The New Age of Leadership Development Starts Now

The world has changed. The way you grow your leaders must, too. Here’s your reinvention plan.

By Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D., and Steve Newman

Two trends have collided in the past year that give us significant pause about how best to develop leaders. First, millennials increasingly have their sights set on leadership roles and are expecting more development of leadership skills earlier and faster. Furthermore, they’ve learned to expect more on-demand learning that is engaging and bite-sized.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated everyone’s comfort with virtual interactions while decreasing the willingness to travel and exploding the amount of content available, once again emphasizing the importance of time. 

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Face-to-face training, conferences, and coaching have all disappeared or gone virtual. A plethora of online, free webinars have sprouted up. Articles on topics like resilience, agility, and leading in troubled times are ubiquitous. Podcasts have increased dramatically. In fact, there’s so much content that it’s hard to know what to read, listen to, or take as sound advice.

We’ve long believed a change in our leadership development practices is overdue. The times have only emphasized the need to rethink what’s most effective, engaging, efficient, and relevant.

What Are the Challenges to Leadership Development?

We know continuous learning is mandatory for career success. No single program, book, or academic degree will prove adequate for any significant change that lies ahead. Developing great leadership is a lifelong journey.

We’ve typically emphasized the outer aspects of leadership—the behaviors, or what’s visible and practiced in public on a day-to-day basis. Today, we see the inner side of leadership—who we are, what we believe and value, what our purpose is in leading others, and how we trust others—is just as important to the leadership development process.

Learning is as much an attitude as a set of skills. More and more, perspectives on the world around us separate good leaders from mediocre ones. Ultimately, leading others means asking the right questions and taking the organization forward to a better future. 

With those challenges in mind, some recent experiences cause us to reflect on our traditional ways of doing leadership development.

Case Study #1: 360 Feedback Makes a Bigger Impact

A large financial services firm canceled a multiday, classroom-based training event due to the pandemic. Because the organization had already collected 360-degree assessments, it was important to give people insights on the feedback.

The firm decided to hold a 2-hour video event that everyone attended virtually, which launched a discussion on great leadership, followed by guidance on interpreting the 360 results. Each person then received their report electronically, followed by a one-on-one coaching session to review the assessment and discuss potential actions.

While the same messages were delivered in different ways for each person, this format made it possible to see what hadn’t been understood and redirect individuals when they were getting stuck or add insight as needed. This necessary redesign appeared to result in at least a 50 percent greater impact than it would have been with the original plan.

Case Study #2: Time Is of the Essence

Focusing on maximum impact for minimum time invested, a large global services firm opted to have each of its key talent receive three coaching sessions rather than meeting as a group in person for one or two modules. Each person received exactly what he or she needed without sitting through hours of group exercises on topics that weren’t very relevant.

With the focus on the value of time, however, some things did get lost. Participants would have benefited from meeting one another. This could have been achieved by bringing small groups together for targeted debates or having large groups meet face to face or virtually, however briefly. 

In addition, there were a couple of content pieces that could have been delivered in 30-minute videos or even a webinar if people wished to be informed. Doing so would have made the coaching more efficient.

Rethinking the reasons why people need to meet as a group, providing high-impact meetings to address specific objectives, and then using each individual’s time for maximum benefit can be a big win for everyone. In our opinion, individuals in this program walked away with more insights and actions than they would have done in any other format. 

Case Study #3: A Powerful Simulation Boosts Storytelling

An organization designed an online simulation for millennials, either in person or via virtual delivery. After being presented with complex career challenges, small groups discussed options and decided on a course of action. 

Each choice had consequences for career, stakeholders’ interests, and time. We found the format to be so highly engaging that the discussion went on much longer than expected. The stories were memorable, the peer connections were strong, and the takeaway was powerful.

The New Age of Leadership Development: What Really Works?

Those examples encouraged us to clarify what makes for great leadership development. What really works? What should we be doing? 

1. Time well used. First and foremost is a deep appreciation of time and its impact on the business. Every leader and potential leader who’s talented is pressed for time. 

There are always hundreds more things one could do that might have a good impact on business results. Plus, everyone is largely doing two or three jobs today, not to mention the time needed for a personal life, sleep, and health.  

Bringing a group of 25 people together for a two-module event over 8 days, 10 hours per day, equals 2,000 hours. We should be asking if we get enough value for that much time or if there’s a better way. 

2. Peer centered. Trading experiences with people in a similar organization at a similar level can be as valuable as the presentation of new ideas or the recycling of old ones. People enjoy hearing how their peers see the world and what they’re doing. 

For women in particular, being in a cohort of other women with whom they share common experiences and concerns, and with whom they’re no longer in the minority, is a huge boost to confidence. They learn their challenges aren’t unique to them as individuals, but rather, the challenges everyone faces. 

