program were less likely to fall back into their old habits.

“We needed a faculty group with egos not wedded to any particular leadership methodology or school of thinking and who could work skillfully with live group dynamics, creating psychological safety in the room for participants to take personal risks and push cultural boundaries…

So, any leadership development program intended to have long-term benefits needs buy-in and support from the top-level leaders in the organization. By modeling the skills and tools emphasized in training and by providing coaching and recognition, they can provide a real-world example of how those skills and concepts can be applied in the workplace and set the expectation that they should be used in the workplace.

Additionally, top-level leaders who use the behaviors and concepts covered in the training can provide feedback and coaching to help developing leaders internalize the skills and make the transition to using them on the job.

5: Faculty with a Variety of Skills, Viewpoints, and Experiences

The faculty facilitating the training program need to have a variety of perspectives and skills to provide flexible and holistic leadership development. As the HBR article on “why leadership development isn’t developing leaders” states:

“We needed a faculty group with egos not wedded to any particular leadership methodology or school of thinking and who could work skillfully with live group dynamics, creating psychological safety in the room for participants to take personal risks and push cultural boundaries… We needed to be able to work with a continually changing curriculum design, and with the group projecting their discomfort with the wider change—and how it was being experienced in the program—onto the faculty.”

Having a development program with trainers who possess a wide variety of skills, viewpoints, and experiences helps to make the program more flexible and responsive.

The trainer’s ability to create an environment where learners are involved in guiding the discussions and can share their own best practices gained from practical experience plays a major role in the employee’s engagement. By making the focus on turning everyone into a “teacher,” learners will be more invested in—and thus engaged with—lesson content than they would be by an “expert’s” lecture.

6: Portable Lesson Content That Can Be Accessed Anywhere

Modern organizations frequently have geographically dispersed employees and one of the biggest challenges organizations face is delivering learning content to employees in a convenient and cost-effective manner.

However, modern technology makes it easy to deliver employee training virtually anywhere in the world. Many leadership development programs use digital distribution models to make key lessons available via learners’ mobile devices.

By putting content into an online learning platform, companies can make it available to their employees at virtually any time and any place. This allows for greater flexibility in accessing learning content so learners can engage with the content they need when they need it.

Developing leaders in your organization is a crucial part of ensuring continued success. Having strong leaders who can balance people, execution, and innovation can help people at all levels of your organization to succeed.

Are your leadership development programs operating at peak effectiveness? If you have any questions about how to improve your leadership training and development initiatives, be sure to comment below.

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