Leadership development needs to reflect the changing needs of both the organization and the workforce. Strategies should incorporate things such as soft skills development and blended learning opportunities that include immersive, virtual, digital, and in-person options.
Organizational leaders face so many challenges today. They need agility, to lead through sudden disruptions, communication skills to engage employees who have expectations about employer deliverables, decision-making skills, team building and collaborative skills, and strategic thinking skills for creative problem solving and future planning, to name but a few. Leaders should also have emotional intelligence, as today’s leaders need hard and soft skills, and the traditional approaches to leadership development are not designed to incorporate both. The traditional approach involved activities such as workshops and training programs that are more focused on hard skills. A more effective approach is to identify leadership hard and soft skills gaps, then design development strategies that include modern approaches, such as a blend of virtual, digital, in-person, and immersive experiences with a people focus.
WANTED: LEADERS WITH STRONG SOFT SKILLS
The most in-demand leadership skills include skills such as communication, collaboration, problem-solving, conflict resolution, coaching, and relationship building, agility, adaptability, and creativity. Notice that these skills are soft skills. Traditional development programs usually focused on hard skills, such as financial analysis and project management, leaving leaders woefully unprepared to lead the modern organization – one that typically has a flat structure and an empowered workforce expecting leaders to be enablers and not just command-and-control managers.
It is not difficult to teach hard skills, and many of those skills are now automated, such as producing analytics and tech-based project management. Soft skills are people-focused. It is more challenging to help managers develop skills such as empathetic and creative problem-solving aligned with organizational goals, or utilizing emotional intelligence for team building, or guiding a workforce through a crisis. The best way to learn how to interact with people as a leader is to interact with people. For this reason, leader development strategies are more successful when they give leaders opportunities for immersive experiences, interactive programs, virtual facilitated meetings, and face-to-face sessions.
DELIVERING INTERACTIVE OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN PEOPLE SKILLS
The best development opportunities close skills gaps, and today that means leaders need to learn the skills and capabilities they can apply when managing people. In the past, online learning opportunities were static, in that information was presented and the leader consumed it. The only human interactions were in workshops and face-to-face meetings. However, it is difficult to learn soft skills such as collaboration and employee communication when not presented with real-world scenarios. It is also difficult to learn the particular soft skills of most importance to both the leader and their organization.
Technology now enables customizable learning environments. Though digital and virtual may sound similar, there is a difference. A virtual learning experience uses simulations online, creating a virtual world where interactions can take place. For example, the manager can lead a virtual diverse project team, learning problem-solving and inclusion strategies. A digital development experience uses a combination of technology tools, including livestreams, chat, interactive webinars, , simulive video and so on. A simulive video is a pre-recorded webinar (video), but the instructor can interact with the leader during the session.
Making leadership development relevant is a priority, and this requires personalization. The hybrid learning experience is one of the most effective leadership development strategies. This approach means using a combination of face-to-face and virtual development programs. This approach reflects the real-world environment of leadership in which managers will lead in-house and remote teams. The creation of a large remote workforce has changed the leadership development needs. The global leadership training company Abilitie addresses the challenges of a remote workforce that are still being identified and resolved. For example, how do you signal interest in remote employees with high-potential for leadership? An excellent way is offering virtual and digital learning opportunities, demonstrating the company both plans on retaining them and will invest resources now and in the future. This has huge implications for advancing the inclusion of people of color and women in the remote workforce in leadership development programs.
Providing immersive learning is important, because it is effective on many levels. It is active learning that can be delivered in a personalized and impactful way. Personalization is necessary, because people need contextual training based on their individual current needs. Accenture proposes a reinvention of immersive learning and development programs by incorporating advanced technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR). By using cloud and next-generation mobile networks, employee development can be democratized.
LEARNING PEOPLE SKILLS THROUGH PEOPLE
Assessing the leader’s development needs is always the first step. Organizations need to adapt to continual change today, and different skills are needed at different times. For example, a company undergoing a transformation to a digital organization requires different leaders to develop a different set of people management skills. Perhaps a business is in the process of merging with a competitor, and the managers from both firms need to strengthen collaboration skills.
Utilizing technology to deliver leadership development opportunities should also be balanced with face-to-face opportunities. The best way to develop the soft skills needed to manage a diverse work force is to engage in conversations and interactions with people. Online development becomes the foundation for holding more meaningful and deeper discussions on skills application in the organization, role playing, and using situations the leader has experienced on the job.
In Training Industry Magazine, Sanjay Advani recommends online learning between in-person events to develop the continuous learning journey. Advani offers tips to amplify leadership training that include encouraging online leadership networking for sharing best practices, webinars and conference calls, bite-size learning, and bringing together different perspectives from diverse voices into the development program through the use of technology. He also recommends reaching leadership programs down to the frontline leaders, and using technologies such as voice memo or webcam video to answer specific leader questions. These are just a few of the suggestions, with the main point being that modern leadership development must be relevant, on-demand, easy to access, democratized, and treated like a journey and not an endpoint.
PREPARING TO LEAD INTO THE FUTURE
Developing leadership’s hard and soft skills through an impactful effort requires technology and people interactions. Leadership development should be forward-thinking too, offering leaders access to information for current decision-making and preparing them to lead in the future. Each organization will determine which mix of technology-based learning tools and face-to-face development will work best, and the variety of options available today makes customizing and adaptability much easier.