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What Is Personalized Leadership Development?

October 13, 2021

Bruce Watt


Get to the bottom of what it means to create personalized learning experiences for your leaders. What is personalized leadership development? And how can you use technology to personalize learning?

Around the time when we were all worried about things like Y2K (anyone else remember that preparing for Y2K was the job Peter Gibbons hated in the classic film Office Space?), I was just getting started in my role at DDI as an assessment consultant. At the time, we were just at the cusp of creating personalized leadership development.

We had something pretty state of the art, called the Online Performance and Learning (OPAL) system. It had a short “learning preference” diagnostic and leaders could access some digital resources related to their answers.

The good news? It was a highly scalable and economically feasible way to bring personalized leadership development to large groups at the time.

But it had its drawbacks. It was entirely self-driven, which meant leaders had to make time for it on their own. Leaders didn’t get to interact with each other. And everyone was doing something different, so it didn’t quite create a cohesive leadership culture.

Recently I was preparing for a virtual conference presentation on the topic of personalized leadership development. During my prep, it occurred to me that a lot of companies still had that 20-year-old model of personalized learning in mind, albeit with slicker platforms.

That’s a big problem. The pandemic and resulting remote work has created a huge opportunity for leaders to benefit from personalized learning. But there’s a risk of making a mistake here, interpreting “personalized” learning as “isolated” digital learning. So let’s take a moment to redefine what personalized leadership development really is.

Defining Personalized Learning for Leadership Development

Here’s how DDI defines a personalized learning experience:

  • It’s Mine: It’s personal AND personalized. Personalized means based on your needs—not just your preferences, like learning via podcast or an article.
  • It’s Relevant: Leaders need to immediately understand how what they’re learning can help them in their everyday work. It can’t be abstract. And it needs to be proven to work because they don’t have time for anything else.
  • It’s Not Overwhelming: There are literally millions of resources out there on leadership. You can Google many of them right now. And many learning libraries are similar—they offer hundreds of teachers and topics, with little guidance on which ones you really need, or whether one approach is better than the other.
  • I Can Use This Right Now: Yes, there will be new concepts, but we’ve built in content and tools for leaders to check their understanding of the skills, then practice and apply it right away.
  • It’s Authentic: Content has to speak to the core of what they’re experiencing as a new leader and acknowledge the human side of leadership. It also must connect to the values, strategic priorities, and broader business purpose of the organization.

How to Use Technology to Personalize Learning

How can we leverage technology to personalize learning? Here are five tools: 

  • Assessment: Assessment is crucial for engagement. Leaders need to feel that their learning is based on their personal needs. Assessment makes strengths and weaknesses clear, so they know what they need to work on to get better.
  • Recommended Learning: Based on the assessment—as well as some other questions they may have answered, such as if they are a first-time leader—you want to employ a recommendation engine. This engine will serve up some short learning (think 30-minute modules) just for them. This can get them started with some foundational concepts.
  • Personalized Practice Tools: Personalized tools can then help them start to practice. What do we mean by personalized? Think things like a chatbot to help with coaching. Or a quick simulation to test understanding of concepts. These start to test their skills, but will be cemented as they practice with one another.
  • Personal Analytics: Participants have to be able to track their progress. What have they spent time on? Where have they not spent enough time and focus? Where have they made progress?
  • Individual Exploration: This can start to feed into some individual exploration of content. With the personalized steps they’ve already taken, they have a focus on where they may be able to explore next.

Personalized Leadership Development: Do Leaders Need to Learn Together?

Virtual interactions and learning are now normal for many organizations. And in terms of leadership development, some companies are assuming that this means they have to move away from human, classroom-based experiences to go entirely toward digital options in the pursuit of achieving those results.

However, we need to be cautious here as leaders want to learn together. They value peer interaction. It’s about more than just content, but about how that content brings together your culture and connection. And while leaders can learn a lot alone online via self-directed leadership development, leaders learn more and the learning is more meaningful when it’s done together with other leaders.

Hearing other leaders’ experiences, and discussing topics with groups of other leaders, solidifies concepts and makes it easier for them to think about how they can apply learnings to what they’re facing in their roles today. And in a virtual world where leaders are already lacking many networking opportunities, building connections with one another is more important than ever.

The question is, how can we make it easy for leaders to learn together? Virtual classroom is a great option that brings leaders together virtually, engaging them in live instructor-led training. The best part is that with virtual classroom, leaders can practice skills together, engage in discussion, and build those crucial connections.

And the good news is that now, nearly two years into the pandemic, it’s likely most leaders are comfortable learning virtually. Thus, virtual group-based leader development is an option organizations can serve up to leaders to allow them to learn together, further personalizing their leadership development journey.

Personalization Means Meeting Leaders in the Moment

Personalized leadership development ultimately means: “I’m getting the right kind of support for the leadership challenge I’m facing now.” Our challenge is to take all the pieces we talked about and think about how to combine them appropriately to meet a leader’s particular needs in any given moment.

Some of these moments might be big, like a leader trying to lead transformation on their team or stepping into a new leadership role. These are moments when they may need major new leadership skills. And their success depends not only on themselves but on the collective behavior of their teams across the organization.

But other moments might be small. A leader needs to deal with a conflict on their team today, or has to have a tough performance conversation. In these cases, they need to draw on the foundational skills they already have, but also need some specific in-the-moment help to deal with the problem they have at hand.

What we are really doing when we personalize development is to use the right blend of digital experiences and deeply human interactions to start to make development a way of work. We instigate a culture where leaders are constantly learning—on their own, from their peers, and within their organization.

Development is no longer something that’s this extra thing they have to make time for outside of what they consider their “real work.” Rather, development is becoming a way of work. And you’re giving your leaders what they need to constantly be growing, improving, and pushing for better.

Learn more by exploring DDI’s leadership development subscriptions.

Bruce Watt, Ph.D., is a Vice President for DDI.

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