Lesley Skinner felt stuck. Like the situation faced by training and development executives around the globe, her organization’s PEARL leadership development program had been put on hold thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. It had been several months since the pandemic had sent her NGK colleagues home, and she was at a crossroads. As the vice president of culture, communication and people, it was up to Lesley and her team to determine the fate of the popular regional program for high-potential leaders.

Should it be placed on an indefinite hold, or should they attempt the tricky transition to virtual delivery? Could the highly rated program live up to its stellar reputation if the content was delivered over Zoom instead of in a live, in-person facilitated classroom? Could those invaluable relationships be built through chat and email instead of over lunch and bonding cocktail hours?

“We didn’t want to stop the momentum,” Skinner explains. “We realized that COVID was changing the future of training permanently and our approach to leadership development had to change.”

“We worried about not getting the same level of interaction that we experienced with the in-person program … that awkward Zoom silence when the facilitator asks a question,” admitted Sarah Woodbury, talent and development manager. “But we decided to pivot and give it a try, knowing that we could pause the program if it wasn’t going well.”

NGK is a world leader in the manufacturing and distribution of spark plugs and oxygen sensors. Headquartered in Nagoya, Japan, the company has 16,000 employees and locations in 21 countries.

In 2019, Skinner engaged Dion Leadership to create and facilitate a high-potential leadership development program for NGK’s PAMA region (Australia, North America and Brazil). This year-long program included group training workshops, individual leadership coaching, self-assessments, enrichment activities, and a leadership manifesto presentation. NGK was growing rapidly, and needed more skilled leaders in its regional talent pool. The year-long, cohort-based program focused on soft skills leaders must develop to be successful — fostering self-awareness, nurturing relationships, honing communication skills, leading change and managing conflict. It covered everything related to how someone needs to show up as a leader.

When the initial cohort finished the program, Skinner and her team were thrilled with the evaluations and the observed behavior change. Ninety-eight percent of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that the workshop was a worthwhile investment of their time and attention.

The plan was to kick off the second cohort in early 2020 … and then COVID hit.

With no end in sight to the work-at-home and no-travel mandates, Skinner partnered with her training partner to reimagine the leadership program without any of the face-to-face advantages.

The Transition

The four in-person events (two- or three-day training sessions conducted every three months) were reworked into four weeks of learning. The virtual training was delivered in three-hour live, facilitated sessions over four consecutive days. The instructional design team mapped 16 hours of face-to-face content to 12 hours of virtual delivery. And what about those four hours of content that weren’t covered in the live sessions? The team focused on keeping the elements of the course that were interactive and dialogue-based in the live delivery portion of the program. The other learning pieces were transitioned to Dion Leadership’s learning management system (LMS) so that participants could complete learning tasks between sessions. The LMS hosted self-paced learning, Zoom meeting links, self-assessments, participant guides and supplementary content (including videos and articles). The one-on-one coaching that occurs in between sessions continued as usual (via phone or video meetings).

As the team wrapped up the redesign process, they felt confident that the revised program was engaging, and the facilitator could adequately teach the same content in this new blended learning format.

But what would the participants think?

The Results

When comparing participant survey results from the in-person program to the virtual delivery program, the differences are negligible.

Participants were clearly engaged in their learning and experienced valuable benefits by attending the program — no matter how it was delivered. Skinner was equally delighted with the results.

Getting Beyond Skepticism

While a high percentage of technical and skills-based training programs have successfully migrated to online learning over the past decade, leadership development and other interpersonal skills training programs remain firmly rooted in live, instructor-led in-person classroom delivery. Many training and development professionals believe these nuanced, relationship-centric behavior-based courses can’t possibly be delivered virtually. “In-person is the only way to teach these complex topics,” skeptical facilitators often contend.

And leaders can be hesitant as well. One participant in the NGK course shared this comment midway through the program: “I was a little skeptical, to be honest, as to how it was going to work virtually/online, but it is working very well, and I cannot wait to continue this further.”

Stan Greene, the facilitator of both the in-person and the virtual course commented, “It was surprising how much connection and intimacy can be created. There was so much banter and chat during the virtual sessions. There’s an unanticipated benefit that comes with interacting with our colleagues while they’re in the spaces where they live the rest of their lives. We’ve learned to incorporate all of the elements of our respective lives into our workplace relationships.”

And Skinner observed that there was more interaction happening among participants between classes that kept people connected — more than with the in-person course. “We learned that you need to build in more structure for the “in-between” times to get people to connect.”

Learning can’t wait. The Great Resignation is real and upon us. Beyond skill and productivity enhancement, leadership programs engage the most sought-after talent and help organizations retain them. All of NGK’s participants (both from the in-person and the virtual program) are still with the organization and several have been promoted.

Simply put, virtual and blended learning is not just acceptable — it’s an effective way to deliver leadership development. Organizations can save a significant amount of money on travel and training venues, while still achieving program goals. Participants can learn, grow and establish deep relationships with their colleagues without having to leave their homes and families for long stretches of time.

With the pandemic still disrupting our return to work and hybrid workplaces gaining momentum as the common future norm, leadership development professionals have an opportunity to reconsider their apprehension regarding virtual learning. Lessons from the NGK program offer a hopeful path forward.

“Our PEARL leadership development program and our partnership with Dion Leadership have been quite beneficial for our associates, our PAMA Region and for our global company,” explains Michael Schwab, president and CEO of NGK. “The success of any organization hinges on the quality and passion of its leaders, and our immersive PEARL program supports the development for the next generation of inspiring and well-rounded leaders for our company.”