What is Leadership Development and What is L&D’s Role?

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In an age of robots, machine learning, and automation, do we need leaders anymore?

Indeed, we do. Strong leadership, creative problem solving, and communication skills are always in demand. According to LinkedIn Learning’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, 57% of L&D professionals are focused on developing leadership and management skills.

Over half of the executives surveyed for Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report suggested that skillful leadership is vital to navigating the unknown futures ahead.

But the skills needed for today’s leader can look slightly different to that of yesteryear. In the past, many organizations used “positional leadership,” or the concept that people led through the power of their intelligence, title, and job level.

However, times have changed. “Today great leaders drive change through their reputation, ability to empower people, willingness to experiment, and focus on developing people and their teams,” notes HR consultant Josh Bersin.

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As we’ve seen during the pandemic, companies need a new breed of leader. Every professional, line worker, or even outside contractor or consultant can be thrust into a leadership position. Titles can be all over the map: supervisor, manager, project manager, or team lead. Leaders do not necessarily need to have a job title indicating as such, but yet they can hold positions in which they demonstrate leadership.

“When I look at the leadership models companies build today, they are now focused on leading in a network, driving results through influence, building an inclusive team, and staying close to customers in an environment with constant change and interruption,” adds Bersin.

Ironically, organizations spend a tremendous amount of money on leadership development—with uncertain results. Estimates from Training Industry indicate that $3.5 billion was spent globally on leadership development in 2019. Unfortunately, according to McKinsey & Company, only 11% of more than 500 executives surveyed strongly agreed that their leadership development efforts achieved desired outcomes.

So how can learning leaders develop and deliver a leadership development strategy to position the organization for success? Let’s look at four key components.

1. Garner Executive Buy-In

L&D cannot progress without being championed by those at the very top of the organization.

The number #1 takeaway from LinkedIn Learning’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report is that while L&D budgets continue to grow, the effort to encourage execs to champion learning, unfortunately, remains a challenge.

“Executive buy-in is critical to gain broad participation and engagement,” notes TrainingIndustry.com. “If leaders don’t care, why should employees?”

As a critical first step, ensure that leadership is on board with leadership training. By demonstrating the intended, measurable outcomes, you’ll have an easier time garnering buy-in.

2. Gather Organizational Needs

Next, try and understand the problem. The need to develop the organization’s next generation of leaders should surface through a needs assessment.

If a needs assessment is used to measure performance requirements and the knowledge, abilities, and skills that employees need to achieve those requirements, leadership can certainly be one of these abilities or skills.

In this way, if the team regularly conducts needs assessments, then leadership can simply be added to the cycle so that it seems like a rather natural, non-intrusive way to better understand leadership needs throughout the organization.

Keep in mind that a needs assessment should be conducted on three levels:

  • Organizational
  • Operational
  • Individual

Leadership can be studied at all three of these levels as well. The first two might seem obvious, but take a deeper look at the leadership skills of the individual employee, as this can be a great way to identify those with potential for taking on more managerial tasks.

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3. Develop a Change Management Plan

The most strategic leadership development initiative can fail without paying due diligence to supporting the organization through change. At its core, change management is about helping employees adapt to a new way of working—in this case, within a new culture of leadership development.

Training is essential to the change management process, and learning leaders can position themselves uniquely as strategists and enablers.

However, L&D cannot do it alone. As with other initiatives, be sure to identify “champions of change” throughout the organization, who are in a position to use their social and professional influence to help the organization participate in and welcome leadership development.

4. Evaluate and Iterate

Demonstrating results and proving impact is impossible without evaluation. To ensure success, create an evaluation plan in advance of launching the initiative, and make sure that the assessment seems like a natural part of the learning.

As with any learning experience, tie metrics to learning goals. This can be a challenge, as leadership training differs vastly from skills training. To better identify performance outcomes, work with employees’ managers to devise the key metrics and most effective ways to measure success.

Leadership training is still training. Without continued practice and support tools, what is taught can easily be forgotten. Ensure that even tools and support exist for leadership skills and can be easily delivered to learners “in the flow of work,” so that it seems intuitive and non-disruptive.

Looking to make some strategic changes in your L&D department? Check out this free strategy toolkit:
The Learning and Development Strategy Toolkit

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What is Leadership Development and What is L&D’s Role?