Effective Leadership Development Through Cohort-Based Learning

Learning isn’t a single-player sport. The magic happens when we offer leaders a safe and synchronous learning space to get vulnerable together in the exciting and often daunting world of people management.

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Being a talented and effective leader doesn’t happen the moment you get the offer for promotion. It doesn’t happen when you log into your computer on that first day as a “Manager.” And it also doesn’t happen just because you start suddenly showing up to leadership meetings, listening to podcasts, attending virtual training on Zoom, or providing difficult feedback to your team members.

Showing up as a great leader—and being respected as one in your organization—is something that happens with time, along a journey of attempts, experiences, and failing-forward moments. Leadership skills are developed when we’re knee-deep in crucial conversations with our team, and are further established and fine-tuned by the responsiveness, action, and support a new leader provides that team. It’s in the sticky moments that true leaders are made, and where trust and psychological safety emerges.

Goals of Leadership Development Programs

However, newly promoted managers often don’t have the luxury of time. They need to manage and make an impact with their teams now. So it’s the initial learning space that makes all the difference in the footing they gain and how their journey and outlook are shaped. New leaders won’t leave a leadership development program or new manager onboarding and be a whiz at people management or business strategy. As enablement practitioners, we hopefully recall the significance of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (MindTools. “Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve: Why We Keep Forgetting and What We Can Do About It.” MindTools.com, Emerald Works Limited, https://www.mindtools.com/a9wjrjw/ebbinghauss-forgetting-curve, January 2023), where we can expect that about 90 percent of what was taught to new leaders or what they read will be forgotten within 30 days, and 70 percent will be lost within just one day! (Fernandes, Grayson. “Studies Suggest That as Much As 90% of Information Is Forgotten Within 30 Days.” LinkedIn.com, Training Industry Magazine, June 10, 2018 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/studies-suggest-much-90-information-forgotten-within-30-fernandes/, January 2023). Therefore, while practicing every possible leadership scenario and scoring highly on learner knowledge is great, it’s also unrealistic to expect this will cover everything new leaders experience when they leave the classroom setting.

Instead, the goal of leadership programs should be for learners to leave feeling energized and inspired, and with more self-awareness and a willingness to explore and be vulnerable. This prepares them for the good days and the bad days they will experience as a leader. And it opens learners up to the opinions and ideas shared across the larger group that can help them to shape their own unique leadership identity now and to challenge it in the future.

What we propose is a social constructivist learning space for leadership development (Adams, Paul. “Exploring Social Constructivism: Theories and Practicalities.” Education 3-13 34, no. 3 (October 2006): 243–57. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004270600898893). This is an environment that allows new leaders to feel safe with taking a look in the mirror and getting to know themselves, while they also actively develop new knowledge of leadership skills with and through their peers by “rumbling with vulnerability” and testing theories together in real time (Brown, Brene. “Part One: Rumbling With Vulnerability.” Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, Random House, 2018, pp. 19 – 43). [4]

4 Key Elements

To make these cohort-based environments most impactful, we’ve identified 4 key elements that will support new leaders and their synchronous learning:

  1. Development of Self-Efficacy and Shifting Mindsets 

The first challenge many brand new leaders face is going from a top performer and subject matter expert in their previous role as an individual contributor, to someone who suddenly may not have all the answers and is meant to support a team looking for answers. For some, there may be that little voice telling them, “You can’t do this,” that they are an imposter and their team can sense their fear. Other new leaders in these learning spaces may lead with far more confidence, driven by success in their previous role as a top-performing individual contributor. It’s important to express to new leaders that everything they are feeling is normal. We should remind them of the power in exploring with and supporting one another, as it builds lasting relationships between new leaders and creates fertile ground for development over time. It’s also important they know it is perfectly alright to not have all of the answers, as long as they aim to provide a positive and supportive environment for their teams and to work hard at removing barriers, solving problems, and finding the way forward.

  1. Open and Ongoing Dialogue

By curating a space with new leaders where they can immediately start to express themselves and hear the experiences and fears of others in a psychologically safe environment, we’re able to better prepare these leaders for developing similarly safe spaces within their own individual teams and within larger leadership teams across the business. It encourages the group to ask more questions, all questions, and to start getting comfortable offering each other feedback or ideas on how to handle situations they may encounter. The use of virtual engagement tools (i.e., Google Jam Board, Zoom Whiteboards, or Miro Boards) can support this sense of shared experience and allows everyone to feel heard and seen, even if they aren’t called on to verbally share their response during a live session. These tools are also a great way to:

  • Expand leadership programs globally
  • Offer the cohort a way to refer back to what was shared
  • Encourage learners to reach out to new leadership peers for further dialogue
  • Prepare new leaders to go out and build a world of open dialogue and bi-directional feedback within their teams (i.e., peer-to-manager quarterly feedback surveys).
  1. Peer-to-Peer Practice of Leadership Power Skills 

The feeling of trying our hand at a new skill for the first time, and in front of a group of other humans, can be exhausting and unnerving. Let’s take, for example, attempting to ski for the first time as an adult (10 out of 10 would not recommend). There’s a lot of falling and screaming involved, and the entire time you get this sense that the other skiers are laughing at and/or feel embarrassed for you. Now, wouldn’t the experience be that much better, albeit still physically painful, if you and another brand new adult skier could simply ski alone with a trusted ski instructor? You’d be unbothered and out of sight of the expert skiers, both falling down over and over, but both getting back up to try again each time—and doing it together.

Similarly, a cohort-based leadership development program offers learners the opportunity to try out their new essential leadership skills (i.e., empathy) through practice with their peers and enables all learners to gain helpful, expert feedback in a safe environment. These peer-to-peer exercises open the door for individual learners to challenge their own beliefs in what they are capable of as a new leader, letting “imposter syndrome” take a back seat. We also may find that, according to a theory known as Zone of Proximal Development, in these moments of shared application and exploration, individual learners further challenge themselves by rising naturally to the skill levels of their peers (Adams, Paul. “Exploring Social Constructivism: Theories and Practicalities.” Education 3-13 34, no. 3 (October 2006): 243–57. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004270600898893).

  1. Real-Time Failing-Forward Moments 

Once learners have taken time to practice in their program’s demo environment, the aim is to build enough confidence for them to begin utilizing essential skills with their teams. Ideally, this occurs in real time while enrolled in their leadership program. This enables new leaders to work out the kinks in their methods (maybe they have to deliver a performance development plan for the first time that same week); start to hone their leadership style and voice with their team; experience those moments of uncertainty, awkwardness, and failure (an individual on their team may have become defensive over the development plan and the new leader froze up); and then return to the learning space to further workshop, openly discuss with peers, gain feedback, and be encouraged to try again.

Taking this one step further, learners should be encouraged to practice communicating these leadership failing-forward moments with their new team, to create an immediate impact on how the team views their leader (as totally human and not all-knowing) and how the team then can work effectively through their own moments of failure and develop growth mindsets together.

Jackie Clifford
Jackie Clifford is a Learning & Development strategist at Indeed.com, focused on sales enablement for the people who help people get jobs. She graduated from the University of Connecticut, where she studied English Literature. She has always been passionate about learning (and also teaching and helping others) as seen in her volunteer work with AmeriCorps NCCC and various tutoring and college preparatory organizations over the years. Clifford began her career in both sales and client success roles, and quickly found her niche in mentoring and supporting others, which led to her career in Global Learning & Enablement at Indeed. She most enjoys consulting with peers on learning strategy and career development, preparing leaders and teams for excellence in their roles, and working cross-collaboratively to make an impact on the business and its people. Connect with Clifford on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jackie-clifford-8b705b64/