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The One-Word Question that Defines Effective Leadership Training

6/24/2020

Janice Burns

in BLOG

There’s one key question that many people skip as they plan for effective leadership training, but it’s critical to success.

Microcourses. Virtual reality. Self-study online learning. Virtual classrooms. Mobile learning. Podcasts. In our goals to develop the most effective leadership training program we can, it’s easy to get caught up in the technology.  

We might focus on how many courses are in a learning library, hoping leaders will take lots of them. Or we might assume that leaders want everything to be on their phones. Or we might just want to try out cool virtual reality. 

There’s nothing wrong with any of these options. Depending on the situation, these could all be viable solutions. However, the problem is they’re focused on how to deliver training. But the real question you need to ask first is, “What?” 

Yes, that little one-word question often gets left out. Yet it’s the most fundamental question that determines whether you’ll end up with an effective leadership training program or wasting your leaders’ time. 

Great technology doesn’t equal effective leadership training 

Start with this “what” question: What is are you trying to accomplish by using technology-delivered learning? Is it because you think your learners want it? Or is it because you think it’s what you’re supposed to be doing? 

Your reason for leveraging technology must run deeper than just trying to keep up with the latest learning trends. You must have a purpose. To determine yours, begin with questions that start with the end in mind: 

  • What must you do to transform your leaders to transform your business? 
  • What behaviors do your leaders need to consistently demonstrate to engage employees, impact your customers, and support your business strategy? 

Once you have an end goal, you can work backwards to put the pieces in place to get your leaders where you need them to be. Some of those pieces may be grounded in technology, but not necessarily all of them. This approach to combining tech-enabled learning with live learning experiences is called a blended learning approach. 

Ideally, blended learning should unfold over a period of time, which is known as a learning journey. Our Global Leadership Forecast showed that companies that use a blended learning journey approach are 2.5 times more likely to be financially successful than organizations that use more traditional methods. They’re also 2.9 times more likely to have strong leaders. 

But these results don’t mean that technology itself creates more effective leadership training. It’s about using the right technology for the right purpose. 

Right technology, right purpose 

Every technology delivers a specific benefit and specific experience. So L&D professionals need to start by asking, “What goals will this specific technology support?” 

For example, if you want to deliver a highly emotional experience that changes leaders’ perspectives, it might be the right moment to try something like virtual reality. VR technology helps to create empathy by giving leaders experiences of being in a new situation. As a result, it can by uniquely useful for conversations around things like diversity and inclusion.  

Or if you want to give a boost to an existing leadership program, you might consider microlearning. These short bursts of learning can be things like 15-minute courses, games, or videos that offer quick information on a topic. These types of learning aren’t appropriate for complex topics or to deliver real behavior change. But they are ideal to engage leaders in between longer learning events and to take deeper dives on related topics.  

Amid all the technology, you might be wondering where the traditional classroom falls. For many companies, one of the key goals of leadership development is to drive connections between leaders. Those connections are what help to not only change individuals, but your culture. 

And research supports that leaders love to learn with and from one another – even younger leaders. In fact, research from our Frontline Leader Project showed that 59 percent of all frontline leaders want more formal classroom learning. Surprisingly, that number is even higher (65 percent) among millennial leaders. 

Of course, in today’s physically distanced world, even classroom learning relies on technology. Not wanting to stop their programs, most companies are making the switch to virtual classrooms.  

Virtual classrooms are an area where the technology should be focused on enabling human connection. It should be nothing like a webinar, or having a facilitator simply lecture the group. Rather, the technology should enable people to do what they would do in a real classroom. Break into small groups. Practice with a partner. Whiteboard ideas. And most of all, connect with each other. 

In every case, it’s about using the right technology to answer what you really want your leaders to experience. 

You need to determine where to start 

So, what’s the best way to go about designing effective leadership training? First, decide on your goal—the “what.” What are you seeking to accomplish? This could be anything from developing frontline leaders who are better coaches to driving diversity and inclusion to leading virtual teams. 

Another consideration: Is there a sense of urgency related to a critical company initiative or to stock and grow your leadership pipeline? 

Once you have a clear vision for the end state and how quickly you need to get there, then—and only then—should you begin to figure out how you are going to do it. 

What do your leaders really need? 

Armed with answers to the “What?” question—tied directly to your business priorities— then you are ready to determine the technologies to use and how best to use them to ensure your development investments are optimally effective. For example, how can leaders use their mobile devices to access just-in-time tools and reinforcement? How can microcourses help personalize their experience? 

And don’t forget the old, but important adage—practice makes perfect. 

You can teach your learners every skill in the proverbial leadership book, but without the opportunity to practice those skills before applying them on the job, well, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. 

It’s just like playing the piano. Your parents may have put you through lessons for years as a kid. But without practice, you’re not going to be able to sit down and play “Fur Elise” anytime soon. 

Likewise, your leaders can take classes on coaching or delegating, but they need practice and feedback to gain confidence and competence. The good news is that practice with peers and learners’ managers, virtually or in-person, can be reinforced with self-directed, technology-based practice. This powerful combination gives leaders the flexibility to spend more time, if and when they need it, to focus on their individual development needs. 

So, what’s your purpose? 

Technology is one of the greatest things to ever happen to leadership training. And in a pandemic, we’re all certainly happy that technology is keeping us close together while we’re far apart.  

But the risk is that we view technology as the solution itself, rather than as the means to accomplish a purpose. How we use technology is all about what we need to use it for. 

Are you asking the right question? 

Learn more about creating an effective leadership training program by downloading DDI’s eBook, the Leadership Development Playbook. 


Janice Burns, a Principal Consultant at DDI, is a development designer/architect who brings years of expertise to help organizations achieve their business goals through stronger leaders. She is an experienced presenter on topics such as the design and implementation of creative learning journeys and blended learning best practices. Her passion is to help frontline leaders get the most out of every minute they carve out for development.  

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