Leadership is one of the most common topics organizations provide training in, spending over $1.5 million just on external leadership courses in 2016. When a company offers a leadership development program, there are several common challenges it can face, from developing the program to delivering it and then measuring and reporting on its business impact. Here are seven of those challenges, along with some tips for addressing them.
1. “Inspired Navel-Gazing”
Without context and relevance, leadership training can be a waste of time and resources. For example, Will Sutton, executive vice president and director of the BB&T Leadership Institute, says about one popular and important leadership topic, “self-awareness for self-awareness’ sake is just sort of inspired navel-gazing … What’s important is what you do with it … and how it impacts and informs your relationships and your interactions with other people.”
Similarly, Todd Macey, president of Vital Learning, says leadership training should be focused on outcomes. Provide plenty of opportunities for learners to practice, and make sure those opportunities are the right types of practice – that they’re practicing skills that they need in their role.
2. Leveraging Technology Effectively
Don’t use technology for technology’s sake. “It actually needs to enhance the program, not just make it an easier or more cost-effective way to do it,” says Sutton, and Macey agrees: “The key factor that organizations should look at is, will this technology have a measurable impact?” If so, it’s worth looking into.
Ultimately, says Sutton, leadership development is still about people, “and sometimes, the best way is still to have people talking with each other in a seminar and having an exchange of ideas.” Similarly, Macey says, coaching and group discussions are still important modalities for leadership training. “Especially when it comes to soft skills,” he adds, “there’s a little bit further that [emerging] technologies have to go to really be able to replicate and replace something like an in-person classroom session.”
On the other hand, blended learning can provide the best of both worlds. For example, BB&T’s K-12 principal leadership development program uses VILT to bookend in-person sessions as well as short refresher videos afterward. Vital Learning’s “Leadership Essentials” series offers training in a variety of modalities, and its “Vital Boost” app provides short practice scenarios over time to reinforce learning. Macey says online, self-paced microlearning can provide initial exposure and practice, and having a repository of just-in-time resources supports on-the-job learning.
3. Customizing Content
Pure off-the-shelf content may not be the best way to develop leaders. “Providing learning paths,” says Macey – giving employees a specific, targeted approach to learning rather than a broad library where they have to guess what they need – results in better outcomes. He believes that organizations will be increasingly “rethinking their approach with content libraries” and looking for more personalized learning focused only on topics that are relevant to the learners. Fortunately, “there’s more and more technology solutions” that make that approach easier.
Find a provider that can customize its training to your learners. “It’s really, really important to me when I’m working with a client that it becomes their program,” Sutton says. Macey adds that this type of customization includes being able to put your company’s brand on the platform and content as well as making sure it’s specific to your organization’s goals and learner preferences and needs.
4. Measuring Impact
“That’s the $64,000 question,” says Sutton. The first step in being able to measure the impact of leadership training is to identify your organization’s short- and long-term goals, Macey says. Metrics might include turnover, execution measures, or employee satisfaction. Then, figure out what impact leadership quality has on those metrics. “Be conservative,” he adds, “so you can take that metric and be able to attribute a certain percentage of [its change] to improvement in leadership quality.”
Then, measure individual learners’ behavior change. Are leaders using the skills they learned on the job? What impact is that behavior change having on organizational metrics? Sutton says BB&T Leadership Institute leverages the large employee base of BB&T, which he describes as a “living laboratory” his team can use to test programs.
5. Strategic Alignment
One of the most important responsibilities of learning leaders is ensuring strategic alignment between training programs and business goals. Sutton says to start by asking where the business wants to be five or 10 years down the road and then asking if it has the right people in the right place to reach those goals. “Boil it down from what your goal is, what people do you need to reach that goal, do you have the right people in place today? If so, what development do you need? If not,” figure out how to get the right people in place. If you’re working with a provider, and its team doesn’t start the collaboration by asking these questions, it’s probably not a good fit.
Macey notes that it’s important not just to look at business goals but also why the organization has those goals. Talk to “anybody within the organization who can give that insight,” he adds – in different departments and locations and at different levels.
6. Obtaining Buy-In
It’s difficult to successfully implement a training program without buy-in across the organization. To gain executive buy-in, Macey says, use the business’ key goals and metrics and map your leadership training program to them. Communicate with executives and demonstrate the impact your program is having “both quantitatively and qualitatively.” To gain the buy-in of learners and their managers, Macey recommends communicating not just the logistics of the program but also why you’re asking them to participate. If you’ve already received that executive buy-in, maybe provide a message from a vice president or the CEO on why the program is important to the company and to individual learners.
7. Limited Resources
A large number of training organizations face limited budget and personnel. Macey says to identify your organization’s and your learning team’s core competencies to understand what you can do yourself and what you will need to partner with a training provider to accomplish. There’s also a lot of free resources online “and a lot of ways that you can get creative to stretch those resources further and get more done than you could individually.”
Ultimately, a leadership training program is only as good as the strategy and engagement that its leaders – and its learners – put into it. Follow these tips, and you can help ensure a pipeline of talent throughout your organization for years to come.