Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

The year 2020 will undoubtedly be considered the year of the pivot. While the COVID-19 pandemic brought about significant social and economic change, it’s fair to say that its impact on businesses was more about accelerating preexisting trends and that the sum of changes was more unprecedented than the individual actions taken.

For example, digital business models are not new; digital transformation had been lingering on the agendas of many businesses for years. The transition from brick-and-mortar to online stores and from in-person to digital banking and, of course, the heightened use of telemedicine were not innovations unique to 2020. Instead, what would have taken another five to 10 years to achieve happened nearly overnight.

That immediacy highlighted a need for corporate leaders who were well-equipped to navigate unfamiliar territory. Before the pandemic, leadership training was already one of the fastest-growing areas of spend in the training market (the compound annual growth rate was 8.5% between 2010 and 2019). But 2020 brought the realization that leadership and development (L&D) needed to evolve to meet the special needs of our new dynamic environment.

In that sense, 2020 might be better viewed as the year of possibilities.

Expanded Opportunities: The 2020 Effect on L&D

From the relatively small scale to the seismic, every industry around the globe last year experienced some adjustment to how it operated. For the L&D industry, outside of the tactical move to online offerings, there were key areas where other important shifts occurred:

1. Viewing HR and L&D Professionals as Key Strategic Players

With the snowball effect of 2020 highlighting opportunities for improvement within organizations, C-suite conversations about leadership development were on the rise. Organizations viewed the new generation of leaders as a critical component of future success. This perspective provided human resources (HR) and L&D professionals with an unparalleled opportunity to move into the center of organizational strategy, helping drive the competitive advantage for their organizations.

2. Democratizing L&D Access

Instead of limiting training opportunities due to scarce resources, organizations could look beyond classroom size, scheduling or travel budget limitations. Participants benefited from this online access as they were able to apply their newly-learned skills to their real-time business projects and case studies. Progressive organizations embracing the opportunities afforded by being online could now affect leadership populations at every level by finding options that offered high-quality learning at scale.

3. Recognizing the Need for New Leadership Capabilities

Leaders always needed the skills to guide business transformations, but in 2020, they also needed to be agile enough to pivot nearly instantly to areas of opportunity. Leaders always needed to be able to help their teams through challenges, but in 2020, they needed more empathy, as professional and personal circumstances entwined. Leaders always should have championed inclusion and diversity, but in 2020, it became a more pressing moral and social imperative. The unique and necessary intersection of these future-ready leader characteristics in 2020 have begun shaping new L&D priorities.

Leveraging New Perspectives: L&D in 2021 and Beyond

If there is a silver lining to the unfortunate events of last year, it is the shift in mindset — in particular, the thinking around what people value and the leadership characteristics needed in a crisis and its aftermath. Those realizations are the foundation for reinvention in 2021, with a strategic, proactive approach to the future.

Training programs must continue to adjust to emphasize skills beyond the technical, and organizations must embrace metrics to benchmark their progress with so-called hard skills and soft skills. The pandemic highlighted what HR and L&D professionals have known all along: that people — all people — are an organization’s valuable resource.

Conversations sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement have encouraged both a broader and more nuanced view of diversity and raised considerable expectations for change. As a result, inclusion and diversity training should be central components of any forward-looking leadership development program. In addition, the online environment’s ability to expand access can help bring equity to development opportunities for underrepresented groups who are traditionally overlooked.

As businesses continue to grapple with the ripple effects of last year, L&D professionals are in a prime position to confirm that the seeds of organizational success are already planted. By nurturing a comprehensive view of training, acknowledging its central role in expanding the leadership talent pool and addressing the required changes in organizational competencies, L&D programs in 2021 can help organizations make significant progress in setting standards for the future.

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