Designing a successful training program, especially in the area of leadership development, is not at all easy these days.
Leaders seem to have already learned everything you can tell them. Let’s face it, most leadership training programs out there revolve around the same boiler plate concepts.
At the same time, it seems like the way they are delivered -the outdated formal class-based education- never stops being the number one choice of trainers.
Despite evidence clearly indicates that it is neither enjoyed by trainees, nor is there any significant proof of practical results -aside from those flashy and useless vanity metrics- that can be shown to sponsors.
Leaders seem to have already learned everything that you can tell them. Let’s face it, most leadership training programs out there revolve around the same boiler plate concepts.
Still, too many L&D managers continue to rely on obsolete formats and tricks to enroll, train, entertain and develop Leaders.
We are already facing a new generation of Leaders
The situation, however, will become increasingly unsustainable in the near future, since the new generations of Leaders are on the rise and they expect things like:
- Actionable training activities vs mere knowledge transfer
- Measurable results vs happy classroom time
- Clear effort/outcome balance
- Interactive sessions
- Technology as a natural way to gain both in knowledge and experience
As many of you already know from following my series in this blog, here at SkillGym, I am passionate about understanding what makes good strategies truly great.
Hence, I couldn’t refrain from observing the way our clients have implemented their training strategies and, most of all, how those strategies have shifted over time to leverage the best practices that were acquired on the go.
The result is one reflection and 12 rules that are derived from what 12 outstanding companies are doing when delivering great leadership training.
I am confident you will appreciate these.
My hope is that some of them may be the inspiration for your next program.
That would make my work worth doing and, certainly, this article worth reading.
We can’t afford to continue with the status quo
Let’s start with the one reflection I have prepared for you.
It’s very simple: we can’t afford to continue to plan, design and deliver leadership courses as we have done for the past 70 years.
Times change, people change, the world changes too.
So often I feel like the only ones who don’t recognize this compelling urgency to refresh the way training is conceived and delivered are the same people in charge of making it change: HR and L&D departments that spend every day passionately working on the very difficult task of developing people.
We can’t afford to continue to plan, design and deliver leadership courses as we have done for the past 70 years.
Guys, the clock is ticking.
A new generation of Leaders is already here, and many more will come soon.
And they are not, mark my words please, they are not the same as their predecessors.
These up-and-comings are smart, more technology oriented, less formal and much more demanding for purpose and actionable results.
So please, take a look at what I have seen being done at some of the greatest companies already delivering 21st century-style successful leadership training.
I have been following those 12 companies for over two years now, carefully analyzing:
- The type of training programs they designed around leadership
- The way they enrolled and involved trainees
- The program around which the courses were delivered
- The techniques and the strategies of delivery
- The way they measured effort and results
- The way they kept trainees involved and engaged over time
Many of those courses were great ones, appreciated by trainers, trainees and their sponsors.
Many were just average, and some were absolutely fiascos.
Through it all, I took note of something that was definitely contributing to the success.
The secret is not (just) technology
You may think that, since I founded a company delivering hi-tech for experiential learning, the scope of this article could be to praise the use of technology as THE way to deliver successful training.
But that’s not actually the case.
As I pointed out in a previous article (“Three Case Studies and One Strategy to Keep Users Engaged with Digital Learning”), we ourselves have learned that lesson the hard way.
Technology is definitely a very important ingredient to consider when planning good and balanced leadership training as a means of delivering the experiential part.
Technology alone won’t make any difference if it is not well blended within a comprehensive strategy. But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse here.
I am sure that the following part of this article will provide you with a lot of elements supporting this statement.
The framework of my research
Before entering the details of the 12 ideas that follow, let me give you a general framework to understand the context.
All of the following best practices are somehow related to the following elements:
- They all refer to the design of training programs revolving around soft skill leadership development.
- All are connected to courses where the average participant was a millennial -age range 30-40 y.o.
- They all refer to programs that include some form of practical activity that follows, anticipates or sometimes overlaps formal education.
