Overcoming Challenges to Democratizing Leadership Development

The goal of fully democratized leadership development is to create a cohesive leadership culture transcending all levels and geographies.

Training Magazine

According to Brandon Hall Group’s study, Creating Leadership Development for Everyone, about seven out of 10 organizations believe leadership development training is needed for every employee.

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

More than 80 percent 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 – huge ones – has challenges and competes with many other learning priorities, Brandon Hall Group research respondents said. In addition, more than 60 percent said fully democratized leadership development could send the wrong message that everyone needs to be developed for a leadership role.

Addressing the Barriers

Despite the interest in offering leadership development to all employees and the acknowledged benefits, only 35 percent of organizations now offer some leadership training for every employee.

The problem with this is that the nature of leadership is changing. The administration 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, vital leadership behaviors must be demonstrated more broadly and at all levels.

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

The critical question is: 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. A rich, inclusive, collaborative culture can be built with everyone operating from the same leadership values.

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 the barriers:

Redefine or Clarify What Leadership Means

More than 60 percent 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 be promoted into leadership positions.

This 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 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.

Make Leadership Development More Agile

Even with the recent focus on continuous 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 not the best strategy to develop leaders capable of driving business success. It can play a role but not a lead role. 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 individual competencies as essential or critical. Does anyone think periodic learning events that take leaders away from their jobs for extended periods will 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.

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 the 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 faster and relatively inexpensive approaches. These include content developed by learners, microlearning, virtual peer discussions, chat rooms, and experiential learning.

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 must get creative and find ways to meet the multiple learning priorities, focusing squarely on the most critical business objectives – all of which require outstanding leadership. 

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