Leadership Talent: Use Learning in the Flow of Work to Develop Leaders

Are you retaining your leadership talent? Do your leaders learn in the flow of work or away from work? This new way to conceptualize workplace learning – in the flow or away – may guide you in how to retain leadership talent because it can help you scale your leadership development efforts. LD leaders who want to achieve both scale and effective behavior change will likely combine online learning and coaching in the flow of work.

How Leadership Talent Learned Historically – Away from Work

The corporate model for developing leadership talent has been fairly consistent. First, management would identify the organization’s next generation of leaders. Next, they provided a common text – a popular book on leadership as a pre-reading assignment. Then all would be sequestered away from work in a retreat-like setting to attend a leadership development workshop. We could look upon this as an intensive, immersive experience with many desired outcomes. Such “away from work” events help leaders build their network and establish a sense of belonging.

Scale Development Programs to Engage More Talent

Executive retreats and development workshops are often exceedingly productive for that chosen few in the organization. However, the post-Great Resignation emphasis is on scale. Depending on your company size, that means offering leader development opportunities to hundreds, not dozens. Or to thousands, rather than hundreds.

Leadership talent expert William Adams advises organizations to “create a culture where everyone is expected and encouraged to develop as a leader.” Adams co-authored Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes That Matter Most.

You might ask, is that level of scale even necessary? Yes, it is in today’s talent world where employees are feeling less engaged and even silently quitting.

According to Anthony Klotz, the academic who coined the phrase The Great Resignation, when companies invest in employees, employees invest more in themselves. But the opposite is also true. “When employees feel that companies are underinvesting in them, they start disengaging from work or they engage in deviant behavior,” Klotz says.

Development Opportunity Drives Retention for Leadership Talent

Employers know now that it’s no longer just about comp and ben. Growth and development opportunities are a key retention driver – as long as these opportunities scale well and are not just offered to a few select individuals.

Companies need to create a four-pronged value proposition that includes (1) opportunity for growth and development, (2) material offerings, (3) connection and community, and (4) purpose. That’s the conclusion of Mark Mortensen and Amy Edmondson, authors of HBR’s cover story: What Most Companies Get Wrong About Managing Talent.

Leadership Talent Propositions

What Skills Do Employees Want to Develop?

Today’s employees want to learn power skills. According to LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers were more interested in learning “management and leadership” than other skills, including “creativity,” “new software for your role,” or “engineering/coding.”

Microlearning – It’s Not Just for Sales, Tech & Compliance Training

Most businesses would love for 30%, 40%, 50%, or more of their workforce to improve their self-management and people-management skills. But what organization can afford to take 50% of their workforce away from work for several days?

The answer is microlearning. Experts say it’s much easier to scale learning when it’s built into the work week in smaller increments. In 2020, HR industry analyst Josh Bersin registered the term Learning in the Flow of Work® to underscore this point.

Bersin follows the HR tech industry, including online learning and learning management systems (LMS). He believes this category will soon be called Capability Academies or Mastery Learning Platforms. According to Bersin’s research, the average employee only has 24 minutes a week for “formal learning.”

Organizations have found that short, “bursty” content helps people learn in small increments during work. Bersin believes that microlearning – which has worked well in technical, sales, and product training – will provide value in leadership development (a $14 billion market).

“In the consumer world, we want people to spend more and more time on our content. In the corporate learning world, we want them to spend less,” he explains. “We don’t want people to be ‘addicted’ to the learning platform. We want them to learn something, apply it, and then go back to work,” says Bersin.

Coaching in the Flow of Work

At IMPACT Group, we appreciate Bersin’s insights. We agree that microlearning will help organizations scale development to reach a broader spectrum of employees. And we know that online learning is already being embraced for leadership development. Through our own study of 100+ HR and leadership development professionals, nearly a third of organizations reported that they already have an online learning program for LD.

We also learned that 67% say they plan to increase their use of online learning (such as LinkedIn Learning) for leadership development. At the same time, our survey results show that online learning – by itself – is least likely to be viewed by HR and LD professionals as a great fit for leadership development. What works better? These experts favor combining online learning with coaching. In fact, 70% would consider combining individual or group coaching with online learning to enhance behavior change.

One of the reasons coaching is so effective is because it is relevant and situational. Coaches can focus on hyper-personalized topics – the situations and problems the professional is dealing with here and now – aka “in the flow of work.”

Why Online Learning – By Itself – Has Limitations for Leadership Talent

Online learning is great for scaling a program to a multitude of users. However, LD professionals cite two main problems with online digital delivery as a sole learning modality. First, it’s hard to keep online learners engaged. Learners may not need to spend copious amounts of their time consuming LMS content. However, to achieve their learning goals, we need them to find enough value to develop a regular habit of usage. LD professionals tell us that usage of learning platforms tends to erode after time.

Second, it’s one thing to view content related to power skills, and another thing to put this knowledge into practice. In other words, I might look up best practices for setting measurable performance goals. Or learn about how to have coaching conversations with my direct reports. But will I be able to execute these skills effectively? How do I practice?

Adults learn power skills better using the well-researched ARIA Model of neuro-leadership: Awareness, Reflection, Insight, and Action. IMPACT Group’s coaching programs are based on the ARIA model.

Coaches Nudge, Encourage, Inspire & Hold Learners Accountable

In order to achieve desired behavior change as well as scale, organizations should embrace microlearning, learning in the flow of work, as well as human-powered coaching. Nothing encourages, inspires, supports, or holds feet-to-the-fire more than the words of someone you trust and respect. That’s the power of coaching.

With the scarcity in today’s talent market and the trend toward lower levels of employee engagement, coaching is gaining in popularity – to help engage and develop leaders – as well as promote better wellbeing.

Coaching is beginning to scale more broadly across organizations today. Expert, certified coaches are available at a variety of price points. While programs for executives might extend for months, fewer sessions over 6 to 8 weeks might work well for emerging leaders. Creatively, IMPACT Group can deliver coaching programs at scale within our clients’ budget requirements. Learn more about our programs here.