Late last year when SHRM conducted research on the challenges HR will face in the next decade, developing corporate leaders was a top concern. Unfortunately, that’s been a perpetual concern for some time now, but companies are investing more in leadership development of late to quell HR and executive management’s distress. In fact, Bersin by Deloitte noted that companies increased leadership development spending to an estimated $13.6 billion in 2012, a 14% increase over the previous year, according to the firm’s 2012 Leadership Development Factbook. That’s a big chunk of development change.
However, not all leadership development programs are created equal – despite the amount of resources invested. There’s a myriad of tried but not always true traditional programs that go back decades, and others that are more relevant, intimate and innovative but not necessarily scalable. And then there’s the new world of online learning that ebbs and flows organically with the way we create, curate, consume and share relevant content with one another.
It’s the companies that weave collaboration and interactive learning into traditional but personally-driven development programs that yield the most successful future leaders and best support employees on their career development paths.
Defining Social Learning
Leadership is not a skill set that can be taught through a single course; most human development isn’t for that matter. Nor is there a manual for building the softer attributes necessary to be a good leader – compassion, empathy, listening, patience, relationship-building, to name a few. Even if there were a simple tutorial, formal training programs are not how most of us prefer to learn, and how we actually learn, certainly not our future leaders, who are first and always learners.
While formal classroom training could provide a foundation for a leadership program, we learn best “in the wild,” surrounded by and collaborating with our peers and mentors. In-person sessions, live virtual sessions, ongoing threaded collaborative communication, and hands-on workgroup exercises cement relationships among future leaders and encourage employees to take cues from their peers about next steps within an organization or beyond. Leadership development programs that identify a subset of high-potential employees and foster continuous learning and collaboration among those individuals can be defined as a form of social learning.
“Social” still throws people management professionals today, because it’s often misconstrued by some executives that the use of “social” technologies are helping employees make friends at work and swap awkward workplace stories, pictures and videos. On the contrary, social really enables peer groups and future leaders to share information as well as develop and provide their own learning connect for others. Social collaboration platforms power a continuous learning cycle –today’s learners are tomorrow’s leaders, and today’s leaders power tomorrow’s learners.
While leadership development programs that encourage collaboration and peer relationship building best support employees on their career tracks, what are the advantages to the employer?
Looking back at the SHRM study, the top concern of HR in coming years is an organizations’ ability to retain and reward the best employees – another one we’ve seen quite a bit of over the past decade actually. It’s a valid concern considering younger generations’ propensity to be loyal and emotionally committed to the work they do, but not necessarily always the enterprise they do it in. According to a survey from The Future Workplace, 91% of workers born between 1977 and 1997 expect to stay in a job for less than three years, amounting to between 15 and 20 jobs over the course of their careers. It can only help boost longevity if employees can visualize their careers within an organization and have formed professional and enduring peer relationships within future leadership workgroups.
Aside from potentially improving retention, when future leaders are working in peer groups and building relationships, HR managers and other executives are often able to better identify mentor assignments. The best mentor relationships emerge organically and aren’t blindly assigned, the way many of us befriend others who have “been through the fire” throughout our careers. Professionals mentored in collaborative leadership development communities tend to have stronger bonds within and with their organization, are more emotionally committed to their work, and are more satisfied with their careers.
Further, while many companies claim they have formal succession planning processes in place, the reality is that too many companies scramble reactively to find replacements when talented leaders leave. However, progressive organizations that have social learning technologies in place are finding that new leaders emerge from continuous learning and leadership development programs. HR managers can also identify new internal candidates beyond the bonds of usually limiting employee titles by observing shared learning activities among peers via visually powerful analytics and reporting.
HR managers and company executives can capitalize on the outcomes of leadership development programs that align development with other formal talent management strategies and ultimately improve business outcomes.
Kevin W. Grossman has held multiple leadership positions in the human resource and recruiting marketplace, B2B and consumer technology marketplace and higher education for the past 25 years. He’s a marketing strategist, HR industry evangelist, online community developer, entrepreneur, analyst, advisor, manager, philanthropist and writer. He is currently the Director of Product and Content Marketing for Peoplefluent, the leading provider of talent management solutions designed to support the entire workforce.