According to the Global Leadership Forecast 2021, a whopping 55% of CEOs are preoccupied with the problem of developing the next generation of leaders. While traditional approaches to leadership training (such as physical classroom sessions and dedicated workshops) have huge takers, the pandemic has rendered them unworkable for many organizations for the immediate future.

Leadership is taking on the challenge to motivate colleagues to move forward — the challenge here is in guiding people and helping them to see their potential value in the future. Leadership and related areas are top priorities for learning and development (L&D) units and top management as organizations battle the pandemic and its effects, including hybrid working and virtual teams.

Leadership training — along with onboarding and technical training — is in the spotlight as it is a difficult subject to move online. Leadership training calls for collaboration, peer-to-peer interaction, supervision, coaching and feedback. Most organizations conducted leadership training in a physical setting before the pandemic.

Adding to the challenge is the need to get learners (leadership trainees) acquainted with new technology — particularly the various software and platforms that are increasingly being used to facilitate virtual instructor-led training (VILT) sessions. This is compounded by these platforms evolving to offer more, sometimes on a daily basis.

Let’s explore some insights into using online training (with an emphasis on VILT) to ensure uninterrupted leadership development without losing the effectiveness of the human interaction afforded by the classroom.

How Do Organizations Traditionally Train for Leadership?

Heres’ a snapshot of three likely scenarios for leadership training programs in organizations:

  • A training program to nurture new or first-time managers.
  • A training program for managers of managers.
  • A career development program for high-potential emerging leaders.

While each of these cater to different groups of learners, it is undeniable that leadership training is in equal measure an art and a science. It involves a lot of behavioral components and soft skills. That brings us to the next question.

Is Online/Virtual Training Effective?

Online learning is like any other modality: It’s only as good as the design and setting allow it to be. Online learning can work for leadership development and actually be a more effective modality for certain purposes, but the design needs to be carefully considered, given the modality and learning objectives.

Virtual learning is flexible and can save time for subject matter experts (SMEs) (as well as everyone else involved). It can be effective in many ways and for a multitude of audiences although some may have a harder time focusing. The ability to learn in a virtual world is an acquired skill. The challenge is that most people need human-to-human connection and interaction to stay engaged. This is where a blended learning program can help.

Can the Virtual Delivery Work for Leadership Training?

Absolutely! Technology plays a key role in both enhancing and supporting the delivery of a great learning experience.

Key challenges involve helping participants stay active and engaged, creating a sense of community and connection across a cohort, and keeping materials and tools as simple as possible.

And there are certain misconceptions: that you can’t possibly keep people engaged for longer sessions, that it’s impossible to build connections and networking opportunities and that virtual delivery is inferior to in-person delivery. However, most of these can be overcome with good design.

Designing a Winning Virtual Leadership Training Program

While there are certain challenges, such as limitations of technology, short attention spans, lack of facilitator knowledge and varying levels of ability with digital interactive tools, virtual training is the way ahead.

It cuts down the effort and expense needed to get experts onboard every time. Use eLearning courses that can be reused for different groups for learners. Record your virtual sessions and offer snippets as ready reckoners, post training.

Using Virtual Training for Leadership Development


eLearning courses — whether standalone or configured as curricula — can be used to provide knowledge. In fact, they make a good predecessor to VILT sessions by covering the theoretical frameworks and concepts.

eLearning courses can also be used post VILT sessions to offer learners a chance to practice the skills component in the form of scenario-based modules.

Microlearning modules can be used to:

  • Push learning in spaced intervals to improve retention.
  • Pull learning resources that learners can access on-demand from the learning management system or internal portals.
  • Deliver job aids such as PDFs and charts.
  • Check and assess recall at periodic intervals in stress-free formats.


Virtual instructor-led training (VILT) is becoming an indispensable part of leadership training, as it’s commonly considered a close substitute for face-to-face training. However, the challenge lies in designing material to replicate the classroom and getting learners familiar with technology.

To address the latter, it’s better to organize a couple of “Getting Started” webinars to build familiarity. It’s also better to have a host/moderator assist the instructor in conducting the sessions.

Here are a few guidelines on replicating leadership training in the virtual space.

  • Reconsider the learning objectives and decide what needs to be covered via VILT.
  • Decide on the optimal duration of each session. It is recommended to have short VILT sessions, interspersed with breaks.
  • Design collaborative activities to capture classroom exercises — breakouts can be used to let learners collaborate, work on small projects or complete workbooks.
  • Build rapport prior to the session in virtual lobbies — these can be made fun by asking participants to introduce themselves via their pet or favorite superhero.
  • Assess participation and moderate the pace of the session using interventions such as polls, chat, whiteboards and annotations.
  • Have small, manageable groups for collaboration.

Building a Blended Learning Program for Leadership Training

Using a mix of online modalities can help you build a strong blended learning framework for leadership training. Here’s a virtual road map you can try:

  • VILT for group exercises, discussions or one-on-one mentoring.
  • Virtual workshops for skill building.
  • eLearning for self-study — branching scenarios for problem-solving, case studies for conflict resolution.
  • Online forums for one-on-one coaching.
  • Podcasts by experts and thought leaders.

Tips for Designing Effective Virtual Leadership Training Programs

Don’t skip a pilot or test run — especially for virtual instructor-led training sessions. Get SMEs onboard and partner with experts in the design and development of VILT materials. Train your trainers to conduct what they’ve been doing — over a different medium, with new technology.

Leverage the bookend blended learning model, where VILT or one-on-one coaching sessions are preceded and followed by online training. Where eLearning can be used for self-study, utilize microlearning for practice.

Spaced repetition. Practice opportunities can be spread across weeks to negate the effect of the forgetting curve, and to nurture a sense of belonging, networking and continuity.

forgetting curve and mentoring opportunities can be arranged virtually on online forums or scheduled in small group meetings with the facilitator for follow-ups.

Organize webinars for common, straightforward topics that need a lot of collaboration — this will help disseminate knowledge faster and in a more consistent manner. It’s also a great way to reduce the costs and logistics associated with classroom training.

Videos are a great way to offer on-demand learning — whether getting seasoned managers to share their tips and success stories or recording your instructors in action.

Parting Thoughts

There’s no magical one-size-fits-all solution. Put together a virtual program that works best for your learner demographics and organizational goals.

Do not develop content alone: Engage with business leaders and SMEs from within the organization. Make it diverse (different audiences and content) and fun. Keep pushing it forward and gaining sponsorship from top leaders. Promote successes. Define clearly what will be done in virtual platforms and what will not.