Making personal leadership development work online

Even though we are in the middle of a digital revolution, the process of developing of both personal leadership skills and management teams, has yet to move online. The reason mainly being, that these processes require:

  • A high level of mutual trust, social commitment and involvement among the participants.
  • An environment where your personal leadership practices can be both experienced, experimented with and reflected upon with candor.
  • A very high degree of verbal and non-verbal communication and feedback, often shifting rapidly between people in both pairs, trios, groups and plenary.
  • Great flexibility in adapting to the present mood or reactions of the participants and using it to make them active — similar to that of process consulting.

All these things are quite difficult to achieve online. This means that much leadership development still occurs at physical gatherings. We are however approaching a technological tipping point in regards to the above four obstacles.

Educational technology developments

In the past five years we have seen huge investments in online learning. Much of the focus has been in software to automate the content delivery and running of courses — especially in Moocs. Moocs are however having severe difficulties with getting participants to complete the courses. Some estimates putting average completion rate below 10%.

Most online learning, both classic e-learning, blended learning and Moocs, fails to overcome the four above obstacles for developing leadership capability.

  • They don’t create the personal connections and community among the participants that a prolonged effort requires.
  • They don’t relate the content and learning processes enough to the context of the individual participant.
  • They don’t promote or facilitate dialogue and feedback at enough levels among those involved.
  • Finally they are extremely rigid, preventing facilitator improvisation and pacifying learners instead of setting them free as active explorers.

The intention to automate learning and make whole curriculums and content available online has been a major influence in EdTech facing these problems today. Notable exceptions are the altMBA, the Minerva School and Georgia Tech University whose online degrees all show very high completion rates. They also each address our four obstacles. They do however all rely more on software from outside EdTech, mainly collaborative tools.

Collaborative software

At the same time as the big investments in EdTech, we have seen the emergence of a vast array of online collaborative software tools. Tools that make both synchronous and asynchronous sharing, linking, writing and editing text, images and video easy for groups and large online communities. These tools improve the pace and efficiency of many aspects of work — especially for connecting socially, delegating tasks, staying updated, visualising, sharing knowledge and creating content together.

Together with other technological forces they are actually changing how work is done and thus demand that leaders must learn to lead work with them. At the same time they are well suited for overcoming the four above obstacles for online leadership development. Each obstacle is examined in greater detail below.

Connecting socially

Learning is inherently social. Supporting, reflecting with, being acknowledged and seen by co-learners and expanding your network is important in all learning. This requires strong connections among learners.

For personal leadership development this is however not enough.

  • The mutual trust must be so high, that managers can talk about sensitive personal issues and exchange advice and feedback for increased self-insight.
  • Managers must be vulnerable and share issues and matters in which they are most insecure, talking about own errors, hopes and hypothesis’.

Only then can true candor flourish and personal habits change. On a leadership course, most of the real change is co-created in this way among the participants themselves.

It takes a very skilled trainer and facilitator to establish the required trust and not slide into an alpha-male competition among the participating managers. Without the right approach such a delicate process is downright impossible online.

By using collaborative software a skilled facilitator can however create situations where managers can connect strongly and establish the mutual trust required. Using synchronous conversations with both video and visual boards in pairs and small groups, the dialogues can be driven to very personal levels.

The facilitator must learn how authentic personal online conversations works; They currently require more time and in smaller groups with brief and vivid facilitation. This demands the smooth gathering of participants in small video meetings for example in break-out groups or sessions.

Personal transformation

The above social element opens for leadership development as a process of personal transformation. As such it must be about the participating managers own daily leadership practice. It must be (or at least feel) tailormade and all content and exercises must relate to and be applicable in the learner’s own context. His or her own aspirations and challenges are in many ways the content.

Ordinary physical leadership development is often experienced as personally transforming because of inspiring speeches and presentations by charismatic speakers. Such speakers have an ability to connect with and adapt to the audience that is often highly appreciated in training evaluations. However such presentation and speeches don’t work well online. Current attempts at online presentations in both video meeting and webinars, leaves the audience feeling disconnected with a speaker that rarely appears to be talking directly to them personally.

We recommend putting such presentations on video and spending all time together on working with the participants own challenges.

  • Online it is very easy (compared to being away on a physical leadership course) for the learner to bring actual work and colleagues into the training.
  • When online and with the required levels of trust and confidentiality described above, the learning can be brought to the work.
  • This leaves the need for simulation, cases, role-play and transfer and makes training much more personal and rewarding.

Such high degree of adaption to the learners personal situation does however make it difficult to control exactly what is learned. This often gives the facilitator or trainer an experience of loss of control. Teaching certain leadership standards is difficult across unique personal situations, but feedback can address this.

