In today’s workplace, effective leadership is a must. But how do you develop leaders at all levels quickly, effectively and affordably?

Some forward-focused organizations are using a scalable, “in-the-flow” approach that makes on-the-job experiences central to development. To do this, they are investing in a range of learning technologies — from talent management platforms to user-driven feedback tools and coaching chatbots.

Despite the power of these new tools, it’s important to do your homework before investing. Only when you apply the right technologies in the right way can you make leadership development better, faster and more accessible. Based on our recent work at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), here are eight research-based strategies that can help:

1. Focus on Challenging Assignments

Challenging job assignments provide a wide-range of developmental experiences. But how can you ensure that leaders receive the personalized, in-the-flow support that drives development?

Today’s talent management systems can help. Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), these tools embed leadership development into workforce planning by integrating skills assessment data, challenging assignments, and learning interventions. They connect leaders to projects, roles, people and resources based on their background and career goals.

To maximize your investment:

  • Look for patterns: Use talent management systems to collect real-time information from leaders on lessons learned from job challenges. This data helps you understand the experiences needed to accelerate leadership development outcomes across your organization.
  • Set up marketplaces: Store stretch assignment opportunities online and tag them with required skills, making it easy for leaders to find and pursue challenging assignments independently.

2. Promote Learning Agility

Leaders with learning agility embrace new challenges and are comfortable with change and innovation. Companies with learning-agile leaders often exhibit higher profit margins.

Online assessments help leaders measure their learning agility and personalize their development. New simulation platforms help them embrace the unexpected through challenging virtual scenarios where they can practice their responses and learn from experience.

To maximize your investment:

  • Pay attention to culture: Create a psychologically safe context where risk-taking and exploration are encouraged so learning agility can thrive.
  • Make the most of failures: Adopt simulation tools that deliver real-time feedback so leaders can “fail fast” in a safe context. Build collective agility by promoting collaboration across these digital platforms.

3. Clarify Learning Goals

Studies show that setting specific goals leads to better performance. One example: Leaders who establish improvement goals are viewed as more effective in those areas several months later.

Unfortunately, leaders often struggle to set goals on their own — even when with “how-to” training or coaching. New digital goal-setting applications can help by deconstructing the goal-setting process into bite-sized steps and navigating leaders through a series of questions. The tool uses that information to create a clear and measurable goal statement.

To maximize your investment:

  • Encourage meaningful goal setting: Ask leaders to share their goals with their manager, mentor, coach, human resources (HR) business partner or other trusted individual. Encourage discussions about how those goals will contribute to both the leader’s and the organization’s success.
  • Share outcomes: Adopt tech tools that allow leaders to share their progress publicly. When individuals seek feedback on goals in a public context, success is more likely.

4. Provide Real-time Feedback

Regular feedback motivates and supports development by helping leaders recognize when behavioral changes or new skills are needed. However, the key to maximizing learning in-the-flow is real-time feedback.

User-driven feedback applications deliver quick, targeted feedback that provides leaders with behavioral insights and engages others in their development. Most importantly, these tools give leaders a voice in what they get feedback on, from whom, and when, all of which increase the leader’s commitment to development. In addition to “in the moment” feedback, most feedback apps also allow individuals to send automated feedback requests at recurring intervals.

To maximize your investment:

  • Build a strong foundation: Before investing in feedback tools, teach the fundamentals of giving, receiving and acting on feedback. This will help create a productive context for using feedback tools.
  • Set leaders up for success: Prepare your leaders for how to digest the information they receive. Supportive resources help leaders take constructive action to achieve their goals.

5. Provide Easy Access to Expert Knowledge

Serving up the right information at the right time helps individuals become better leaders amidst the day-to-day demands of the job. But speed and ease of access are important. That’s why information must be personalized and available on demand to support daily workflow.

Consider tools that use spaced repetition to help leaders internalize what they learn or AI-powered bots that respond to real-time requests for leadership advice.

To maximize your investment:

  • Provide a content store: Set up an information repository that supports leaders throughout their development journey. But use this as only one element of development and don’t assume learning can be reduced to a single online course.
  • Curate as you go: To avoid information overload, focus on relevant, baseline content. Then, use a dashboard to identify search trends amongst your leaders.

6. Encourage Reflection

Reflection gives leaders an opportunity to think through experiences, explore perspectives and apply what they’ve learned in new ways. There are many tech tools to promote reflection – from digital journaling apps to analytics that can help leaders reflect.

To maximize your investment:

  • Start with the basics: Encourage leaders to schedule reflection time. Employ a subscription-based listserv that suggests reflection topics aligned to your strategy.
  • Set an example: Start team meetings with reflection. Employ after-action reviews to collaboratively explore the behaviors and mindsets that contributed to specific outcomes.

7. Provide Social Support

Social support networks provide the affirmation, perspective, and engagement leaders need to fuel their development. New tech-based networking tools make it easier for leaders to meet, share, and learn.

AI-driven audio and video analytics also support leaders as they develop “micro” skills. With these new tools, leaders can practice in front of virtual avatars and receive instant feedback on their delivery and content.

To maximize your investment:

  • Fold AI-driven coaching and social support technologies into in your digital workspaces where leaders can access them easily alongside existing productivity tools.
  • Promote adoption: Use your existing collaboration channels to promote adoption by discussing experiences and lessons learned with social support technologies.

8. Dial Down the Stress

Stress is a persistent challenge for today’s leaders. Wearable fitness devices and smart watches provide leaders with real-time data on how stress impacts their heart rate and blood pressure – reminding them to stop, breathe and regain a sense of calm.

To maximize your investment:

  • Make it easy: Look for wearables with easy-to-understand metrics and dashboards.
  • Make the right match: Select science-based devices that fit into your broader leadership development curriculum. Avoid wearables designed for special populations (e.g., military, athletes).

In Conclusion

These eight research-based practices provide a road map for developing leaders quickly, effectively and affordably at scale. Leadership development is also most successful when presented with a clear storyline and trajectory. So be thoughtful about how you marry the “in-the-flow” tech solutions you select with “out-of-flow” development like formal training. An integrated approach ensures highly personalized and cohesive experiences that produce greater impact.

To maximize your investment:

  • Begin with the end: Before designing development, understand what you want to achieve. Select technologies that will produce better development outcomes than the status quo.
  • Enrich your offerings: Create a matrix with learning practices for each leader level. This high-level audit can help you find the right mix of in-flow and out-of-flow development with the right supporting technologies – ensuring you get more from your technology investment.

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