Effective leadership development has traditionally depended on a high degree of interactivity and business application. For example, demonstrating how effective leadership behavior has a direct impact on the company’s financial performance is critical. With the new distributed learning requirement due to the coronavirus pandemic, many training managers are concerned this connection will be lost or greatly reduced. With a little bit of technology and creativity, however, it doesn’t have to be. There are still great ways to keep leadership development applied and engaging. Let’s take a look at five.

1. Branching Stories

Branching stories enable you to create interactive online stories or cases with many possible outcomes. For example, you might have participants work through a business situation where they can choose one of three courses of action, each with different outcomes. Fast-forward three to 10 decisions, and you have 27 to over 59,000 possible outcomes.

As you can see, branching stories can quickly become hard to manage. To help, here are three steps to making it easier to manage:

    1. Break the cohort into three to five teams.
    2. Break the solution into three “rounds,” which breaks the continuity math by 70%.
    3. Each team presents its actions, process and outcomes, and each round focuses on specific topics to apply.

For example, round 1 might focus on strategic thinking, round 2 might focus on leading through rapid change and round 3 might focus on business acumen. At the end of each round, teams should present their action and outcomes. The facilitator’s goal is to facilitate a discussion with the entire group about what happened, why and why it matters as a leader.

There is no one course for leadership, and branching stories are a great way to demonstrate this reality. You can create them from slides or from one of the tools available on the market.

2. Business Plan Competitions

Since leadership development is mostly about the positive impact leadership has on business outcomes, have participants build a business plan. Keep it at a relatively high level, but try to include the basic business units, such as the product or service, marketing and sales, finance, and human resources (HR).

The trick is to keep this activity in the fantasy world while still being grounded in reality. Just remember it is an application exercise. Keep the project in scope; break the cohort into teams of three to five, provide a business (for example, a dude ranch or electric car manufacturer). Give learners a business plan template to use, break the teams into their virtual breakout rooms and let them get started!

Here’s the trick: The business plans should include what you’re teaching, which should include your leadership competency model, leadership values or other core topics. After the appropriate amount of time has passed (an hour or two), teams should present their plans to the cohort. Finally, the facilitator should apply the exercise to the leadership development training goals and objectives in an effort to create rich conversations. The ultimate goal is to apply the learning back to the business.

3. Business Cases Focused on Business Acumen

It’s amazing how intimidated leadership development facilitators can be to hold a case study discussion that includes deep business acumen and strategy topics — in most cases, rightly so. A “room” (real or virtual) full of leaders quickly can turn on a facilitator, which creates substantial challenges.

One way to overcome this issue is to invite a leader or an outside consultant who is comfortable facilitating a business acumen-centric case discussion. As a former executive, I enjoy holding business case discussions, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is not an easy task. It is a blast holding deep discussions about business acumen, leadership and strategy, but it is not for the faint of heart.

4. Hold a Debate

Leaders love a good competition, and team-versus-team debates can be fun and educational. The trick to making it effective is to make the topics comical. For example: “The best rock ‘n’ roll song ever is ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ by Led Zeppelin.” Of course, there is no right answer, but the teams can debate this topic.

Break up the cohort into teams to prep and then debate against each other virtually. The cohort then scores the teams. You can access some helpful guides for these types of debates here. The idea might sound contentious, but there is a lot to learn from debating and, if it’s set up correctly, it can be beneficial and comical.

5. Virtual Leadership Development Business Simulations

Simulations are one of the most effect ways to reinforce, engage with and apply leadership development. They aren’t simple tools, but they are more accessible than you might think. Business simulations range from ready-to-go products to completely customized, from-scratch programs. If you are looking to apply leadership behavior, business acumen, strategic thinking, silo reduction, corporate resilience and more back to real-world business outcomes, simulations may be the solution to go with.

You do not need to buy a monster custom business simulation, which is is almost always overkill. Using a ready-to-go, off-the-shelf solution will often work well. The main point is that leadership development business simulations are highly effective at reinforcement, engagement and application. They are also a lot more accessible than you might think.

There are many creative ways to help learners connect your leadership development program with business outcomes that are hands-on, engaging and applicable. What’s more, “virtual” does not have to mean “boring.” Since leaders are now going to have to lead virtually, it’s time to help them practice being a leader virtually. While you’re at it, throw them into situations that are challenging and applicable. They will love it!