Why it’s time to shake-up leadership training

To develop leaders with the talent to tackle tomorrow’s challenges, employers need to ensure the skills of all of their staff are refined. Ashleigh Wight reports from Skillsoft’s 2018 EMEA Perspectives conference.

When it comes to leadership development, it’s easy for businesses to simply target the people they see in senior positions in the near future. But as speakers at last week’s Skillsoft 2018 EMEA Perspectives explained, organisations need to ensure leadership skills are cultivated throughout the business, whatever en employee’s position or level of seniority.

Employers often do not have a formal leadership development plan in place, according to Heide Abelli, Skillsoft’s vice president of content product management. As a result, poor leadership can take hold and end up becoming more costly to an organisation than if they had  invested in a robust development strategy earlier on.

Some organisations suggest businesses should identify individuals with leadership potential and focus on developing their skills with support from those already in senior roles. Indeed, the Mayor of London’s Our Time scheme – which was launched last week – suggests employers should pair “high-potential” women with senior staff to develop their careers, which he hopes will help close the gender pay gap. But Abelli argued that innovative thinking takes place in teams, not in silos, which makes it important to develop the leadership skills of larger groups.

“If we’re teaching people leadership skills as individuals and not as teams, there is a problem,” she said. “You need to get to people early to put in place leadership behaviours [and] shape their trajectory.”

Business priorities

Leadership training should not be implemented without careful thought. Gavin McQuillan, Royal Bank of Scotland’s head of learning, said employers should align it with their business priorities to get the most out of their investment, for both learners and employers.

“You cannot have an educational strategy that does not link to the business strategy – you will die as a learning team,” he said.

For this reason, it is important that learners were engaged in their skills development – especially those already in leadership positions who might have very limited time to dedicate to learning. Abelli suggested offering staff bite-sized “micro” learning resources, which could target time-poor learners who might only have a few minutes between meetings to learn. Such resources might only be two or three minutes in length and could easily be accessed on a mobile device.

Another way to keep learners with other priorities engaged is offering tools that teach through relatable scenarios. Skillsoft said it used scriptwriters to develop its leadership training content, which allowed it to tell a compelling story. This meant learners wanted to come back for more to see how the story played out.

“It gets people interested,” added Abelli. “Like their favourite TV show, they want to know what the characters do next.”

Some of Skillsoft’s leadership development resources work in a similar way to online streaming services like Netflix. It suggests resources based on learner’s own interests or requirements and allows them to pick the courses they’re interested in.

Reinforcing learning

On the topic of keeping skills development a priority during employees’ day-to-day activities, Abelli said employers should consider reinforcing key messages to remind staff to engage with their training platform. “They could use mobile apps to send inspirational tips or reflective questions,” she suggested.

Today, classroom-based learning simply isn’t enough to keep future business leaders engaged, Abelli claimed. Classroom courses don’t “reach” learners frequently enough and don’t encourage their behaviour to change.

Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development content at the CIPD, said most employees had the ability to access learning tools on their smartphones. He said businesses needed to “wake up to the fact that we need to enable smartphones in the workplace” and suppress the view that employees were wasting their time by using their phone at work.

You cannot have an educational strategy that does not link to the business strategy – you will die as a learning team,” – Gavin McQuillan, Royal Bank of Scotland

“It’s actually a great tool for workplace development,” Lancaster explained. “Your smartphone is 32,000 times more powerful than the computer that took man to the moon.”

Skills of tomorrow

When considering their leadership L&D strategy, businesses needed to look beyond the qualities they currently required to increase the longevity of the skills their workforce possess. According to Steve Wainwright, managing director, EMEA at Skillsoft, employers needed to develop the “skills of tomorrow” to ensure they remained competitive, including leadership, collaboration, innovation, creativity and design, to name but a few.

RBS’s McQuillan said the bank focused on skills development in order to remain relevant in a changing financial landscape. As a result, it has seen a return on investment of £17 for every £1 spent on L&D.

“What might sound crazy today might be the answer to everything tomorrow,” he reminded L&D professionals.

With the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership suggesting earlier this year that businesses are failing to develop the future leadership that society needs, employers now need to concentrate on how they’re going to cultivate this talent at all levels of the workforce in order to remain competitive.

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