The Democratization of Leadership Development

If you’re like many companies, there’s a good chance that your leadership development events and training are currently constrained. Yet the need to engage your workforce remains paramount during these difficult times. The pandemic has changed a lot, but it has not changed the importance of having effective leaders throughout your organization. 

It’s the challenges to develop leaders that have become exceptionally more difficult. Which raises the question: How do you get more executives and organizations to invest in leadership development during a time of crisis? By defining it as an essential strategy to get through the crisis. And by infusing leadership skills throughout your business, not just at the top.

Leadership at Every Level

As layoffs mount, workers get furloughed, and teams get smaller and more agile, organizations need a solid plan for prioritizing leadership development to ensure people have the skills required to engage employees.

One of the core reasons that many companies haven’t emphasized leadership at every level is because they are still stuck in a top-down mindset. Executives with financial responsibilities often approve investment in leaders only at the top (or top of the middle) of the hierarchy. For decades, that has left team leaders and individuals on the outside looking in when it comes to advancing their leadership skills. 

But that command-and-control model is no longer viable (if it ever was) in a knowledge-based economy where the needs of your business shift quickly. 

It’s time for executives to see leadership at every level as a viable business strategy to move the entire organization through the difficult challenges that lay ahead. Notably, this means more than just ensuring that managers know leadership concepts. They need to learn how to actually apply them — especially because they play a critical role in developing new leaders through regular conversions about motivations and skills.

And especially because leadership is increasingly critical at the frontline, where employees are closest clients and customers. It’s vital that these workers have leadership skills to meet business needs, as well as propel their careers forward.

Today, development needs to meet the real-time needs of an organization to help achieve critical strategy execution and to elevate performance. The coronavirus has given leaders and L&D professionals permission — even a mandate — to disrupt the way they do leadership development. Here are a few critical factors to keep in mind when creating or refining your leadership development strategy in light of new norms and to apply at every level.

Leadership Is a Verb

Leadership isn’t an idea or a noun; it’s always in motion. You need a curriculum and strategy to develop leaders based on the premise that leadership is a practice that can be improved, even with great leaders. To inculcate necessary skills, L&D leaders have traditionally led workshops and training seminars. These were essentially one- to three-day sessions a few months after which people would often forget what they learned. Even before the pandemic, companies were recognizing that this approach to development was inadequate, but COVID-19’s shift to a largely virtual workforce has accelerated the evolution of L&D efforts. 

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Indeed, a recent Gallup article called for leaders to shift their development strategies by going from “captive classrooms” to “ongoing learning,” citing research showing that “people forget 77% of what they learn six days after leaving the classroom. Participants need to tie their learning to their day-to-day work using 30-day, 60-day and one-year plans with clearly defined outcomes that reflect all of their learning.”

The article also suggested shifting from “isolated paths” to “shared journeys,” explaining the following: 

“Perhaps the most engaging part of a HiPo program is learning along with a cohort of other top talent. A strong sense of community and shared purpose is inspiring and motivating, and without it, the journey might seem mechanistic and lonely. And participants and practitioners sometimes create their own community that they can rely on for future learning and making sense of their collective experience.”

Leadership in the Flow of Work

Leadership happens in different contexts. It is often situational, which means a one-size-fits-all approach to development is not effective. It’s important to account for how to lead in various moments at executive, team, managerial, and individual levels. 

To create a leadership culture, you’ve got to infuse leadership development in the flow of work. Competitive organizations today need to be agile, with smaller teams working within networks of other teams across business units.That can only happen if you integrate leadership best practices into the flow of strategy execution and collaboration.

By emphasizing leadership development at every level, you can help close gaps in effective strategy execution, engagement, and trust. Plus, you’ll be improving your succession pipeline, you can ensure continuity of success.

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