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Seven Top Leadership Development Challenges Post-COVID

August 12, 2020

Stephanie Neal


Get the latest research on how companies have shifted their top leadership development challenges to thrive in the new business world.

It looks like the world of work has changed – for good. At first, we thought a lot of the changes to our work lives brought on by the pandemic would be temporary. But it’s increasingly clear that they are here to stay. Leaders need to start accepting these challenges of a new working world head-on. And that means it’s time to start addressing a whole new set of top leadership development challenges.

Recently, we conducted a survey with business and HR leaders from more than 100 companies about their top priorities to recover from the pandemic. They revealed that leadership development is right at the top of the list.  

Why? Most respondents (74 percent) said they are prioritizing development because their leaders will need different skills to navigate recovery and thrive in the future. 

DDI COVID-19 Pulse Survey Infographic

Based on this research and our follow-up discussions with CHROs, we identified seven top leadership development challenges that companies are focusing on right now:

1. Building capability to lead remote teams

Leaders are on the frontlines as workplaces shift to remote work, but most weren’t prepared for the abrupt change. 

In our recent webinar with leading industry analyst Josh Bersin, we discussed how leaders at every level are taking on this virtual leadership role for the first time. And it’s a major challenge. Leaders need help finding new ways to connect with and engage the people who report to them. Many may struggle to keep a pulse on how their team is feeling.

As a result, companies need to provide new tools to help leader reinforce their communication and coaching skills. Improving these skills will make a huge difference in engaging and retaining employees through this crisis and beyond.

2. Creating a better ‘virtual’ experience

The current shift to remote work is also driving companies to seek out and purchase new virtual tools for learning. In our survey, 97 percent of companies said they are either now using virtual classroom training or are actively looking to buy it for their leaders. This trend will likely continue long beyond the pandemic.

As companies discover that they can offer virtual learning that’s equally effective as in-person training, they will likely bound ahead. After all, it’s a big opportunity to create a consistent training experience anywhere in the world, and without travel expenses.

3. Making learning relevant

Our ongoing impact research has consistently shown that learning relevance is key. Otherwise, development doesn't stick. Leaders need to connect what they learn to the challenges they face on the job.

Relevance is especially important as leaders are overwhelmed with so much information. Thus, they are more likely to take advantage of development opportunities when they can directly see the effect on their job.

Companies can reinforce this by clearly communicating how development is valuable to their  career growth. Furthermore, they should show development is valued by senior leaders, and a critical part of their business strategy.   

4. Prioritizing flexibility to drive adoption 

Just as employees navigate major changes to their work lives, they likely face multiple challenges at home. As employees have to juggle care for their children and elderly parents, it’s crucial that leadership development is flexible.

In part, this is why so many companies are turning to virtual learning options. This trend is true even in regions where workforces are co-located and COVID-19 transmission is low. In addition to making learning structures more flexible, companies should reinforce that leaders be more adaptable for their teams.

5. Adapting to technology

Digital transformation isn’t new. But for most companies, the pandemic accelerated these changes.

As companies deploy new technologies for leadership development, leaders and businesses will both benefit. By learning new tools and the broader technology landscape, leaders can better understand and identify new opportunities for technology to drive their transformation. And that can quickly turn into major new business opportunities.

6. Reinforcing empathy

Given the increased pressures that everyone in the workforce is facing, empathy is a more important leadership skill than ever. 

Leaders who listen and respond with empathy are better able to connect with their employees and make them feel understood. Our ongoing global research showed that empathetic leaders are also far more likely to have engaged teams and to retain talent. 

7. Driving employee engagement 

Employee engagement is always a valuable outcome for companies. But 79% of business leaders  said it’s even more important as a result of the pandemic. Leadership development initiatives can support the essential role that leaders play in driving better engagement, and demonstrating to their employees that it’s a great place to work. 

Addressing the top leadership development challenges

No doubt it's a difficult time right now for everyone. The world is changing incredibly fast before our eyes, and leaders need support to keep up. Your best chance of success moving forward will be to equip people with the skills to handle the tough changes.

This list is just a start. You don't have to do everything at once. Companies that do even a few of the things to address their top leadership development challenges will put themselves in a better position for success, now and in the future. 

To learn more, download the Ultimate Guide to Virtual Leadership.

Stephanie Neal is Director of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). She leads market and trend research focused on executive leadership and business innovation, and is a co-author of DDI's Global Leadership Forecast.

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