- Most of the time, the ratio between knowledge transfer and practical activities in those programs was unbalanced in favor of the latter, sometimes with a ratio even greater that 2:1.
- Almost all of them were collected by me, by analyzing the activities from the privileged position of being one of the partners of the design, providing our SkillGym solution as one of the tools for practicing what they learned and learning from what they practiced.
- Therefore, all of them refer to program where technology-based learning was one of -but never the only one- the key ingredients of training design.
- The companies from which I took these lessons belong to the most varied industries -ranging from banking and insurance, to car manufacturing, to oil and gas, to pharmaceutical and many more. This is just to say that the type of industry type is not a correlation factor.
- Finally, they represent both SME and large corporations in size.
Ok, let’s start.
1. Tease trainees early on
Like any other initiative, training has to be ‘sold’ to trainees the right way.
The age of mandatory training is over and with voluntary training, enthusiasm and participation cannot be taken for granted.
I am not saying that you need to become a marketing expert, however, take a look at how media services are promoted.
Think of Netflix: they announce their series months in advance and keep on teasing the audience with bits of information that make their desire grow until they literally feel the need for that show.
I have seen several examples of how teasing trainees early on with a good dose of F.O.M.O. ‘marketing’ can turn the odds of overbooking a voluntary-based training course upside down.
In most cases the best strategies are the simplest:
- Roll-up banners placed in high traffic places
- Online short trailers delivered by email or placed on the intranet homepage
- Emails with curious details
- Involve well-known (also internal) testimonials
Do not forget that teasing requires recurrence. So, you should plan for a service that can make it automatic to ping your candidate trainees.
Again, without becoming an expert in inbound marketing, you can rely on digital solutions that allow users to pre-enroll with the scope of starting an early and automated campaign to develop awareness, attention, interest and action.
I have seen it in process, and it works.
2. Turn trainees into training experts
Another very important strategy is about raising the level of your trainees with regard to the insights of your job.
Adults want to know why they need to put efforts into something. They need a clear purpose.
This part is often left unattended.
If no methodological background is shared with trainees, the are left feeling like ‘it’s not their business’ to know why a certain learning strategy is applied, how it works and how they will benefit from it.
The most successful strategies I have seen include one dedicated module -it can easily be a pre-recorded video and won’t normally last longer than 30 minutes- that explains:
- What learning strategy will be used and how it works
- Why this strategy versus another
- What types of benefits it will bring
- What type of effort is expected from both sides to make things happen
- Benchmark data to show how efficient this approach will be
In this way, learners become more aware of why they should be involved and what will happen along the way.
Onboarding the trainees to the training methods and on the reasons why is one of the most powerful engagement strategies I have seen.
As humans, we want to be part of something and sharing this part -which I realize is not an intuitive thing to do- turns passive audience into active players or “owners”.
3. Plan in months, not weeks
The impact of leadership training should be about rising awareness, improving in self-confidence and self-awareness as well as changing habits. This does not happen overnight.
It takes time. And it does not happen passively.
The most successful leadership training programs I have seen are those where the outline is planned in months, not days or weeks. It means designing a program that is 80% practice and 20% knowledge and the 80% practice is spread across months where trainees are gently nudged to consistently do something that, time after time, will gradually change their approach and, therefore, their results.
Of course, it takes longer, of course it will cost more effort and, sometimes, money -but not necessarily if well design and supported by smart technology.
However, it’s the only way I have seen, in years of experience, that can really turn concepts into action.
For example, the introduction of technological tools such as:
- Automatic scheduling of self-paced activities
- Smart measuring of weekly/monthly progress (see below about the importance of selecting smart metrics)
- E-learning modules to consolidate knowledge
- Digital Role Play (yes, we are in the business of Digital Role Plays) to practice
can help trainers not only to stretch the duration of the training experience, but also to provide meaningful activities and manage the continuous engagement in a semi-effortless way.
4. Focus on few, actionable metrics
No metrics, no measure, no improvement.
This is an old saying that remains very true. However, the opposite is also very true: too many metrics equals no metrics.
Balancing the quantity and type of metrics is a challenging task.
