If we hadn’t already tried virtual work and learning before, we have certainly gained plenty of experience over the past two years. Both good and bad. One thing is clear: remote is here to stay. So it’s time to draw some initial conclusions and look at the potential and the limitations of working on leadership development remotely.
We have designed and executed leadership development initiatives with plenty of clients – including during the last two years, through the pandemic. The switch to remote work felt especially experimental at the beginning. Now we’d like to share some insights and describe examples, observations and takeaways.
Case story 1
An assignment to do leadership development with the C-suite at an Austrian infrastructure company which itself is undergoing a fundamental transformation process. That calls for a strong management team that doesn’t just stand behind the changes but steers them with skill and confidence. And a leadership programme that integrates and supports the planned changes.
To prevent the company management and the development of the business from being perceived as two separate things, we established a close link between the leadership work and the company development process. And brought the executives into the development as a representative steering group. HR was previously orchestrating this process.
Then came Covid, lockdowns and uncertainty. We were able to launch the programme in person. After that, we opened ourselves up to the experiment of executing the entire training programme remotely. In summer 2020, a “Leadership and the home office” module was quickly added. From the get-go, we promoted dialogue, integrated analogue elements in between the modules and encouraged small groups to take learning journeys. The working times during the training sessions were mostly three blocks with sufficient breaks in between. Overloading the modules with too much content quickly took its toll and forced us to focus and streamline: “What’s really important?”
Case story 2
Our experience with leadership development at a global automotive supplier was quite similar. Unlike the process described above, the executives in this case do not share the same programme all the way through. They book only the module that they need for their development. The modules are aligned with each person’s development needs and with the current challenges. Originally, all the training sessions were to be held in person over the course of two or three days.
With the onset of the pandemic, the options for the executives were moved online. The goal was not simply to transpose the training to virtual formats. We decided to use all the opportunities that virtual work offers – which, after all, are especially well suited to a global corporation. That turned a standard two-day training session into a learning process spanning several weeks that promotes the transfer into practice. Plus, it brings so many people from different cultures to work together that they form a truly global network. The training sessions were stretched to eight weeks. Rather than working for two days straight, we chose four half-day modules at two-week intervals. Here again, we created analogue modules in the form of peer groups among the participants.
Case story 3
During the first year of the pandemic, when it became obvious that there would not be a “return to the old normal”, a wholesaler decided to help its executives develop their remote leadership skills. Here, too, experience with online tools was limited and a cautiously skeptical attitude to remote work prevailed. Executives could attend meetings online, but they had no concept of how to design communication within and among their teams virtually. So they tended to avoid broaching issues, particularly sensitive ones, and postpone things until in-person meetings later.
We developed three half-day modules on “Fundamentals and principles of virtual leadership”, “Designing effective online communications” and “Dealing with tension and conflicts” in the virtual space. The groups were always the same, so a trustful, open culture of discussion was established.
Takeaways from the case stories: What can leadership development achieve remotely?
Much more than you think
The participants were open and accepting of the switch to virtual processes from the outset. Some had an easier time of it than others. But everyone understood that it was the only option for keeping communications – and thus also their own business – going. The way they engaged in the discussions around key topics and questions was impressive.
Well-designed virtual workshop settings are especially important for executives who are skeptical, hostile or insecure about remote work. There they find a space where they can communicate and gain new perspectives in dialogue. At the same time, they expand their toolkit when they themselves have good experiences with virtual settings. We don’t all have to become fans of remote working. But management must be able to design communication virtually as well – simply in order to remain effective.
Efficiency is improving – the settings are undergoing a sea change
A one-time learning event turns into a process with concentrated impetus, transfer phases and genuine breaks. For the people designing meetings and workshops, it’s all more highly structured and elaborate. Truly inspiring and effective work online calls for far more intensive and different preparation than in-person sessions: keeping presentations short, very precise instructions for group work, collaboration boards, the technical skills to use the tools, etc. Crucially, the vital importance of brief check-in and check-out sequences in order to establish contact at all was not on many executives’ radar.
