In leadership development, trends often come and go (remember avatar learning in Second Life?). Yet many of the powerful lessons of leadership development are not decades but centuries old. Here are five lessons from the age of Socrates that have withstood the test of time – lessons that will likely stay relevant even in learning environments full of VR, nano-learning and AI.
1. Leadership Development Is Social.
Managing and leading people is not a spectator sport, but leadership development is often thought of as a challenge in how to deliver content – the latest conceptual frameworks, case studies and tools. Too often, L&D professionals emphasize content over context and prioritize knowledge acquisition over the creation of social experiences that help individuals develop skills.
Creating social learning environments has much to do with making space for leaders to connect in personal ways with each other – and letting them learn from interactions in activities and through the intentional creation of unstructured time. Effective leadership development means careful experience design that creates these social connections. In the age of technology, this type of social learning does not have to be confined to the classroom; it can also be created online, as long as participants have the chance to interact with each other in meaningful ways.
2. Leadership Development Requires Marketing.
L&D leaders love learning; it’s no surprise that they expect participants to want to learn. However, L&D leaders sometimes forget how skeptical employees can be about the direct link between participating in a corporate learning program and their own career growth. Effective L&D leadership means explaining to learners what is in it for them.
You can create a desire to learn by making learners feel special. The marketing industry has many tricks up its sleeve that L&D leaders can use to effectively promote a training offering. For example, creating artificial waitlists for programs can drive demand and improve excitement, engagement, and, ultimately, learning and business results. Many smart L&D teams consciously create shortages that restrict enrollments in new learning programs to establish this desirability.
Another great practice is to use alumni networks to attract new program participants. Alumni of leadership programs should be a program’s best advocates; mobilize them to market programs and talk about the skills they gained, which, as a bonus, increases their own retention of what they have learned.
Last, but not least, is a simple marketing trick: Celebrate! Don’t let the learner walk out the door at the end of an intensive leadership program without a sense of pride and accomplishment. Celebrations are an effective, low-cost way to make learners feel special and create demand. Successful leadership development requires coherent marketing that builds demand and anticipation rather than mandating employee learning.
3. Leadership Development Requires Patience.
One of the most frequent questions learning leaders ask is, “How do we make the learning stick?” It is, maybe, the most difficult question in the industry to answer, along with, “How do we show ROI?” These questions reflect a common fear: If we spend time and money to develop leaders, but those leaders don’t retain what they learned, will the program have failed? To make learning stick and prove ROI, L&D departments often resort to refresher modules and evaluations that measure knowledge retention, often with mixed results.
The most successful L&D departments recognize that leadership development is a long-term journey and have found more useful ways to measure success and ensure that learning environments prove their value over time. It’s important to remember 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 develop a better understanding of their unique leadership style, it will show in their daily work and the organizational culture. Measure success by looking at key business outcomes such as internal promotions, employee retention and employee engagement rates, which show true growth in a participant’s leadership skills.
4. Leadership Development Requires Role Models.
If learning leaders want to create a link between the development experience they provide and the career growth of participants, they need to secure deep, personal investment by senior stakeholders. An ideal participant/executive interaction makes it possible for executives to share more than company slides and to connect with participants in meaningful dialogue. Offer executives an opportunity to open up about their own successes, failures and lessons from their past, allowing participants to picture themselves in the executive’s shoes down the road.
Help program participants connect with role models in memorable ways by creating mixed-group “think tanks” with multiple executives, breaking down silos by encouraging deep cross-functional conversations and allowing for unexpected outcomes. Effective L&D leaders use the leadership development program as an opportunity to help them connect the dots from the learning journey to employees’ career aspirations as they see themselves growing into larger roles in the future.
5. We Learn to Lead Through Stories.
Why is it that we love TED talks but dread our next e-learning assignment? The answer lies in the fact that TED talks inspire with personal stories, while e-learning typically doesn’t focus on powerful storytelling. In today’s world, we cannot absorb and make sense of all data around us; often, we rely on stories to connect the dots.
Leadership frameworks and acronyms are helpful, but it is personal stories – from mentors, coaches, program faculty and peers – that often provide the most useful guidance. L&D practitioners can engage learners by integrating stories and cautionary tales into programs and using them as an integral part of leadership development experiences.
Effective leadership development is, at its core, a long-term process that requires intrinsic motivation, peer interactions, patience, encouragement from role models, mentors and stories. There are no foolproof shortcuts, because leadership development is more than knowledge acquisition. Just like the coaching of athletes in a performance sport, leadership development is a multi-disciplinary, long-term process that requires stretching; dealing with uncomfortable pressures; coaching and feedback; and a carefully crafted mix of tools, practice, stories and personal encouragement. It was the case 2,000 years ago, and it remains true today.