Once again, the best designed and most successful training programs I have seen are those including a great balance of quantitative and qualitative metrics, supporting:
- The understanding of the dynamics of delivery
- The delivery of proof-of-progression
I recently wrote an article fully dedicated to a reflection on leadership training metrics. It’s here (“8 Key Metrics to Ensure a Successful Practical Training on Critical Conversations”) and it’s worth reading to delve deeper on this specific point.
5. Adapt the schedule to individuals
Once you decide to design your next leadership training program with an 80/20 approach, where the “80” is the quota of time dedicated to long-term practicing, you need to define a schedule of practice.
It means setting up a calendar where you help your trainees to organize their training activity in terms of:
- How often
- How much
- On what
they should practice.
Now, imagine having to organize this -which is absolutely a must-do if you want to ensure long-term commitment and engagement- for each of the many Leaders involved in the many training programs you have in parallel.
- It takes a lot of time, so you need automation
- It cannot be considered a one-off activity: the best results come from adapting the schedule on the go, preferably for each individual
This is a lot of manual work, if you don’t leverage technology here -and most probably also very difficult to achieve because you would need to analyze a lot of data on the past activities to significantly plan the future ones.
I dedicated a full article on how well technology can help to define adaptive individual schedules of practical training. Read it here (“SkillGym Digital Fitness: Pure, Adaptive Leadership Training”) to have a broader perspective of how to master this single best practice.
6. Read the sentiment about your approach
Of course, when a training program evolves from a few weeks into several months, you need to find a way to check the sentiment of your trainees along the way.
This is very important, not just to make sure that they are still alive and active, or merely to enjoy some vanity metrics showing how well your design is being delivered.
More importantly, you need to understand pretty early on if any adjustment should be considered.
A well-structured survey system will certainly help you; I would recommend the following principles:
- Define a standard set of questions to ask, ideally between 5 and 10
- Include open-ended questions (1 or 2) to collect opinions and suggestions
- Stick to the same questions every time, to ensure comparability and trend-based analysis
- Define a calendar where you will send the survey at least every quarter (if your program is less than 6 months, of course, you can change this)
- Explain from the onset (remember the best practice No. 2 “turn trainees into experts”) the importance of this approach according to a win-win and reciprocal engagement-based way of fine-tuning the program along the way
- Read the answers (it seems trivial, but I have seen many cases where the data are available, and no one cares) and act accordingly
7. Involve the top management
Little to add here.
I am sure you already know about this best practice.
And I am sure that you’ve been frustrated several times by not being able to stress to them enough the importance of their direct endorsement; unless you are lucky enough to work in the perfect organization.
However, it is not just about getting their endorsement, it is also about reporting results the right way. So, on one side, choosing the right metrics is very important; but defining a schedule and a “ceremony” of reporting are equally important.
Old-fashioned leadership training is by nature deficient of significant performance-related metrics, so the idea of presenting metrics to the top management did not have a large diffusion in the past.
The advent of digital training technology not only allows for better measurements, it also provides a lot of space for better marketing of those metrics upstream.
Again, it’s not a matter of vanity, it’s a practical issue: if you can deliver meaningful performance-oriented metrics and you do that on a consistent basis, you will create the conditions where they will feel the need to endorse your next training program, because they will perceive the value to them from your initiatives.
8. Consider individual contributors
This one is my favorite.
You can recognize a 20th century leadership design approach by the fact that leadership and management are almost two synonyms.
And the direct consequence is that leadership training programs are almost always dedicated to in-role managers or occasionally to the so called “high potentials”, who are destined toward formal authority roles and thus you are committed to prepare them early on.
Instead, a 21th century leadership culture is permeated by the idea of “influence without authority”, where individual contributors not only see the concept of leadership totally separated from that of authority, but they also expect to be considered as an active part of the process of influence.
I can’t go in-depth about this fascinating subject here (I will write one dedicated article soon) however one very successful best practice I have noticed in the development of leadership across the organization is definitely that of including Individual Contributors in the leadership training program planning.
