Don’t Fall into Self-Directed Leadership Development Traps
Once upon a time, group development was the de facto method for learning. But with busier schedules and increasing workloads, it suddenly seemed like a better idea to let people go at their own pace with self-directed leadership development.
There are some strong reasons to choose self-directed leadership development. It’s easy to deploy. People can do it when it’s convenient for them. And they can pursue exactly the topics that they find valuable.
But putting leadership development solely in the hands of learners also creates major risks.
In this section, we’ll explore how to effectively use self-directed leadership development and highlight some of the common traps organizations fall into when using this approach. Plus, we’ll share why it’s still best to use group-based development in parts of your leadership programs.
What Is Self-Directed Learning?
Let’s start with a definition. Just like it sounds, self-directed learning happens when an individual takes responsibility for their own learning. They decide what they need to learn, set their own learning goals, and choose which learning resources and strategies will work best for them. Above all, they create their learning plan and take charge of carrying it out.
Already you can likely see the danger: People may not do it. That’s the number-one problem with self-directed leadership development. Even highly motivated learners are busy. And it can be tough for them to make time for development when they already have a crushing to-do list.
For most companies, the reaction to self-directed learning has been mixed. In our Global Leadership Forecast 2021, about 24% of learners said they wanted more access to self-directed learning through online learning libraries. Meanwhile, 39% said they wanted more formal training such as a workshop.
So is it possible to use self-directed leadership development effectively? Yes, but with some caveats.
How to Implement Successful Self-Directed Leadership Development
How the company sets up and supports learners in a self-directed leadership development program has a major impact. Here are six key factors that influence success:
- There’s a thoughtful communication strategy about the value of self-directed leadership development and how best to use learning tools.
- Internal senior leaders sponsor self-directed learning efforts and become advocates of the approach. They encourage and recognize leaders who take charge of their own development. Senior leaders can also add accountability to development by checking on progress at different stages.
- The learning doesn’t happen in isolation and isn’t “thrown over the wall.” Leaders receive guide rails on which courses or modules would be most impactful for them based on their leadership level and the leadership challenges they face.
- Self-directed doesn’t have to be self-determined. You can personalize the learning experience by incorporating different types of assessments and self-insight tools. If assessment options are not available, companies can still guide leaders through activities based on their specific learning needs and priorities.
- Even though learning is self-directed, you can still provide leaders with opportunities to network with peers. Leaders should be able to share what they’re learning, how they’re applying it, and how they’re using it to overcome challenges.
- The leader’s manager makes it clear how the self-directed learning is connected to the leader’s individual development plan.
What Can Cause Self-Directed Learning to Fail?
While self-directed learning can be a valuable part of your approach to leadership development, there are some situations when it can fall short. Self-directed learning will likely go poorly for the leader if:
- A massive online library is available but there’s no guidance on how to use it. HR says, “Here you go! Best of luck.”
- Learners don’t know why and how the learning experience will benefit them.
- Learners don’t have incentives to complete the learning.
- Learning doesn’t reinforce the benefits and practical outcomes. If new leadership skills don’t become habitual early, learning won’t stick.
- Learning isn’t connected to the leader’s personal development plan.
- Learning content is inconsistent. For example, many learning libraries offer a huge array of content, often with multiple courses on the same topic. How does the leader know which is best? If leaders take different courses on the same topic, there may be no common leadership language creating consistency in the company’s leadership culture.
- Learning isn’t aligned with the company’s values. See this unfortunate example of inclusion training gone wrong.
- Learning doesn’t offer opportunities for practice or application.
Don’t Forget Group-Based Learning
Virtual interactions and learning are now normal for many organizations. Some companies assume that they have to move away from in-person, classroom-based experiences toward digital, self-directed options.
However, leaders want to learn together. They value peer interaction. Development requires more than content. Effective development brings your culture together and builds connections. While leaders can learn a lot alone online via self-directed leadership development, they learn more and the learning is more meaningful when they’re together with other leaders.
Hearing other leaders’ experiences and discussing topics with other leaders solidifies concepts. Learning together makes it easier for leaders to think about how they can apply new knowledge and skills to what they’re facing every day. 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? One option is to use live, instructor-led training. These sessions can be done in-person or in a virtual classroom. The important thing is that they foster deep interaction among leaders, encouraging them to participate in discussion, build connections, and practice skills together.
