From pilot to permanent: What’s next for virtual leadership development?

From pilot to permanent: What’s next for virtual leadership development?


A year ago, many people believed good leadership development had to be done in person. From facilitated sessions to individual coaching, face-to-face contact was considered essential to success.

But the pandemic of 2020 has revealed the enormous potential of virtual leadership development to be rich, engaging and highly effective.

Now more people have experienced great virtual leadership development, it is here to stay, either as a stand-alone learning option or as part of a hybrid model. While online learning has been around for more than 20 years, this year has raised our expectations of what can be achieved and the bigger role of digital in blended models for leadership development.

Nous has experienced this shift up close. We have delivered virtual leadership development to clients, often adapting their existing development plans to the new environment – and achieved great success.

In November we brought together executives responsible for leadership development across many organisations for a virtual roundtable. We wanted to tap into their experiences of virtual leadership development and explore what the future looks like.

Our executives came from sectors ranging from health to education and financial services, both in the public and private sectors. To encourage their candour, we agreed not to identify them or their organisations.

From our discussion there were six major themes in leadership development that our participants expected to remain beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual leadership development enables access by more people

Traditionally a limitation of in-person leadership development was the challenge of getting busy leaders away from daily commitments to fully engage in a multi-day program. Virtual leadership development can overcome this by offering bite-sized learner engagement spaced over weeks and months, built into the operating rhythm of the organisation.

Asynchronous learning allows the leader to learn at a time that suits them. This means more leaders can undertake more development without compromising their daily work obligations.

Virtual leadership development makes it easier to offer opportunities to people geographically dispersed and ensure that employees outside head office can take part. One participant in our roundtable said that previously staff outside the organisation’s home city had to wait for in-person visits twice a year to undertake training, but now could do it virtually at a range of times.

The upshot of this shift is that a broader range of people are getting involved in leadership development. “People we struggled with for a decade to be involved suddenly were,” one roundtable participant noted, adding that some people in their organisation previously doubtful of the benefits of leadership development were now choosing to participate.

Crises offer the perfect chance to lead amid uncertainty

When COVID-19 struck, many organisations contemplated suspending leadership development, believing it was not the right time to proceed. But our roundtable participants found that a real-world crisis in fact offers an ideal environment to develop leadership skills.

“We used COVID as a way for our core senior leaders to use their learning to come up with solutions,” one executive told the roundtable. Indeed, what better way to develop leaders to thrive amid the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) that leadership development often prepares for?

The pandemic has revealed the breadth of skills leaders require. It has shown the importance of being able to make decisions under time pressure with imperfect information, and of caring for the wellbeing of team members through empathy. While these topics were often covered in leadership development, they can now come to the fore, with real-world experience.

Heightened economic uncertainty meant many organisations sought to cut costs. While some had been tempted to trim their spending on leadership development, this would be short-sighted and represent a false economy given the need for leadership to get through the crisis.

One participant explained that the board discussed whether to abandon its leadership development efforts during the pandemic. “It was unanimous that we continue,” the participant told the roundtable. “Pivot has been my team’s mantra for the year,” another participant said.

Many executives on the roundtable argued a challenging time was the right time to invest in leadership development. They have been given the resources to make this happen and expect that support to continue after the crisis subsides.

Learning experience design is more important than ever

Virtual learning requires facilitators to think careful about how they structure the learning experience.

When in-person leadership development was the norm, a group workshop would typically be the centrepiece of a learning opportunity, with other elements arranged around it. In a virtual leadership development model, the other elements – such as online discussions and peer learning – take a more prominent place. It is essential they reinforce each other rather than act as discrete units.

With the pivot to virtual learning, it may be tempting to focus on the types of learning experiences rather than the objectives. Instead, organisations that have done well have started with the outcome they are trying to achieve, and then worked back. Those organisations looked at the challenge they were seeking to solve rather than the product to achieve that solution.

It is vital to invest in the design of the experience. “Technology cannot override poor design,” one participant noted.

Virtual learning requires a different tempo to in-person learning

Virtual learning sessions should run for no longer than 90 minutes, after which attention starts to wander and the ability to consolidate lessons can be lost. Conducting shorter sessions spaced over time can give learners time to reflect on the material and their application at work, using techniques such as maintaining a learning journal, experimenting with new practices and discussing reflections with colleagues. “This is actually suiting me,” one participant reported of the feedback she was getting from leaders.

Fitting leadership development into the operating rhythm of the business can give leaders a chance to quickly put into practice what they have learned. This way, learning can be part of the flow of work rather than relying on big marquee events, such as a residential workshop.

Leadership skills learnt can be rapidly applied on the job when learning is spaced. Previously, an immersive experience would need to be simulated but, in this case, the real crisis at work can become the immersion.

Reset the horizons for leadership development strategy

The pandemic acted as a catalyst for rapid and decisive change. The need for urgent action was helpful in overcoming inertia, meaning that some organisations achieved five years of advancement in their leadership development strategic goals in just a few months. Openness to virtual engagement of all kinds, including leadership development, has become almost universal, and many leaders have grappled with profound leadership challenges far greater than anything they had experienced before.

Executives responsible for leadership development therefore need to reset their goals and look ahead to the next horizon. On the technological front, this may involve considering what the ongoing model is for leadership development delivery. And on the subject matter front, consider what themes and topics are emerging and which ones can now be treated as an existing competency.

You need to get creative in measuring impact

How do you know if leadership development has had the desired impact? Participant feedback forms are useful but limited as tools to capture the effectiveness of learning.

Participants in the roundtable cited other signifiers of the impact of learning. Pulse checks – frequent and brief assessments of mood, perspective and actions – can give an indication of learning’s impact, so long as quality baseline data has been obtained beforehand.

One roundtable participant spoke about the language of the organisation’s leadership practices becoming more common in discussions among leaders, an indicator that the message had been internalised. Another participant said they had received anecdotal feedback that a team that had previously exhibited challenging behaviours had become easier to work with.

Amid tightened budgets, funders are likely to expect clearer evidence of the effectiveness of learning in order to continue offering support.

Many changes are here to stay

Even once the pandemic subsides, many of these changes are likely to stay. People have experienced the benefits and will be keen to maintain them. When it comes to working out what to keep, what to discard and what to modify, executives responsible for leadership development need to play an active role.

“I don’t see us moving back because we’re seeing the effectiveness, particularly with our client group of learners,” one person told the roundtable. “We’ve moved our organisation ahead five years in terms of where it was,” another person added. “I’m not going to let the organisation slip back.”

Clearly many people feel the same way.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous can support you to understand and implement the best practice that has emerged from other organisations.

Prepared with input from Chantelle Ashby.