Designing specific programs for them will make the flow of leadership fluid across the organization and will certainly contribute to improving the quality of your results as an L&D designer.
9. Plan formal education on evidence (aka “Flip your strategy upside-down”)
This is the hardest of all.
The reason is that it is 100% counter-intuitive. My colleague and friend Matteo wrote an excellent article (“Flipping the Leadership Development Strategy with Actionable and Scalable Programs”) on the idea of “flipping the training strategy”, which I recommend reading.
The article offers a very interesting reflection on the fact that it makes sense to evaluate a complete flip in the L&D strategy assuming long-term practice as a main activity to exploit the behavioral metrics that you want to address and develop with leadership training.
In a well-balanced strategy, “pit-stop” learning activities should be considered as an effective response to specific needs that emerge based on evidences collected in the scheduled practice.
In this way, they become timelier, more impactful and appreciated by learners in addition to being extremely measurable (as you can monitor their impact on the practice itself).
10. Promote peer2peer support
Collaboration is an excellent means of developing leadership.
Incidentally, the longer a practice activity lasts, the more the resources you will likely need to bring in for remote support.
Trainees will certainly come up with questions and support requests.
What I have seen is that the large majority of those inquiries can be dealt with using a peer-to-peer approach, which generates two different consequences:
- On one side, you will be less involved directly, with a significant reduction of resources you need to put in
- On the other side, peer-to-peer support will amplify the effect of practical training, benefiting both those who are in need and those who provide help
Again, turning your trainees into experts on your methodology will increase their motivation and commitment toward being an active part of the program.
11. Promote a diary
One of the classic problems of leadership training is that you teach about something that it is very hard to measure in terms of direct results on the organization performance, especially in the short term.
When introducing long-term practice, for example by means of scheduled on-line Digital Role Plays, you should also introduce the idea of keeping a diary of how leaders manage their daily activity in real life.
For example, ask them to keep track of:
- How many conversations they do weekly
- With whom and why
- How they perceive their own performance
- How well they managed the conversation’s objectives and phases
You will be amazed by the results, already after few weeks.
In fact, this task will nudge them to:
- Connect the idea of leadership to that of people management through meaningful and possibly inspiring conversations
- Think in terms of preparing their conversation in advance
- Plan their conversations in terms of measurable strategies
At the same time, this approach will help you measure their improvement in terms of self-confidence and self-awareness, providing smart benchmarking on how effective your training activity really is -remember the part about reporting meaningful metrics upstream.
Finally, real life will pair your scheduled on-line training thus doubling the impact of on-the-job training, whether simulated or real-life.
12. Read the sentiment about your outcomes
As you do read the trainees’ sentiment on the way you deliver training just like you read the sentiment of your management on the metrics you deliver.
The same approach as discussed above, simply using a different target for a different purpose.
Resist the temptation to being isolated by bringing in the entire chain of stakeholders and easily turning your activity into one of the founding gears of the organization.
Some final reflections
It’s never easy to plan for success.
And it’s not just about applying a set of someone else’s best practices.
However, looking at what others are doing, with a genuine spirit of curiosity and an open and growth-oriented mindset is the right way to improve on a daily basis.
I hope this (long) article was helpful to you. It was certainly to me: reflecting and collecting the materials to write it helped me to structure some of the vast evidence I collected from around the world about the fact that you need to manage an increasing number of variables to deliver quality if not excellent training programs.
By the way, if you are intrigued about how digital technology applied to leadership development can really help you to make a huge difference in the way you deliver your training programs, here are two articles for you:
- The first (“Digital Role Play Stripped Bare”) is an overview of what Digital Role Plays are and how they can be integrated into a more traditional leadership training program.
- The second (“How Practicing on Digital Role Play Improves Performance: a Case Study”) is a very interesting case study showing the extent to which you can actually influence the real and day-by-day performance of your trainees by introducing a more practice-oriented training activity in your programs.
And finally, if you would like to know more or if you have unanswered questions, why not book a 1-hour call with our experts here?
Enjoy the rest of your day.