Successfully applying electricity in leadership development

Steven Phillips
Steven Phillips

The title illustrates the distance I have travelled, from Luddite to enthusiast, in the use of virtual delivery channels for leadership development. The enthusiasm is a result of discovering how virtual methods can add real value to the development process – not just be a cost-driven, value-destroying, soulless compromise.

There has been a very assumptive expectation of more use of technology in learning and development. This makes sense when it comes to distributing material that could be described as content. The benefits of pre-reading before attending a workshop are clear and obvious: workshop time can be more valuably dedicated to helping people develop their understanding and insight, rather than in simply reading/listening and digesting. Similarly, material can be made available for just-in-time access, available whenever and wherever required for timely application by a self-directed learner. This sort of application has only got more appropriate as the active process of ‘curating’ learning resources has become more widely understood and practised.

However, for our own leadership design and delivery teams, use of the virtual classroomhas often felt less satisfactory. This is largely because we believe that the process of real development is not about acquiring a body of knowledge but is a fundamentally social, multi-sensory, sense-making and practice-based experience; and that virtual working lacks the richness of face-to-face interaction that facilitates this experience.

Evaluation of our leadership development programmes shows that participants and clients value the opportunity for Generative Learning more highly than Programmed Learning. Generative Learning is about participants integrating new ideas into existing mental models, then discovering how to put them into day-to-day work practice.  Programmed Learning, on the other hand, is filling people up with pre-determined ‘stuff’ and prescriptions of how to do things (which can then be tested for retention and comprehension).

What we have found and been refining is the place of virtual plenary working in truly blended development programmes. Whilst upholding the need for at least some in-person plenary sessions for group work, we have taken the aspects of development that participants can do most effectively with and for each other in two’s or three’s and built virtual sessions around these. I don’t mean breakout sessions for discussion and reporting back, as these are even more tedious when delivered virtually than in real flesh, blood and yawning life. Instead these are processes in which participants are actively and directly supporting one another’s development and practice of new ways of working.

One of the simplest and easiest-to-imagine examples is the development of coaching capability (both personal orientation/perspective and skill). Using a platform like Webex Training Center, participants can be split into coaching triads in exactly the same way as they might be if co-located. They can be given access to relevant models on screen and be ‘visited’ by a facilitator moving from virtual practice room to virtual practice room.

We’ve also found this virtual peer working to be really effective when using more collaborative and progressive approaches, such as Appreciative Inquiry (in which participants can conduct virtual peer-to-peer interviews and then virtually meet to consolidate results) and Open Space (in which real work issues can be addressed through self-organising collaborations online). We’ve also moved online some of our Practice Support Groups (like an Action Learning Set but offering a wider learning agenda).

What has felt most critical to adding value is that:

  • The work is done by participants supporting each other’s learning and development in practice
  • The work is broadly dialogic – meaning is developed or emerges rather than one dominant position triumphing over others – and there is little or no ‘teaching’
  • The work involves pairs or threes at most
  • There is a delivery platform that allows participants to work in parallel virtual rooms and to be ‘visited’ by the facilitator
  • Participants feel sufficiently contained – safely held, psychologically, so they do not feel unduly at risk or exposed, partly because…
  • A high level of procedural structure is given to the work and participants have great clarity about what the work is and how to go about it

The results are illustrated by pilot evaluation of one of our current blended programmes that uses these virtual approaches in developing a population of 3,000 ‘managers of managers’ in a FTSE top 30 global technology business. It found that:

  • 100% of managers feel more encouraged to lead across the business and work more collaboratively
  • 100% of managers understand the value of building and strengthening their networks
  • 91% of managers have identified on-going personal leadership challenges/opportunities and new ways to work on them