Organizations have historically been challenged with finding a way to provide their managers with essential leadership skills in a way that is innovative, accessible, scalable and relevant. With the explosion of learning technologies, how can organizations use them to develop leaders’ interpersonal skills, which are so often difficult to cultivate and measure? They need to create opportunities to reach new generations of leaders with a diverse range of digital needs.

Putting the Person in Interpersonal

We are wired as human beings to connect with and learn from others, and a training approach that eliminates this connection eliminates the most powerful aspect of leadership development. GP Strategies research reinforces this fact: When leaders were asked which development opportunities they value most, 70% of them said mentoring, followed by coaching and classroom training at 65%. Leaders value development opportunities that connect them with others, yet this desire for high-value and high-touch development opportunities can sometimes cause challenges for budget- and time-constrained organizations. It comes as no surprise, then, that organizations look to technology to deliver a leadership development program that is as scalable as it is innovative.

Undoubtedly, technology needs to be a part of the solution, but can it play such a pivotal role when we are talking about leadership skills – fundamental, interpersonal skills? Can technology foster human connection and help leaders model it in a way that is transferable to the living, breathing, feeling employees they lead?

We know that the learner experience needs to mirror the consumer experience. It needs to be available anytime, anywhere and on any device. It needs to reflect a variety of methods, such as video, podcasts, articles and gamification, for learners to interact with the information. Learners expect an interactive and innovative approach. A thoughtful learner experience calls for technology and for human connection – the opportunity for learners to learn, test their assumptions, gain feedback and share with their peers. They key is in making human connection come to life within, and in support of, the technology.

Leadership development skills require trust, communication and emotional intelligence. As learning and development professionals and instructional designers, we ask leaders to be vulnerable and to look at subtleties of human interaction. We are helping them better engage with other human beings. Technology delivers practicality, scalability and cost-efficiency. Both technology and human interaction offer the opportunity to engage and build relationships with others – but in different ways. Is it possible to reconcile them? When we create technology-based solutions, are we meeting learners where they are, or are we leveraging a solution that undermines the core principles of human connection that we are trying to support? Is technology an isolator or a connector?

It’s not technology that makes people lonely or isolated – it’s what they do with it. And it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition – it’s about finding the right balance between technology and in-person interaction.

We can use technology to foster connection in productive ways, particularly with leadership development, but technology is an enabler, not the full answer. Learning technology needs to be engineered to draw the learner in, but e-learning doesn’t always provide the interaction necessary to engage the learner. Technology can invite collaboration. It can provide learners with access to individuals, like coaches, to create a broader network of support than they might not otherwise have. Finally, technology can create community – across time zones, continents and cultures.

Using the Four Cs

Collaborate

Technology can support conversation with other leaders across the organization through discussion threads and online communities. It can be a powerful way to gain different perspectives from learners beyond the ones who might have been present in a smaller classroom-based environment. Technology has the ability to connect individuals across the globe to leaders they might not otherwise get to know, augmenting the in-person experience.

Technology can also draw out more introverted learners who need time to process their responses. Feedback from many learners has confirmed that they are actually more forthcoming in sharing their ideas through technology than they might be in a classroom.

Community

Technology can create a safe space for learners to receive feedback on their leadership strengths and weaknesses. Structured appropriately, it can also provide learners with access to a supportive network of peers. When those peers are part of the same organization, it helps that leaders are sharing what it’s like to apply their leadership skills within a common culture or context. At the same time, they are finding sources of support – people who can help them improve their skills and keep them motivated to continue to hone their skills.

Connect

Smart use of technology in leadership development includes asking learners to draw on their own experiences as leaders and then apply those experiences to the skills they’re learning. In this way, learners gain a personal frame of reference: How have they flexed these skills before, and how did it go? Suddenly, the relevance of what they’re learning intensifies.

Learners also need to be able to connect a more ubiquitous definition of leadership to their organizations’ specific definition. They need to know how their organization gauges leadership success and why this investment in their development is important. They need to connect to the “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM).

Coach

Finally, having a trusted guide and adviser to help reach across the technology is a critical element. The presence of a coach means that learners have a voice of experience providing them with insight, championing their efforts and, ultimately, acting as a source of support to make sure they are on track. The coach, along with the community of peers, sends the message to the learners that they are not alone.

Putting It Into Practice

There is, perhaps, no greater need to foster human connection between a leader and an employee than when they are engaged in coaching. Trust and communication are essential. For example, a large biopharma organization wanted to leverage technology to create a coaching culture across 4,500 managers globally. The concept of reaching across technology for a solution to create and model connection was put to the test.

The challenge was to deploy a new approach to coaching based on the principles of neuroscience, a growth mindset and a feedback-rich culture without bringing leaders together physically. Through a seven-week online experience, managers had the opportunity to learn, practice and apply critical coaching skills through online discussions with their peers, interactions with experts, e-learning courses, videos, podcasts, articles and offline missions with self-reflection. A leadership coach guided learners through the challenges and triumphs they experienced as they applied their skills. By creating a community of learners, connecting the content to personal experiences, encouraging collaboration through interactive tools and providing a coach to guide the learners, the organization was able to shift how managers provided feedback to their employees.

As a result, the company saw an increase in manager capabilities year over year and a significant increase in the use of online resources. While the metrics were impressive, even more remarkable was the level of confidence exhibited by these leaders in effectively coaching their employees to accomplish great results for themselves and on behalf of the organization.

Technology is a necessary element of a thoughtful learning strategy. It can excite and engage learners in innovative ways. It can provide opportunities to scale learning and a common approach to learning that spans the organization. And it can be channeled as a force for good to develop leadership skills – skills that revolve around connection. By reaching across technology and creating a community of collaborative learners, L&D can maintain the human element that is the nucleus of all strong leadership development journeys.

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