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Leadership Development Best Practices: 4 Ways to Build a Leader-First Program

September 23, 2020

Mark Busine


Leadership development best practices for building a program with relevant and engaging learning that will stick.

It seems obvious: when building a leadership development program, it should be based on the needs of your leaders. The problem? Companies forget that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Today, leaders are much more aware of their needs. And leaders are looking for development that’s catered to them and their situation. This blog post dives into leadership development best practices for how to put your leaders at the center of their own development.

Leadership Development Best Practices for Building “Leader-First” Experiences

For years, I’ve worked by the side of companies around the world, helping them make their leaders better. And I’ve seen a pattern from organizations with winning leadership programs: it’s all about personalization. These organizations understand the specific needs of their leaders. They also make sure their development programs speak to those needs.

At DDI, we’ve compiled these leadership development best practices for building “leader-first” experiences. Here are four ways to ensure your program puts the needs of your leaders first:

1. Make learning relevant.

Leaders are often given development in areas they don’t see as immediately relevant to their day-to-day work. To make an impact, learning must address real situations and challenges leaders experience. It also needs to happen quickly to keep their attention.

In addition, leaders are looking for how their development connects to the values, strategy, and purpose of the organization. DDI’s approach to building relevant leadership development programs draws on a few simple, but mighty, design elements:

  • Bringing in the organization’s culture: Find ways to incorporate the leader’s current situation by tying learning to the company values or current plans. Ask leaders, “Does this work at our company? If not, why?”
  • Using real examples: When introducing a topic, ask leaders to give examples that are relevant for them. Canned examples can work but give them the option to suggest others.
  • Asking learners about their needs: Ask leaders, “What challenges do you face most often? Where do you need help the most?"

2. Prioritize personalization.

Leaders have limited time. Therefore, it becomes much more important that every minute spent learning is meaningful. A personalized experience, with the organization’s context kept in mind, helps to do that. It also allows leaders to more quickly understand and apply what they learn.

According to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast, personalization is what leaders want most from their development. And personalized learning can take many forms, from simply allowing leaders to choose their own learning path to helping leaders make sense of concepts and behaviors based on who they are and what they bring to their role.

DDI believes personalization is driven by data, which can be gathered through diagnostics and self-insight tools. For example, before starting their development, leaders might join in an immersive assessment center to ensure they start with an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.

Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are also creating new opportunities for personalization. AI can not only react to individual differences and needs, it can start to anticipate and predict leader needs.

3. Give opportunities to learn by doing.

Immersive learning is learning by doing. Learners become active participants by engaging with situations they relate to. And new technology like virtual reality (VR) does this by creating unique and memorable learning experiences.

DDI is a leader in using VR to develop and practice leadership skills. And in a recent trial to build coaching skills, more than 70 percent of participants felt more confident in their coaching after the VR experience. At the same time, they also placed a high value on practicing coaching skills with a peer in real life. This confirms what we already know about what leaders want: a blended learning experience is still best.

But for companies that aren’t yet ready to put their leaders in VR goggles, leaders can get similar experiences from classroom activities and “day in the life” simulations.

4. Engage the heart.

The one thing every leader brings to their role is themselves: head and heart. And most of the challenges leaders face cause an intellectual or emotional response—or both. Because of this, leadership development must also connect with leaders on a deeper level.

At DDI, we do this by:

  • Connecting emotionally. We evaluate learning content by how effective it is at causing learners to feel something. This can be through video, discussions, real examples, and more.
  • Tapping into frustrations. Most leaders have struggled when trying to apply new skills. It’s good to bring up these challenges and talk about what makes certain skills more difficult.
  • Using storytelling. Facilitators share examples from their own experience to bring learning to life. They also encourage others in the classroom to share their stories.

Keeping Leaders at the Center of Their Learning

These four considerations together make for a leadership development experience that’s leader-first. But why is this important? Learning that’s engaging and connected to a leader’s day-to-day work, as well as the organizational context, will stick. And that’s a sure-fire way to get results.

Looking for more leadership development best practices? Download DDI’s Leadership Development Playbook for more ways to deliver high-impact leadership experiences.

Mark Busine is Vice President, Product Management, for DDI. Passionate and curious about the field of leadership, Mark is always looking for creative ways to solve client problems. This creative orientation extends outside work where he dabbles in the fine art of songwriting, convinced that a worldwide number-one hit is just around the corner.

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