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Reframing Leadership Development: Transformational Thinking Behind Learner Experience Design

Expanding What Leadership Development Can Do

A fresh approach to leadership development programs, focused on real-world outcomes and the learner’s needs, is having a significant impact on leadership training. One of the major factors behind its success is the pivotal role of learner experience design (LXD).

LXD shifts the focus away from content (including that based on best-selling books or generated by renowned thought leaders) to creating engaging, personalized, and impactful learning journeys. LXD makes leadership training more relevant and impactful for the learner and more strategic for the organization by building capabilities and skills rather than just knowledge transfer; recommending a flexible and individualized sequence of formal, informal, and social experiences; and providing opportunities for practice and reinforcement that carry over into on-the-job performance.

The new approach grounded in LXD is being driven, in part, by a shift in the needs, expectations, and priorities of Fortune 1000 organizations when it comes to leadership development programs. In a Brandon Hall Group Study, Developing Great Leaders (Fall 2023), they found 75% of participants identified the biggest need for leadership learning is “better integration of development into day-to-day work rather than one-off training.” Making leadership training more relevant to the actual on-the-job experience involves the following transitions:

  • From generic to specific – Companies are moving away from one-size-fits-all programs. They require leadership development tailored to their unique challenges, industry, and future goals.
  • From knowledge transfer to skill building – Leadership is not simply about knowledge anymore. Companies want programs that develop practical skills like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and agility.
  • From short-term to continuous learning – Leadership development is seen as an ongoing process, not a one-time event, so companies are seeking programs that foster a culture of continuous learning for leaders at all levels.
  • From ROI-focused to impact-driven – There is a growing emphasis on measuring the impact of leadership programs on business outcomes, not just participant satisfaction.
  • A broader focus, including priorities related to diversity and inclusion – The leadership journey can incorporate any of the priorities for the organization. Instead of stand-alone initiatives for DEI, consider an integrated experience that creates additional context for leaders.
  • Technology integration – Learners benefit from an integrated experience—one that bridges disparate technologies for online learning modules, simulations, in-person activities, etc., with access to data-driven insights on their progress.
  • Leadership agility – The ability to adapt to change is crucial. Programs should help leaders develop the skills to navigate an uncertain business landscape.

A Critical First Step: Alignment on Leadership Capabilities

“Many of the factors contributing to the success of learning initiatives often take place prior to design and development of the actual leadership training program,” explains Ron Zamir, CEO, AllenComm. “Implementing a new leadership development program requires thoughtful alignment to ensure its success.” At AllenComm, designing the leadership experience usually begins with a detailed analysis of the leadership capabilities and skills to be developed.

This type of analysis typically includes:

  • Current leadership landscape – Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of current leadership practices and identifying areas the new program aims to improve.
  • Stakeholder input – Identifying key stakeholders (leaders, employees, HR) and their potential reactions and assessing their influence and potential resistance to change.
  • Culture assessment – Understanding the organization’s culture and its openness to change and determining the potential cultural barriers to the program’s adoption.
  • A leadership capabilities matrix – Mapping the desired capabilities and skills at each level of leadership so that priorities can be set.

Personalized Leadership Development Vs. One-Size-Fits All

Personalizing leadership learning for leaders at different levels in an organization—from front-line managers to top executives—better equips them with the necessary skills to thrive in today’s competitive landscape. The dynamic business environment today demands leaders with diverse skillsets at all levels, and a one-size-fits-all leadership development program is no longer adequate. A personalized approach, on the other hand, makes the learning experience more relevant to the individual’s job responsibilities, fosters continuous learning, helps build a strong leadership pipeline, and drives organizational success.

Designing for the needs of leaders at every level includes:

  • Analyzing the various target audiences
    • Identify the leadership skills involved at every level.
    • Review recent performance evaluations to identify common strengths and development areas for all leaders.
    • Conduct focus groups and surveys with leaders at each level to understand their specific challenges and learning preferences.
  • Designing learning paths (front-line managers, mid-level managers, and senior leaders and executives) and ways to personalize the learning experience for each path.
  • Building evaluation and continuous improvement mechanisms, including post-training surveys and skill assessments, to measure learning effectiveness.
  • Integrating technology into the program
    • Leverage the full value of the learning tech ecosystem.
    • Break down silos between systems to guide learners, scaffold their progress, and harmonize the key activities in each learning journey.
    • Bring together a diverse, strategic set of learning apps for microlearning, ready reference, social learning, project-based learning, and more.

An excellent example of personalizing the LX to the specific needs of the leader can be found in a program offered by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL). Their program, the AONL Transition to Nurse Manager Practice, is designed to meet the specific needs of nurses moving into a critical leadership role. Of course, these leaders are excellent nurses, but many of them are new to leadership and suddenly find themselves responsible for hundreds of nurses. The journey experience for these new nurse managers is designed to accommodate their busy schedules, and the content is not based on lofty leadership principles but is grounded in practical practices for making their transition.

The Intent and Practice of LXD

Investing in leadership development is not just about individual growth. It is about driving positive change within the organization. To strategically design a custom leadership learning experience for maximum impact, it is important to:

  • Measure what matters – Before diving into content, establish a clear vision for the program’s impact. What are the key organizational challenges leadership development aims to address? And be sure to identify KPIs that align with that vision.
  • Align development with strategy – Collaborate with senior leadership to understand the organization’s strategic goals and ensure the program equips leaders at all levels with the skills and knowledge they need to execute those strategies effectively.
  • Design for application – Make program elements action-oriented so leaders can apply their newly acquired skills in real-world scenarios, and provide ongoing support through coaching and mentorship so leaders receive ongoing personalized guidance.
  • Harness learning data for business impact – Integrate key leadership learning metrics with the organization’s Business Intelligence (BI) platform to create dashboards that track the program’s impact on the organization and set up feedback loops so leaders can see this progress.
  • Measure, adapt, and improve – Gather feedback from participants throughout the program and after completion to identify areas for improvement and ensure the program continues to align with evolving organizational needs.

Expanding the scope of what leadership development can do—beyond personal development to organizational development—was the aim of a recent AllenComm client in the high-tech industry. Currently in a stage of rapid growth, this client had recently acquired several other companies, but they did not want to lose their sense of identity and culture. To that end, one of the foundational experiences for their new leadership academy was to engage with the organizational stories and personal narratives of various leaders from across the growing enterprise.

The end goal is to create a learning journey that equips leaders not only with knowledge but also with the ability to drive positive change and achieve business results. This ensures the program will deliver a Return On Investment with impact for the individual learner and the entire organization.