In this edition, we look at some common challenges faced by L&D functions when designing effective leadership development programs that deliver practical value in our ever-changing digital world.

The L&D challenge

Business leaders generally agree that, rather than a generic ‘digital era’, we are in fact in the midst of the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the combination of humans, machines, software, hardware, data and services has opened up a new world of business possibilities.

While this has led to a Cambrian explosion of innovation, it also poses a significant challenge to established companies whose organisational structure, working practices, culture and leadership are optimised for traditional business models, designed for operating conditions that are no longer certain, and coming under pressure from both external and internal challenges.

In response to these widely-felt issues, corporate talent and leadership development teams should be racing to develop the mindsets, knowledge, tools and techniques that will help their companies’ leaders to drive the transformation required to embrace the full spectrum of technology innovations and make their companies more resilient, agile and efficient.

In fact, while CHROs nod in agreement, L&D is often stuck in a 1990s world of LMSs, traditional business school programs, blowhard futurists, and HR consultants recycling old PowerPoint decks.

What should modern leadership development look like?

As a starting point, L&D should stop treating ‘digital’ as an exotic add-on to ‘proper’ leadership development programs. Leaders mastering digital ways of working are the single most effective way of pushing a company forward in the foreseeable future, so any leader who refuses to learn how to work digitally should not have a future in the company, period.

Those who are willing to learn (the vast majority, in our experience) should be given plenty of hands-on support in doing so, including access to business-relevant learning journeys supported by a social learning platform rich in practical use cases, templates, tools and techniques, which leaders can experiment with in their respective areas.

All of the learning content should be online and accessible remotely via multiple devices – remote, distributed work is here to stay, so leaders must adapt to this reality in their own development experience. However, online learning does not mean scrolling through endless text, with a quiz and silly badge at the end.

The online learning experience should be carefully blended and delivered through a range of media types and learning modes to suit all learning styles and preferences. Videos, animations, podcasts and discussions should all be part of the mix, alongside more structured curated learning content. Here, the effects of rapid innovation and ed-tech investments will change the learning platform landscape much faster than L&D might be ready for, making existing LMSs obsolete within a few years at most.

In the new leadership learning reality, synchronous learning sessions should be limited to scene-setting and the introduction of big-picture new concepts, placing a much greater emphasis on practice – experiential workshops to try out new things together, bite-size learning prompts and opportunities in the flow of work, ongoing coaching to address specific challenges, and proximity learning by grafting experts into your team to transfer fingertips knowledge, while delivering value. Moving away from ‘classroom’ teaching – whether virtual or otherwise – and towards an iterative, hands-on, experimental approach to capabilities development will pay greater dividends, much faster, than anything else.

What should leaders actually learn?

In short, L&D needs to urgently identify, develop and embed the adaptive capabilities, responsive team structures, agile ways of working, distributed leadership skills and digital mindsets required to lead through a time of constant, tech-driven change and take advantage of the many opportunities afforded by the seismic shifts occurring in the majority of industries. A potentially useful approach is to think in terms of pattern changes. In our personal lives, negative behaviours can be hard to shift until we recognise them for what they are, and make a conscious effort to improve.

In the same way, corporate conditions have spawned negative leadership behaviours, so when it comes to digital transformation the challenge for leaders – especially the more senior ones – is as much about unlearning and learning to learn, as it is about exploring new methods. In our own leadership development work, we tend to focus on five key pattern changes (new leadership behaviours, external perspectives & customer focus, rapid implementation, adaptive org structures, and continuous development), but there are many more – and much more detailed – versions of these, which can be tailored to specific needs.

Finally, we should never expect a leadership learning effort to be as simple as a one-off program with a beginning, middle and end. The goal should be to help build a learning organisation and supporting culture, so leaders need to accept that learning is not something you do occasionally, or just to prepare for new roles. But we also need to remember that, to be successful, this needs to become an evolutionary effort – albeit one occurring at breakneck speed:

“Got a driver’s license? Good! Now, step into this Formula 1 race car.” This was how one executive of a Latin American e-commerce company described the challenge of digital transformation: Many of the tenets of effective leadership are familiar, but everything is happening much, much faster. And the task is not to cross the finish line and turn off the engine, but to get comfortable—as a leader and as a company—with this new pace and the attendant complexities.