Time efficiency soars: start on time, no “preening” while waiting to finally get started, keep people’s attention with highly focused content. Here is a nice transfer exercise for executives: How can you integrate these benefits of virtual work into in-person meetings and communication?
Design group: a key success factor
Management is responsible for designing the organisation, so it also designs its own development. Executives usually have an excellent understanding of “their market” and their challenges. That’s why fine tuning with a small, representative design group proves its worth again and again. That lets management take responsibility for its own development. Offerings strike a happy medium between continuity and learning opportunity, so they are more effective in the organisation. And that is certainly not limited to virtual settings.
In our examples, it is clear that members of a cross-sectional group learn by designing and fine tuning, and thus become multipliers among their peers. Reservations about virtual working, flexible work options, the use of whiteboards, cameras and breakout sessions – all these things can now be talked about, which puts them in perspective and stops them from tying up too much defensive energy.
Proactive HR work lends tangible support to company management
The capabilities of professional HR work have rarely been so immediately visible as they have been in this crisis. Keeping a watchful eye on the organisation’s challenges has meant that managers were not left to fend for themselves in handling the new communications requirements. HR departments were able to score more points here than they have in quite a while.
“Learning by remote doing” on the one hand, and targeted, focused offerings to quickly gain the necessary skills on the other provided a sense of security and reinforced shared learning.
The burning questions on many managers’ lips in this context were: How do we design communications? How can you lead when you can’t see anybody? Can you have meetings with dialogue even when they’re remote?
It was precisely these points where HR was a strong partner for management, far from the “soft facts” and “airy fairy” matters they are so often accused of focusing on.
Where are the limitations? And what’s the solution?
The focus is clearly shifting to content – to the detriment of social aspects and dialogue between departments
That is the other side of the coin: efficiency and focus increase. The dynamics are harder to recognise and influence on the group and individual level. Nuance is lost, especially when a cameras-off culture has become entrenched.
At the very least, when it comes to discussing matters on the social level, creative work and innovation, we recommend meeting in person whenever possible. Managers are increasingly describing teams breaking up because personal contact has been absent for too long. We recommend putting this observation on the team’s agenda as a first step. And asking whether it is in fact the lack of contact that is causing instability in the team. Other explanations such as chronic overload, the lack of a shared vision or simply too little social contact are also possible – and they require different interventions. Phenomena like these are also an important part of leadership development.
They stand in contrast to the experiences of companies that were designed for 100% remote work from the outset. However, the CEOs of those companies are now starting to focus on how they can create dialogue between their silos – how much community and shared vision they need and how they can create them.
Virtual leadership development doesn’t work when it’s exclusively online
It helps to integrate analogue elements into online leadership development.
In the first case story, there came a point when things had run out of steam and it was obvious that nobody was excited about having an online wrap-up event. So the wrap-up was postponed to a later date, when the leaders could again meet in “3D”. At the event, we set up learning journeys in small groups who set off with great enthusiasm and curiosity in search of fresh inspiration. In the second example, it is the peer groups that keep the participants connected even outside of the training sessions and constitute real contacts. In all three instances, the shared case work in small groups is what brings company reality right into the training.
Plus, writing sessions with paper and pen, preparing creative material at home and sending out beautifully designed work materials in advance add variety and whet people’s appetite for diving into the activities.
Leadership means communication. The key task for managers is to design communication – both on the organisational and on the social level. The technical options for communication and learning are vast. Managers need the skills to use them and they must be familiar with the principles of remote work or be able to design online meetings in a purposeful way – simply to remain effective in their roles. At the same time, learning and development require feedback, emotions and nuance – in other words, real contact. One takeaway regarding the digital space: many key content-related issues have been tackled, but we are positive that the original idea of reinforcing the leadership community in these learning settings was only possible to a limited extent. In order to make individual learning AND community-building possible in leadership development, these options need to be combined skilfully. When that happens, obstacles blocks turn into attractive and effective forms of development.