By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.

The year 2020 was hard for all of us, but it was particularly hard on leaders. And while we are gradually moving back to something that looks more like “normal,” being an effective leader is not going to get any easier. The events of 2020 have fundamentally changed aspects of work in a myriad of ways that will impact leadership for many years. Leaders will continue to be called on to navigate the unpredictability of a shifting business climate, leading employees remotely, the ongoing impact of health/safety needs on operations, and a burgeoning awareness of the need for change related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

So, how are leaders to keep up with all this change and fluidity in the workplace? What do leaders need to learn and how should they shape their own development in this context?

First, the most successful and relevant leadership training and development may be less about curriculum-driven formal training in classrooms and more about learning on the job. Over the last 10 months or so, leaders have all been thrown into a global crisis with infinite opportunities to learn about agility, resilience, managing remotely, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. No classroom course could come close to the experience leaders have had of learning about these topics firsthand.

We know learning at its best requires reflection, insight, and planning for future action. To truly learn the lessons of the last year, leaders need to invest in their growth and take the time to reflect on their experience. They need to figure out what they did well, where they missed, and what they can do about it going forward. And so, in the coming years leaders will continue to need in-the-moment, actionable expert support and feedback directly relevant to their current situation.

The following are a few specific changes to learning strategies leaders are likely to adopt in the next 24 to 36 months:

1) More one-on-one leadership coaching and mentoring.  There is no substitute for a leader having an expert and a confidante to share ideas, ask questions, and keep them focused on what is most important to take away from an experience or a current challenge. A good coach uses a leader’s daily challenges as the material for lessons, which makes learning intrinsically relevant, timely up the hour, and directly beneficial to the leader’s business goals. Given the pace of change that is likely to continue, coaching may be the only high impact learning method leaders can use that directly translates to their workplace with speed and impact. The ability to deliver high quality coaching remotely via video and the ease of scheduling makes coaching a viable solution to support any leader’s learning. The savings in time travel and expense alone is significant.

  • What’s a leader to do? Find a professional leadership coach or a mentor in your company who will meet you where you are at and help you navigate the challenges of today. Coaches who have a prescriptive program are less likely to help you build business-relevant leadership capabilities. Alternatively, seek out a formal mentor within your company – someone who understands the industry, the company, and what it takes to lead effectively. Pick someone you respect who is open to sharing their insights. Too many people imagine a mentor as a wise sage who is a lifetime connection. This is very rare. Instead of putting those heavy expectations on the mentoring relationship, make a formal agreement with at least 6 months of meetings pre-scheduled, and be clear about the goals you have for being mentored. If, after six months of work together you become buddies that is great, but do not expect it.

2) Honest, useful, and timely feedback from employees. Particularly in a remote work environment with rapid change as the norm, leaders need to know how their colleagues at every level view their leadership style and behavior. Importantly, leaders need to hear the bad news when they drop the ball, not just the good news. The best leaders actively seek out feedback and they do not just want to hear that you think they are great leaders. While positive encouragement is always a valuable reinforcement, leaders also want to hear specifics about what behaviors they can improve, particularly with a focus on areas of leadership the company values most. While there are a myriad “apps” and other methods for rapid fire anonymous feedback, these apps all generate tiny bits of fragmented information and nearly all of it is positive. There is nothing wrong with telling a leader they have done a great job. After all, who does not need some positive feedback when they have done well? In addition to skipping over the valuable but hard truths a leader needs to hear, these tools fall far short of giving cohesive directional feedback leaders need to improve.

  • What’s a leader to do? No tool works better than a well-conceived 360 Feedback process for giving this kind of clear, relevant guidance leaders can relate directly to their daily work. Ask to participate in your company’s 360 process, and if its available, get a coach to spend an hour with you making sense of the results. If your boss is capable in this area, ask them to partner with you on prioritizing your development based on the feedback.

3) Less non-experiential leadership coursework. If 2020 taught us nothing else about learning and leading it is that we can lead others remotely, and it saves time to do so. Likewise, we can learn remotely and sitting in a classroom may not be the best approach anyway. There will always be some benefit to in-person touch points for a learning cohort, but these can be brief and do not require multi-week journeys to a single location. Leaders will more often seek out ways of learning from their laptops, rather than learning from a lecture hall. Executive education will have to adapt to give leaders more varied options and leverage technology to provide high impact asynchronous learning in a remote format.

  • What’s a leader to do? Set out your own schedule of leadership learning activities for the year with an emphasis on workshops, online resources, and reading that is directly relevant to your day-to-day work and/or the next job you want for yourself. Remote access and real-time information are critical so you can fit this into your schedule rather than schedule around the learning experience. While the content of these experiences and materials will naturally vary widely, the one topic every leader should be learning about is diversity, equity, and inclusion.  Learn how DEI shows up in your team, in your division, in your company and make one decisive step toward improving outcomes in this area.

2020 confirmed that adaptability and resilience are table stakes for any leader. Even the way leaders learn will adapt in the future to fit new and different ways of working. In the future leaders will need learning content that is more directly applied to their daily work delivered in a format that fits their schedules and can have immediate impact on the business. While formalized curricula will not disappear, the historically successful classroom learning mode is likely to shift considerably in favor of more informal, remote, and flexible learning modalities.

Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the president and co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2020 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.