The pandemic has put a stop to leadership development as we knew it. The future of leadership development is now – we need to rethink and find more creative ways to develop our leaders and grow our organisations for the future.

Traditionally leadership development was something we did face to face. We brought groups of people together, immersed them in a new experience, encouraged them to support each other and generally learn and grow together. After all – being a leader is all about relationships and rapport, it makes sense to develop in groups rather than on your own.

For some organisations, all this stopped in March when we stopped being able to “be” together in person. Organisations also saw their revenue stop or dramatically drop bringing cash flow to the forefront and cost reduction became vital. But after this initial period of crisis management, we’re now starting to realise that the job of leaders has become more demanding than ever. It’s that paradox of balancing return-to-work plans and adjusting work processes for the short-term recovery, whilst also determining longer term transformations to bounce back in the future. What does this mean for leadership development?

Now is the time to double down on leadership development.

If the job is getting tougher, then surely, we need to invest further in development? And I don’t think anyway could argue that leadership is easier – we’re operating in such a volatile environment that this generation of leadership may not have previously experienced. So how do we double down on leadership development in a time where revenue is uncertain, cash flow is crucial and operational costs are being reduced?

Leadership Development needs to adopt and move with the times.

I think this is the make-it-or-break-it moment for the future of leadership development. To do this, we need to embrace a broader range of learning options including virtual and digital learning. We are not going to be able to learn together and face to face for a while, but we can’t simply “move” what we have into a zoom call. We can’t simply substitute technology for current approaches. We – Leadership Development and Organisational Development professionals – also need to move with the times and avoid grasping at all this wonderfully appealing technology and using it to deliver the same old stuff…

So, if you’ve made the decision to invest in the development of your leaders and organisation, here’s my advice on how to rethink, and be creative ways in developing leaders and grow your organisations for the future:

1. Be clear on the ultimate goals of behaviour change and leadership performance.

This is important for all development activities, but in my experience, it is often forgotten about. When budgets are tighter and performance even more critical, we should focus even more on this. So, before you start anything – be clear on what behaviours you want to see MORE of in your organisation or leadership team; AND what business metrics you need to see improving. For example …

“To increase the number of First Contact Resolutions, by improving our leaders ability to enforce necessary performance levels with compassion.

The learning needs to focus on how leaders set performance expectations, review those expectations, give feedback on those expectations…. But also, how they build rapport, show empathy, listen to understand…

It’s clear and should run through the development from start to finish. But most importantly, it shows how the business will benefit. In a strong economy, companies may still be successful even with relatively ineffective leaders. But in tight times, organisations every leader needs to be their best, and every department needs to show how they are enabling that.

2. Avoid doing the same thing – just online instead.

I feel the learning and development industry have been slow to adopt technology, even before Covid-19. Some practitioners are still rolling out the same content and in the same way, as they did 10 years ago. The best I’ve heard of is holding a Leadership Development Centre online. Still using the same scenarios, group exercises and individual interviews; and still using observers to record and interpret participants behaviours and responses. Why? Because this is how they have always measured leadership capabilities, it’s just done remotely now.

If your objective is “run a development centre for my leaders”. Good idea, a develop centre can help you understand individuals leadership strengths and areas to work on. It can also help the individuals understand more about their own strengths and development areas. But it is time consuming (for participants and observers) costly (requires a lot of observers and “writing up” time) and still has the problem of human biases. Let alone the difficulties of social distancing.

Reframe this situation – I want to “understand my organisation’s leadership capabilities”. Then consider the numerous profiling tools available that allow you to profile one to hundreds of participants without leaving their desks. You also don’t need observers and there is far less human bias involved. Quicker. Cheaper. More effective. Able to produce and analyse large volumes of data.

3. Don’t underestimate the social and collaborative elements of traditional learning.

I’m not suggesting that classroom learning will be a thing of the past – and we should not get rid of classroom learning in favour of on-demand online learning. People will continue to seek out opportunities to connect and learn in person. So, we need to start with our participant’s human needs in mind, and leverage technology to fulfill those human needs. We are inherently social animals and need to be around other people like us.

In the short term, when we have to socially distance, virtual classrooms can help fulfill some of those social needs. Online classrooms need to include much more breakout times, discussion times and times to debate and share experiences with each other. At Blue Grape we use digital resources to introduce our participants to new topics, models and theory BEFORE our webinars. Leaving our webinar time wholly focused on exploring topics in greater depth, practicing skills and behaviours and generally figuring out how to apply those topics to their day to day work. The webinar is packed full of collaborative learning and building social interactions. That’s using technology whilst still creating real behaviour change in leaders.

So what do we do?

The future of leadership development is now.  So, Leaders and Development professionals out there, here’s my calling to you. Leadership development is even more crucial now. To emerge out of this crisis we need capable leaders equipped for the future. We can still do this, on our smaller budgets, without compromising on the quality of the development. We simply need to give up some of our traditional beliefs about “how development should be done”, be open to different technological solutions; and don’t let development drop down the priority list as budgets get tighter.