Another option is to build peer learning groups, which we discuss more in the next section. With peer learning groups, leaders may learn information on their own, but come together to discuss and practice their skills.
When Is Self-Directed Leadership Development Most Valuable?
Self-directed leadership development can be incredibly valuable under the right circumstances. But in which situations is it most valuable?
Here are a few examples:
1. Transitioning to a New Role
When someone steps into a new leadership role, they usually need support right away, especially to solve urgent problems. However, many companies only offer group training on an annual or irregular basis. As a result, leaders may struggle through their first several months or even years in the role. Research in our Frontline Leader Project showed that, on average, new leaders don’t get training until they’ve been on the job for approximately four years.
These first-time leaders could greatly benefit from self-directed leadership development to help them get started right away. Even if they have access to group training right away, self-directed options can help supplement learnings and provide real-time support to challenges as they come up.
2. An Immediate Need
Meeting immediate leadership needs can be challenging. Leaders may feel that they have a problem today but haven’t learned how to deal with this leadership challenge yet. A common example is conflict. A leader might not have had formal training in resolving conflict, but has an immediate issue with two team members.
Leaders often turn to the internet to quickly learn how to have a challenging conversation. But there’s a risk of getting the wrong advice or falling into a rabbit hole of fruitless searching.
But if leaders have access to on-demand learning, they can quickly access information that’s in-line with your company culture and values. It’s especially helpful if you have short microlearning content, such as quick videos, microcourses, and on-demand tools. That way, they have just-in-time support for the issues they have today.
3. There’s a Crisis
Crises come and go in every company. A crisis can be caused by external factors or internal factors, such as the announcement of a merger, a company scandal, or the sudden departure of a key senior leader.
In these moments, leaders need resources to support their teams quickly. They need to know how to communicate, meeting both the personal and practical needs of concerned team members. They need to show empathy, offer support, and create a vision for the future.
In these cases, a rapid response set of microlearning resources like videos, microcourses, podcasts, webinars, etc., can be a big help. Leaders can quickly get what they need and respond to their teams
How to Add Self-Directed Learning to Leadership Development
We have seen tremendous benefits when companies combine self-directed learning with traditional learning journeys that include group-based leadership development, either in-person or virtual. Ideally, you can create a blend, giving learners access to content as they need it to address personal challenges, plus strategic, ongoing opportunities to learn together with peers.
But in practical terms how does this work? Here are a few best practices we recommend:
- Hold a kickoff with senior leaders to introduce the program. Emphasize the value self-directed learning can offer when combined with traditional, group-based leadership development. Show examples of self-directed content during the kickoff with examples of how to use it.
- Ask learners to complete self-directed content within two weeks of the kickoff. Allow them to choose their own self-directed learning path. Be sure to give guidance on how to use the technology. Encourage leaders to choose something that will be easy to apply and positively change their behavior on the job.
- After two weeks, gather learners in peer learning groups to discuss what they learned, how they will apply it, and what they want to learn next. Peers can then coach each other and share ideas for additional application. An important added benefit to this approach is that peers will hear about the different content available to them.
- With more traditional parts of your learning program, have your facilitators reinforce the importance of self-directed learning. Consider demonstrating the technology to remind leaders what’s there. You can even give time in class to complete content and discuss with peers.
What Does Success Look Like for Self-Directed Leadership Development?
If your leaders are making self-directed learning a habit, then you have been successful. If every time they have a leadership challenge, they use the learning libraries you provide to help them overcome it, then you will see better leadership in your organization. And when your leaders are successful, they will be more engaged, improving your culture and leading to better business results.
But positive habits don’t happen by accident. Leaders need an intentional approach to be successful. The most common mistake with self-directed learning is that companies purchase massive online libraries, but don’t set up a structure to allow positive habits to flourish.
And don’t forget: Learning is just the first part of development. Tracking the number of courses a leader takes or the articles they read or videos they watch doesn’t move business metrics. Rather, success happens when you see leaders truly modeling and using the behaviors they learned in their development.