3. Practical and applicable stories. People want to hear about tactics and approaches that can be tried immediately and sound plausible in their current organizational climate. At the end of the day, stories work better than any other method. Stories explain what someone did and why, and they capture the emotion, the thinking, and the outcome all at the same time. Plus, they’re memorable. 

Here are some ideas on how to use stories in development:

  • A senior leader shares her struggles at learning delegation. This can be virtual or face to face. 
  • A simulation or game where teams debate options, choose alternatives, and observe consequences. These need to be as complex and realistic as the choices people face at work. Oversimplification risks minimizing applicability.
  • Peer groups discuss a situation, what they’ve done or what they’ve been advised to do, and what happened as a result. These demonstrate how a concept might work within an organizational context. 
  • Virtual reality experiences, while new in leadership development, hold the promise of allowing individuals to try out approaches and immediately see the outcomes.  

4. Spaced over time. Spaced repetition of an idea over time reinforces memory and changes habits.

For example, an assessment like MBTI can be an enormously valuable tool for understanding how others think, process information, and communicate. It makes sense in the moment, but it’s too complex to digest in one session. Revisiting this framework along with implications every few months helps people process it and know how to use it effectively. 

Without the refresh, it becomes a fun exercise participants did once, but can’t recall. We often spend too much time on new content and not enough time applying and refreshing what’s already been introduced.

5. More emphasis on perspective than skill. Being introduced to topics you know little about broadens your worldview. 

For example, learning about current approaches to terrorism and cybersecurity, or discussing the latest in neuroscience with a neuroscientist, makes everyone sharper. The idea is to get leaders asking better questions. 

Plus, perspective helps us broaden our understanding of how others view the world. For example, those with engineering backgrounds love to solve problems and get at the root of things; others may be more comfortable with uncertainty and abstraction. Some seek the rewards of strong group affiliation, while others seek individual attention and recognition.   

6. Balance of inner and outer work. Inner means “What leads me to do and think as I do?” Outer means “What actions do I take with others?” It’s essential that people take the time to think about what has and hasn’t worked for them as leaders with just enough theory or framework to guide meaningful reflection about past experiences. 

This is work best done one on one in a coaching session, whether face to face or virtually. For example, we often target development just so leaders change their behaviors. However, change works best when people first look at their personal beliefs, narratives, and experiences. Helping leaders see what’s being asked may not be inconsistent with their personal values is key to success.  

7. Self-serviceable. Rather than one size fits all, you can explore experiences and perspectives that are needed at that moment and avoid ones that are irrelevant or are already well-developed. 

Self-service is everywhere. LinkedIn offers courses in dozens of leadership topics. Podcasts and webinars abound. People are reaching for the resources they need in real time. And in the Google world, millennials expect answers immediately. 

For example, numerous apps are emerging that allow individuals to post questions and get advice, seek feedback from colleagues, or receive just-in-time tips.  

Why We Must Reimagine Leadership Development 

Ultimately, if what we do in leadership development doesn’t lead to several outcomes—better business results, better retention of employees and customers, better brand, better team performance—then we shouldn’t be doing it. 

Clayton Christensen used to ask businesses to think about what the job was to be done for their customers—i.e., what customers were really hiring a business to do. If we take Christensen’s challenge to heart, we should ask ourselves what the job to be done is when we run a leadership development activity.  

While the customer is the participant, the business leader is paying for the activity, both with cash and time away from other business imperatives. So what’s the job to be done beyond participants having a good experience, feeling cared for by the organization, and developing a broader network? It’s to run a better business, one that… 

  • Minimizes employee replacement costs by keeping the best a little longer and having the best tell their friends about a great place to work.
  • Gets the best out of employees: better engagement, better motivation, better solutions.
  • Leaves people inspired.
  • Fosters and develops new ideas.
  • Encourages people to speak up
  • Helps people feel included.
  • Serves customers.
  • Is profitable.
  • Believes in a better future.

All of those factors come down to leadership. Ultimately, they’re the essential deliverables of great leadership development. 

We believe this is the right time to reimagine leadership development. Development that’s fit for the times will take business impact into account alongside time utilization, peer interactions, practical stories, spaced repetition, perspective (not just skill), inner and outer work, and self-service. Companies that truly deliver will develop our leaders of the future.

Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D., managing partner of Leadership Forum LLC, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership capability. She specializes in helping women (and men) get to the top and thrive, as well as helping managers build truly inclusive cultures. She is the author of You Can’t Know It All:  Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise and the host of the weekly podcast/radio show Out of the Comfort Zone

Steve Newman is a teacher, trainer, and program director for executive development. He has spent the bulk of his career devoted to innovating  educational opportunities that broaden the capabilities of senior and next-generation executives at leading companies. He has designed and led programs on five continents.