Leadership development is often associated with lavish retreats, week-long courses, and even expensive and time-consuming higher-education programs that may require time and resources that leaders — and their organizations — simply don’t have. However, we also know that leadership development is a sound investment: It gives leaders the tools and skills they need to impact change.

Training Industry research found that, even as the coronavirus pandemic tightened many companies’ training budgets, investments in leadership development remained strong. Companies looked to learning and development (L&D) for courses and programs that addressed pressing leadership skills, such as agility, the ability to lead remotely, soft skills like empathy and vulnerability and, in light of an increased awareness of racial injustice, inclusive leadership and unconscious bias.

How can we keep the leadership development momentum going without burning through extensive time, energy and precious training dollars in the process?

Informal leadership development just might be the answer.

What is Informal Leadership Development?

Informal leadership development, which is rooted in social learning, refers to any type of learning that leaders receive outside of a formal training course or program. Everything from peer coaching and mentoring to podcasts, books and videos can constitute informal leadership development.

Phil LeNir, executive director at CoachingOurselves, a peer coaching and leadership development provider, says that informal and social learning “happens all the time” and is an effective way to develop leaders, because the learning happens in the context of their everyday roles rather than in a structured training event. After all, he says, you can read all the leadership development books on the market, but “knowing a lot about management doesn’t make you a good manager.” Just as you might logically know how to swim, you can’t master different strokes “until you jump in the water.”

Dale Rose, Ph.D., president and co-founder of 3D Group, a leadership development provider, agrees that formal, “static” training programs are no longer effective for today’s leaders, who are forced to adapt to changing business needs on the fly. To keep pace, training needs to be “much quicker and much more responsive” to changing business priorities. “The way we work is changing and in flux,” Rose says. “We’re learning as we go.”

How to Get Started

While all organizations can benefit from informal and social leadership development, it’s especially appealing for companies with “razor-thin” training budgets, who can’t afford to develop or outsource a formal program, says Kevin Karschnik, an entrepreneur, keynote speaker on Agile leadership and co-author of “Corporate Ovations.”

As informal and social learning don’t happen in an in-person or virtual classroom, learning leaders must work to incorporate it into leaders’ daily workflows. Fortunately, there are myriad ways to do this, including (but not limited to):

Small Group Coaching Sessions

Small groups of around four to six leaders are the perfect size for meaningful dialogue and discussion, LeNir says. Small group coaching sessions offer a space for leaders to come together to discuss their specific challenges and brainstorm solutions. For maximum engagement, LeNir suggests keeping these sessions no more than 90 minutes long.

Your leaders don’t have to be in the same place to benefit from small group coaching, either. In fact, LeNir says that CoachingOurselves’ sessions were more successful after they moved online due to COVID-19. When peer coaching happens online, “It helps people worldwide join small groups from organizations everywhere,” he says. It also helps introverts feel more comfortable opening up, as it’s often easier to be vulnerable in a virtual environment than it is to be in person.

The bottom line? “Trust develops faster in small group dialogue online than it does in person,” LeNir says, and when we are more trusting, we are more able to be candid, and so we get a greater impact from the coaching sessions.

Ultimately, when you bring leaders together from around the world in a coaching session, “interactive dialogue” opens up and they have a chance to gain knowledge from others’ unique experiences, Rose says.

Start a Book Club

Today’s leaders are busier than ever and expecting them to read entire books written by renowned leaders is unrealistic. However, books are an often overlooked (and affordable) resource when it comes to leadership training and development, Karschnik says. He suggests starting a book club in which each leader is assigned a chapter or two to read and report back to the group with key takeaways. Dividing up the content makes reading more manageable for busy leaders while still ensuring that they absorb key information and ideas from leadership experts who have been in their shoes.

Share a Brief Video of the Week

Encourage leaders across departments to share a brief video (i.e., YouTube video, TED Talk or other instructional video) that offers leadership and/or personal development tips and best practices, Karschnik suggests. Then, have your leaders carve out time to watch the video and debrief. From managing hybrid teams to giving feedback and even creating a morning routine for maximized productivity, short videos are an engaging way to consume digestible nuggets of information on virtually any topic your leaders are looking for.

Leverage Your Subject Matter Experts

It’s likely your organization has subject matter experts (SMEs) full of knowledge and information that can be of value to leaders in different departments or functions. Karschnik suggests having internal SMEs give brief talks (i.e., five minutes to one hour long) on different topics to share their knowledge and expertise “that everyone can later have access to.” Leveraging your internal SMEs is a great way to bring information to leaders who may have not known where to find it otherwise.

To encourage learners to take advantage of informal and social learning opportunities, Phyllis Millikan, executive vice president of client solutions and partnerships at SurePeople, a talent management software provider, encourages top executives to personally incentivize and encourage continuous learning. In other words, L&D can bring social and informal learning to leaders in their everyday roles, but leaders need to know it’s not only OK, but imperative, that they take advantage of each opportunity to learn and grow.

Be Strategic

Social and informal learning is fun. But, as with all your training programs, it needs to be tied to core business goals and priorities. Be strategic in which leadership knowledge, skills and abilities you choose to deliver informally, rather than formally. For instance, LeNir says, informal learning would work better as an “add-on” to a formal safety training program, rather than its primary delivery method. Assess your training portfolio; determine which courses would benefit the most from informal and social learning and deliver them accordingly.

In the end, informal and social learning is “a natural ability,” LeNir says. If you see it happening in your workplace, whether in person or online, “don’t crush it by putting rules and boxes around it.” Encourage it; water it; nurture it; and watch your leaders grow.