Overcoming Challenges to Democratizing Leadership Development

About seven out of ten organizations believe leadership development training is needed for every employee, according to Brandon Hall Group’s study, Creating Leadership Development for Everyone. 

The trend, which has evolved over the past few years, is to democratize leadership development as much as possible. 

More than 80% of organizations surveyed said democratizing leadership development has the following significant benefits for both employees and employers: 

However, offering leadership development across an entire enterprise – especially large ones – has challenges and competes with many other learning priorities, Brandon Hall Group research respondents said. In addition, more than 60% said fully democratized leadership development could send the wrong message that everyone needs to be developed for a leadership role. 

The problem with this is that the nature of leadership is changing. Leadership used to be associated with management and top-down authority. But in a hybrid workforce where various types of teams – from traditional work teams to cross-functional teams, project teams and more – are called upon to drive business results, strong leadership behaviors must be demonstrated more broadly and at all levels. 

Every year when Brandon Hall Group asks about the most critical human capital management priorities, leadership development ranks at or near the top. More organizations should act on their instinct — that fully democratized leadership development is critical — and expand leadership training to all levels of the organization. Clearly, there are some challenges and obstacles, but they are worth addressing and overcoming. 

What are the best ways to overcome barriers to fully democratized leadership development? 

The goal of fully democratized leadership development is to create a cohesive leadership culture transcending all levels and geographies. With everyone operating from the same set of leadership behaviors, a rich, inclusive collaborative culture can be built. 

However, every organization faces challenges and barriers to change. At least half of organizations surveyed say they face these obstacles 

Here are three critical strategies to address obstacles: 

1 Redefine or Clarify What Leadership Means 

More than 60% of organizations surveyed said offering leadership development for all employees could be interpreted as suggesting all employees should aspire to leadership positions. The inference is that offering universal leadership development would be misleading and could cause a backlash when few people can actually be promoted into leadership positions. 

We believe that is a false narrative. Leadership comes in many shapes and forms, formal and informal and at all levels of an organization. Exposing all employees to an organization’s leadership values and principles is not misleading. It is foundational. It communicates expectations so employees understand the responsibilities of leadership if and when they are called upon and also understand what they should expect from their leaders. 

As collaboration and inclusiveness become ever-more-critical factors in an organization’s success, anyone at any level can be called on at any time to lead – as part of a work assignment, a cross-functional team, a project and much more. 

2 Make Leadership Development More Agile 

Even with all the recent focus on continuous learning and personalized learning, almost three-quarters of organizations cited in-person or virtual classroom learning as a critical leadership development modality. 

Let’s be clear: event-based learning is a losing strategy to develop leaders capable of driving business success. In our leadership research, we listed more than 35 leader competencies and asked respondents to rank their importance. More than half of respondents ranked 24 separate competencies as important or critical. Does anyone think periodic learning events are going to address all those needs? 

The key to success in leadership development is to offer continuous learning journeys with a rich mix of modalities that provide leaders and prospective leaders with choices on what, how and where they learn. 

3 Be Creative and Flexible with Learning Interventions 

Three-quarters of respondents in our research said competition with other learning priorities is a significant challenge to fully democratized leadership development. One reason is many organizations believe “learning” is restricted to formal learning, which relies on time-consuming and expensive development of courses. Learning leaders have more tools at their disposal now and must view learning through a wide lens that includes approaches that are faster and relatively inexpensive. These include content developed by learners, microlearning, virtual peer discussions and chat rooms, experiential learning and more. 

There are many competitors for leadership development, but it ranks at the top of the priority list on almost every survey Brandon Hall Group has conducted in the last five years. Learning leaders need to get creative and find ways to meet the multiple learning priorities they have, focusing squarely on the most critical business objectives — all of which require great leadership. 

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