Constant feedback

Making leadership development happen is not a matter of one-way communication, nor of classic teaching or instruction. It requires the facilitation of multiple conversations, often shifting quickly between individual observation and reflection, to dialogue in pairs, then trios or groups of four to six, presenting findings in plenary and back to talking in pairs etc. This is also true for conversations on performance, requiring a process of debriefing and evaluation.

A key element of all dialogue is feedback. Instant feedback on your verbal and non-verbal behavior as well as ideas and opinions etc. Many exercise and approaches (such as the world-cafe) require this rapid orchestration of dialogues and feedback.

Online such dialogue facilitation is difficult at best, often impossible (especially with Skype, which works extremely poor and mysteriously still remains popular among large organizations). With the required software, connection and trust among participants it does however become possible to achieve quite a flow of multiple conversations. This can be done with combinations of chat and video conference break-out sessions.

The good thing is, that when a critical level of dialogue and feedback first has been achieved synchronously (which is hard), it continues asynchronously (much easier) to a much higher degree online than offline.

A key element here is the possibility for not only peer learning, but also peer assessment. Such sensitive feedback must be facilitated and apps can be found supporting this. It is also possible for video feedback and assessment.

These solutions gives back some control to the trainer as to keeping up leadership standards, but requires at least systematic sampling or the involvement of role models, mentors or the managers of the participants for delivering the feedback.

Active learning

Due to the lack of rich sensory input online compared to physical interaction, it is important that the participants are constantly active, co-creating and contributing online. The above three elements help, but cannot stand alone.

Content in the form of brief videos, texts and articles should be processed, discussed and evaluated by learners asynchronously before meetings. This can be done using online chat systems that allows for file-sharing, commenting in threads and discussion lines.

When meeting synchronously (at the same time), the participants should enter into a strong mix of different activities that allow them to focus on personal issues when applying the prepared content in their daily work.

  • They should meet other co-learners in new group combinations and get maximum opportunity for reflection, action, evaluation and feedback.
  • Practising leadership is key here, and there are many activities where participants can be given leadership roles without resorting to role-playing.
  • Inviting real co-workers or staff into the training is a great option when high levels of trust and confidentiality has been established.

All of the above activities must be facilitated for personal development to occur and there are in my experience no signs that this sensitive process can be automated in the manner attempted in much online learning today.

This is essentially an online flipped class-room approach to learning. There are many active learning processes using games, simulations and other exercises that works well online when supplemented by collaborative tools for online post-its, whiteboards and decision work. It is a big virtual playground out there with the many available online tools and many of them are free.

Going online

Making the change from traditional physical leadership development to an online one is a difficult transition. Many companies today are struggling with disruptive industrial changes and trying to be more digital in their value proposition, value chain or business model. Such company transformation often requires that they see themselves more as a software and data company. It is much the same transformation of mindset that the HR department or trainer faces.

The good news is that you are not going to be overtaken by software experts. The online trainer and facilitator must primarily have solid experience in personal leadership training and development, secondarily in using collaborative software him- or herself. Experience with participating in online personal development and in online collaboration yourself is highly recommended as well.

The change essentially requires a digital mindset which is rare in HR and management development. The most difficult barrier is for leadership trainers and consultants to accept the huge constraints the online environment puts on their normal practice. It will initially make every aspect of their online work feel slow, flawed, counter-intuitive and inefficient. This will probably continue until the trainer accepts the loss of physical presence and embraces the opportunities for using video, data, global diversity and learning-at-work that online development can bring!

You should however not allow the endless technological possibilities to let you lose sight of what leadership development essentially is about: How to create the context for the participants to expose, work with and change their deep-rooted social habits and mindsets? Everything that reduces them to an audience, reading, watching video and other people chatting or conversing, is not going to cut it.

Learner experience design

As we bring the learning of leadership online, we should also invite design thinking in:

  • User experience (UX) design is now a fundamental part of all modern software development and application.
  • Seeing the digital learner as a digital user allows us motivate and teach him or her optimally. This is the future of learner experience (LX) design.

The learning designer must integrate the many fields relevant to the experience (software, interfaces, psychology, leadership, collaboration etc.) and make leadership programs that are both easy, intuitive and gratifying to join and participate in, while delivering the depth and quality intended. This is the present challenge and potential of online leadership development.

Lars Hoffmann is a danish business psychologist, learning designer and senior management consultant at IME and Henley Business School, Denmark. Lars combines both empathy and human insight with a flair for design, technology and games. He’s developed numerous dialogue tools, games, simulations and programs for leadership development for large scale organizational change. He has worked extensively with senior management team development using active learning. Lars leads an online team developing software for facilitating difficult conversations.

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