As learning and development professionals, we have it all wrong!

We have spent countless hours on designing and delivering training courses and programs that emphasize the need to address skills gaps. While skills are indeed critical for employee and manager development, skills alone will not suffice when addressing business challenges that include improving performance, leading change, managing risk and reputation, and driving results. The solution requires an intentional focus on two important factors in leadership development programming: emotional engagement and vertical development.

Emotional Engagement

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins shared a thought-provoking theory in a recent keynote. He made a compelling case for the importance of aligning emotional engagement with personal growth. He asked attendees to think back to what they were doing the morning of September 11 — the tragic day that changed America. The crowd grew silent and humbled as they recalled their explicit thoughts surrounding the day’s events and perhaps their exact whereabouts.

After a few moments, he asked the same audience to think back to what they were doing the morning of August 11 — a random day for most people. As he predicted, most attendees had not the slightest idea. His point was well-taken. He believes that we tend to remember experiences that engage our emotions — both desirable and undesirable — and that those experiences can promote or stunt our growth.

This lesson is important for L&D professionals as we question how much of the training that we design and deliver actually evokes a positive emotion — one that will provoke participants to eagerly transfer what they have learned to their respective roles. It becomes a real challenge when participants attend the training out of obligation rather than authentic desire to learn and grow. Equally disappointing is the lack of post-training support these presumably already disengaged attendees receive from their managers.

What if we were to rethink our design process to trigger emotions that create a lasting positive impression and a call to action? If we can remember bad training experiences, so can our participants. The same goes for our recollection of good training. The central theme across both experiences are the emotions that felt, causing us to classify the training as effective or ineffective.

Vertical Development

Similar to engaging the right emotion is designing activities that support training transfer. While technical and soft skills training are both critical to on-the-job performance, most organizational talent can benefit from having more opportunities to learn and apply critical thinking and creative problem-solving with their internal or external peer groups. These two vehicles of learning imply the need for stretch assignments, or vertical development.

Scholars Petrie and Leslie of the Center for Creative Leadership define vertical development as the stages that people progress through and how they make sense of the world. They assert that this self-taught skill is usually best simulated when a person has reached a peak in his or her current thinking patterns and is forced to adopt new perspectives in order to overcome a sense of complacency.

Here lies another opportunity for L&D professionals: to author and recommend development activities that require collaboration, cross-functional communication and the freedom to innovate. Whether the modality is formal learning programs, microlearning, on-the-job training or all of the above, we must be intentional about tying the activity back to a real challenge the learner will be expected to confidently conquer.

Skills and competencies are great, and we should consider them a part of employees’ professional development. The greater value, however, is creating development opportunities for application not just in the classroom but, more importantly at the right time, the right place and with the right audiences after the classroom experience.