Talk about VUCA! If the internet, globalization, climate change, the war for talent and the millennial generation hadn’t done enough to contribute to a complex world, along came 2020. Last year bought a global pandemic, associated economic devastation and forced social isolation. Throw in Brexit. Now, sprinkle some political and social unrest, and the recipe is complete. “VUCA” hardly does justice to our recent experience. All of us have been tested, but especially leaders.
The capabilities required for leadership have always been complex, nuanced and highly contextual. Effective leadership in times of crisis is different from the leadership required to make trains run on time. Today, more than ever, our training and development strategies need to respond to meet the moment.
How can we ensure that our training strategy meets the needs of the future? It has to deliver the right skills, and we have to stand it up quickly. Time is not our friend. With that challenge in mind, here are four steps to rethink your strategy.
Step 1: Determine Your Focus Areas
Your first step is to review your offering and ask if it is fit for your purpose. By “purpose,” we don’t mean “managing in the virtual environment.” Rather, we are talking about other, complex and difficult-to-develop skills. These skills have always existed, but today, they are differentiators — more likely than ever to determine success. Think of resilience: While always helpful, it is table stakes today. “Strategic agility” evolved from a differentiator to a prerequisite, while “creating meaning” is increasingly understood as a core leadership skill.
There is another class of skills, for which the recent past has probably rendered current training content redundant. Organizations have always taught about culture as a critical part of a leader’s role. But building a cohesive culture in a virtual environment, or with gig workers, or while widely disparate views exist outside of work, still isn’t the subject of most training today.
How will you determine the skills your organization needs? You can review your current catalogue and consider whether it is enough. You can use our list of critical skills. You could even start with a comprehensive set of competencies and sort them from most to least important. The question is the same: Is this skill one that leaders need now, more than ever?
Step 2: Align With the Business
It isn’t enough to identify emerging skills, however. You’ll need alignment and support if you are to amend or supplement your existing leadership training with new programs and approaches. Building new capabilities will require focus and, possibly, resources. As a result, executives must be clear on the implications of not future-proofing the organization and its teams.
Organizations differ in their realization of the need for change. You may hear from your C-suite or your employees phrases like, “This will blow over,” “We need to wait it out” or, “We’ve been through this before.” These organizations believe that, like the COVID-19 pandemic, “this too shall pass.” For other organizations, the challenge is not how to wait it out but to figure out where to start. In either case, your job is to create awareness.
The remedy for both lack of awareness and lack of prioritization is a conversation. Through discussion, you build alignment and, ideally, reach a consensus. In pursuit of that alignment, you can use a simple template in your discussions with leaders:
In your conversation, introduce leaders to the competencies you see emerging as strategic differentiators, and share your assessment of the difficulty or ease of building these skills. Ask leaders to rate the extent to which the skills exist in their team today and how important they will be in the future. After talking to individual leaders, bring groups back together to share aggregated data, discuss differences of views and encourage consensus around the most burning priorities.
This tool can help build alignment on direction, and the dialogue is more valuable than the rating, because it educates. With raised awareness, you can start building alignment as you discuss current state and future requirements. By facilitating the process and triggering these types of conversations, you also build your reputation as a business-focused, proactive professional.
Step 3: Identify Solutions for the Future
You have a mandate, and leaders are aligned. What now? Look inward, and review your existing development solutions to determine what needs to change.
Taking a structured approach to rethinking your training portfolio will help you dispassionately audit what you currently offer. It’s difficult to be critical of your own work and to drop programs that have been successful. It can also be tempting to gravitate to in-house solutions. Let urgency be your friend; having convinced leaders that these skills will help future-proof your organization, you will need a high-quality solution quickly.
With your team, take a look at each of your future state capabilities using the training audit matrix below. If your current offering covers a capability, great! But if it doesn’t, ask yourself two questions:
- Content: Do you have subject matter experts (SMEs) within the organization with the capacity to support the urgent development of new training?
- Delivery: Do you have the digital capability you need to deliver the content in high-impact, virtual training solutions (because the trend is here to stay)?
Let’s consider an example: Communities increasingly place greater social responsibility expectations on companies. You haven’t educated leaders in this topic before, but you have a first-class public relations team that is excited by the prospect of raising leader awareness of the opportunities and challenges of managing the public face of the company. Leaders don’t need to be experts, but they need basic knowledge. You can train on this topic in a short virtual format, and after an assessment, you determine that you have the content and the technology to go forward.
By contrast, consider the skill of leading through ambiguity. It’s a difficult skill to develop, requiring self-awareness and nimble decision-making that depends on personal attitudes toward risk and uncertainty. You are likely to require leaders to practice these skills between classes and to debrief on what they learn. Your audit reveals that the content expertise on this topic isn’t available in house, and neither is the technical functionality you will need to deliver this solution. As a result, it is almost certainly better to outsource this program.
Step 4: Build Accountability
It is not enough for training solutions to be effective. Business leaders need to be accountable for implementation and application. Accountability is the extent to which leaders face consequences for their actions in future-proofing their teams. Both parties need skin in the game.
Accountability has two aspects: Leaders must ensure that their team is trained, and they must expect their team members to practice their new skills, supporting them with feedback and coaching. There can be little a training organization can do if leaders snub offerings or model the very opposite of the behaviors a training program is teaching. But there are strategies that can help.
Firstly, leverage the alignment you achieved through the diagnostic tool in step 2. For example, include measures or milestones against progress. Commit to reviewing progress with the leaders who identified the gaps. Doing so signals that the training organization is prepared to be accountable, but it also shines the light of transparency on anyone who is not actively participating.
Consider reconvening the leaders around six months into the journey. Organize a workshop, and have leaders assess their own progress. That progress will consolidate commitment by creating a sense of achievement and pride. You could also profile leaders or teams that have made great progress, building the local business case.
Take Advantage of This Moment!
Things are difficult right now, but we need to start the conversation. Over time, this four-step process will deepen alignment and commitment and build a sense of urgency. Your revised strategy might require a change. Maybe you’ll need new providers. Maybe you’ll need to outsource a technology solution. But you will identify the best strategy for jump-starting skills development.
Prepare to activate your team. Hold yourself and your leaders accountable to measurable deliverables. You will be glad for the heightened sense of accountability.
2020 was a challenging year for us all. Now, employees, leaders and organizations are looking forward to a better year. Why not use this time to position learning and development as core to making your organization ready for the future?
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders like Angela and Sergey.