Leadership and talent development are a growing and increasingly urgent reality for many companies.

Increasingly companies are looking at their workforce through the eyes of talent acquisition and concern: who is doing well, who can do better and which processes deliver the most effective growth in the skill sets companies look to advance.

Yet, the way we develop our skills is profoundly changing with more and more training programs and capacity building moving online and breaking away from traditional formats.

This has both its good and bad sides, something that I explore in this blog as well as the notion of the long-term game that any skill development really requires, and what these kinds of changes could mean for climate adaptation.


Changing nature of executive coaching  and training

Leadership development is an issue that is now encouraged at workplaces, and increasingly part of performance review.

In the era of digital platform however such platforms like Personal Learning Clouds are starting to take over the traditional education formats, such as week-long on-campus courses and programs.

In the recent Harvard Business Review article “The Future of Leadership Development” by Professors Moldoveanu and Naryandas, three key gaps in executive education were pointed out that are useful in understanding as these determine the current state of play:

  1. Motivations Gap. Organisations increasingly want highly skilled staff and continue investing in personal development programs. Yet, often they are seeing less in return for the organisation as they would like as many staff see these as opportunities to skill up and leave.
  2. Offering vs. Needs Gap. Current leadership trainings offer packages and a range of skills to be developed, yet these are not necessarily the ones that particular teams need and are exactly looking for.
  3. Skill Transfer Gap. Learning something in theory is very different as to how these learnings are and can be put to practice. The further the theory is from the context in which these skills should be implemented, the harder it is to bridge this gap.

Some skills are also much easier to teach, apply in practice, and evaluated: for example, how can you evaluate advances in better communication skills or how one works more effectively as part of a team as a result of attending a program?

This is something that is not fixed through a 2-day expensive “Unleash Your Great Leadership” workshop or summit.

Don’t get me wrong, attending workshops and summits is great for networking and taking the time out of our busy schedules to direct attention to these things (if you can resist checking your work email every 5 minutes).

But attending a workshop is not going to magically bestow upon you great leadership, and these kinds of formats are losing ground anyway as there is increasingly an appetite for much more tailored and specific learning.

Just like in learning a new sport we all have to keep practicing the fundamentals: how to hold the racket, how to position our arms in free style, how to control the soccer ball in the field.

It is the constant learning of fundamentals that is the key and on-going tailored programs, tailored towards individual’s and team’s skill sets, are increasingly required for excellence.


Put in the hard yards at work to learn

Yet, we need to acknowledge that true leadership is learned on the job: it is through constant reflection and learning over time that we begin to change our habits and embrace our strengths in becoming more inclusive leaders.

Leadership development is a long-term game given that “Meaningful, lasting behavioural change is a complex process, requiring timely personalised guidance” (Moldoveanu & Naryandas, p. 46).

For example, making strategic choices in how to track and invest your time and efforts in learning to lead better requires a long-term steady commitment to learning.

In fact, one of the main complaints about executive education is that it is often not clear how the newly acquired skills should and can be put in practice:

In the US, some estimate that only 10% of the yearly 200 million-dollar investment by corporations in leadership development delivers actual significant results on the ground.

Granted, it is still insanely difficult to track the actual benefits on the job from taking part in these activities (e.g. how do the teachings and learning translate into better people management directly).

These cloud-based platforms however seem to be changing the game: more interactive on-going long-term training makes it possible to assess the skills gained and creates “a micro-optimization paradigm” that is much more specific in its aims.

Such a shift can narrow down the gap between theory and practice as feedback is less or more immediate and thus enables the blending of learning new knowledge, using that knowledge, and then circling back to a coach or program to reflect on what has happened.


Putting in place tracking/measuring processes

But I think organisations need to worry less about that and focus more on making sure that staff that is involved in skill and capability related activities can create their own track records in terms of how they put these skills into practice.

One way could be gathering testimonials from staff, providing an ongoing social group to reflect on leadership and management challenges and opportunities at work, and enabling individuals to increase their confidence that they can handle tough conversations but with respect.

In our university, we are using Manager as a Coach program that is a university-wide initiative (I was in the 2ndcohort) that focuses on using positive psychology through a more longer-term approach (3 months).

I have been impressed with the format that is a mix of workshops, group sessions and 1-on-1 coaching where the focus is on reflecting and learning both at individual and whole cohort level.

The one thing that is missing from the program at the moment is a more consistent follow-up and keeping the learners learning and able to keep sharing even after they finish the official program (but we are working on how to do this).

There is also Coaching for Leaders Academy with Dave Stachowiak that runs online, includes leadership assessments, small group bi-weekly meetups via zoom, and access to online community.


3 key factors in leadership development

So if these issues are something that you have been thinking, you need to pay attention to three particular issues in order to make good investments in skill building:

  1. Commitment for the long game

Many people tend to think that “leadership” is like a certificate, you can earn one and tick off that box. But clearly you already know better so look for people who clearly have an appetite for their own personal development but who you can see as becoming change makers within your organisation and that would benefit from structured long-term training in skills associated with daring leadership.

  1. Learning on the job

Embrace the fact that it’s ok to learn on the job and that the whole point about learning is to stay grounded in curiosity while you make mistakes. It’s all about little steps because every situation, staff member and organisation is different. In the end, it is about “people, people, people” and we cannot control how others behave. So give yourself some slack and practice self-kindness: bad comments are wake up calls but also a chance to reflect what you can learn. Failures= learnings.

  1. Acknowledge different values and aspirations

People have different values, beliefs and aspirations, and not everyone aspires for example in academia to be a professor at Harvard someday. Some academics just want to research and teach, and while climbing the corporate ladder is part of that process, sometimes people don’t have a grand vision for what they want to achieve.

We need to be ok with that as well and accept that organisations are made up of individuals who do not necessarily all harbour world changing impacts. It also depends on what they call and perceive an impact: a lecturer who manages to change a student’s view of the topic and ignite passion for a career might count that as the ultimate impact they seek. Just make sure that someone does not gear down their ambition because they think they are not destined for more.


Making leadership development to work for climate adaptation

There are many insights that we can gather from the ongoing discussion how we can embed more leadership training and capacity building into climate adaptation projects and programs.

For example, in the beginning of a project, it could be beneficial to more distinctly map out the project team’s current skill sets and identify opportunities for them to participate in some of these activities.

In some leadership programs, participants undertake personalised assessments that help them to identify their strengths, leadership styles, including communication styles.

You might ask whether this is relevant for adaptation especially since many of the programs and projects have rather short timeframes and are more focused on implementation or developing an adaptation plan for implementation.

But that is to miss the point of all of this.

This is about people, people, people: it is about enabling project staff to think beyond a particular project and focus on how they can become more apt professionals who are passionate about climate adaptation.

If each adaptation project would have a strong focus on fostering the staff’s skills across range of areas, including the “affective components” that are harder to measure (leading, communicating, energizing teams), we could be building a much stronger climate adaptation professional community worldwide.

We could use some of the new cloud-based platforms for training and skill building that are much lower in cost and enable participants to attend and do the courses regardless where they are based.

But I am not saying that all these new technologies must replace real face-to-face learning.

There is still much value in getting people together in person because this allows deepening of relationships and sharing of insights in an another level.

Yet, investing in both forms of learning is highly beneficial especially in a time when a variety of different formats enable more people to access and learn.