How to strategically train and reproduce leaders in your organisation

How to strategically train and reproduce leaders in your organisation

Ada Lawson is a senior executive at an advertising agency with operations in twelve countries across Europe, Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the United States. After her boss abruptly left the organisation, she unexpectedly stepped into a leadership position without any leadership training. Her former peers now looked to her to pick up the pieces. She knew how hard her peers worked and didn’t want them to think she was bossing them around.

Guess her solution? Take on more work for herself. She was the first to log on in the morning and worked late into the night. The dark circles under her eyes proved it. She couldn’t handle one more thing.

For many leaders, that’s where the story ends. When the Human Resources Unit hears that they are too overloaded to make time for development, they immediately pull back, waiting for a better time when things slow down. But do things ever really slow down? Or do leaders move on to new urgent challenges?

And when leaders are busy, should leadership development wait? Or is that not when they need leadership development most?

Organisations must be deliberate about training and developing their leadership pipeline. The irony of Ada’s story is that she could have solved many of her problems if she had had proper training on how to delegate and coach her team. Eventually, she did just that and found she got her evenings back. But she had to adjust her thinking about reproducing leaders to get there. As her coach, I had to help her see that developing her skills would change how she worked rather than adding more.

That’s why talent development professionals must carefully consider how we position training and leadership development. We know leaders are busy. Rather than trying to compete with their “real work,” our job is to make them see that their growth and development is part of their work.

Here are five principles that can help us train and reproduce leaders in our organisation:

1. Personalise Learning

This can take many forms. It can be surface level, like letting learners choose their growth needs, or it can go deeper, like using recommendations to suggest learning requirements. While there are many options, one of the best ways to personalise learning is through assessment. Assessment can happen across the scale. It can be as simple as a short self-assessment at the beginning of a course to help leaders reflect on their habits and behaviours related to the topic.

We can offer more in-depth skills assessments, such as a behavioural simulation. These assessments provide objective insight into areas where a leader may be struggling most so they can then focus their development efforts. While tactics may vary, keep in mind our “North Star” goal of making development a way of work. We want personalization to help leaders see themselves more clearly and connect their learning with their personal lives, work, and challenges.

2. Generate immersive experiences

Often, when we talk about immersive learning, people assume we are talking about virtual reality. While VR is a powerful learning tool, other ways exist to create immersive experiences. At its heart, immersive learning means taking people out of their day-to-day to focus solely on developing a skill. Asking for leaders’ focused attention may seem counterintuitive when looking to save time.

But research shows the dangers of multitasking, which reduces learning recall and the ability to make connections in our brains. That’s why it’s essential to periodically take leaders out of their day-to-day to focus on their development, whether for an hour or a day.

Immersive classroom experiences can help. People put down their phones, engage in discussion, and, more importantly, connect with their peers, which helps cement learning.

3. Engage learners with what is relevant

Part of making learning a way of work is directly connecting to someone’s daily work. Facilitators must understand the group’s daily challenges, from broad industry challenges to a company’s specific culture to their job functions, when using facilitated learning.

We need to use relevant examples and draw connections about how their skills affect their jobs. Assessment and feedback are also helpful, particularly 360-degree surveys and manager feedback. When leaders see how their behaviour relates to their success, they are more likely to continue developing for better outcomes.

4. Leverage credible data

The internet is now our most significant competitor in the learning and development space. It is the first-place people look to solve a problem. But in reality, a Google search can yield results of varying quality. It could be inconsistent with a company’s values, or it could simply be wrong.

Our job is to give leaders a more trusted resource than Google, which is a tall order. One way is to show the research behind what we offer and internal success stories from other leaders. Impact data is a powerful way to demonstrate why leaders should pay attention and make time for their development.

5. Engage a human face

We should always keep in mind that leadership is deeply human. Leaders will make mistakes, and development can help them turn failures into productive actions.

Furthermore, leaders deal with other humans on their teams, as their stakeholders, and as their bosses. And every one of those people demands empathy, understanding, and guidance.

Leadership development must stay closely tethered to the ultimate goal; better human interactions allow leaders to be more effective in all they do. That’s why development programs must have a deep strain of humanity, connecting people through stories, examples, peer conversations, and more to help them navigate the complex world of work relationships.

What then happens next?

While on a work trip, I was chatting with my older brother about international customs forms requiring you to fill in career information. My brother, a senior leader at a construction company, always filled in as “an engineer.” But one day, he realised it had been decades since he engineered anything.

Instead, he spent his days strategizing, inspiring, guiding, coaching, and influencing. His real work was as a leader. He just happened to have an engineering degree. So why didn’t he write “leader” on the form?

Training and reproducing leaders are about making leadership development an integral part of organisational work. It’s about helping people shift away from thinking of themselves as successful for producing a certain amount of work and instead valuing their influence on others.

While this article has covered tactics to help us train and reproduce leaders in ongoing learning and development. I will conclude it with a question: How many of you would write down “leader” as your profession?

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