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ATD Blog

5 Ways to Make Leadership Development a Way of Work

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

“It’s not that I don’t want to learn. It’s just that I can’t put one more thing on my plate right now.”

That’s what one leader—we’ll call her Amy—told my colleague in a development session. Amy’s challenge is relatable. After her boss left abruptly, she stepped into a leadership position unexpectedly without any leadership training. Her former peers now looked to her to pick up the pieces. She knew how hard her peers worked, and she didn’t want them to think she was ordering them around.

Her solution? Take on more herself. She was the first to log on in the morning and worked late into the night. The dark circles under her eyes proved it: She couldn’t handle one more thing.

For many leaders, that’s where the story ends. When HR hears that they are too overloaded to make time for development, they immediately pull back, waiting for a better time when things slow down. But do things ever really slow down? Or do leaders simply move on to new urgent challenges?

And when leaders are busy, should development wait? Or is that when they need development most?

Make Development a Way of Work

The irony of Amy’s story is that she could have solved a lot of her problems if she’d had proper training on how to delegate and coach her team. Eventually, she did just that—and found she got her evenings back. But to get there, she had to adjust her thinking about development. Her coach helped her see that developing her skills would change the way she worked, rather than adding more on.

That’s why it’s so important that HR and talent development professionals think carefully about how we position development and training. We know leaders are busy. Rather than trying to compete with their “real work,” our job is to make them see that their growth and development is part of their work.

Here are five principles that can help us make leadership development a way of work:

1. Personalize Learning

Personalized learning can take many forms. It can be surface level, like letting a learner choose their background colors on a digital platform, or it can go deeper, like using recommendation engines to suggest learning activities.

While there are many options, in my experience, one of the best ways to personalize learning is through assessment. Assessment can happen across the scale. It can be as simple as a short self-assessment at the beginning of a course to help leaders reflect on their habits and behaviors related to the topic.

We can also offer more in-depth assessments on skills, such as a behavioral simulation. These assessments offer objective insight about areas where a leader may be struggling most so they can then focus their development efforts.


While tactics may vary, keep in mind our “North Star” goal of making development a way of work. We want personalization to help leaders see themselves more clearly and connect what they’re learning with their personal lives, work, and challenges.

2. Create Immersive Experiences

Often, when I talk about immersive learning, people assume I’m talking about virtual reality. While VR is a powerful learning tool, there are other ways to create immersive experiences. At its heart, immersive learning means taking people out of their day-to-day to focus solely on developing a skill.

Asking for leaders’ focused attention may seem counterintuitive when we’re looking to save time. But research shows the dangers of multitasking, which reduces learning recall and our ability to make connections in our brains.

That’s why it’s important to periodically take leaders out of their day-to-day to focus on their development, whether for an hour or a day. Immersive classroom experiences can help. People put down their phones, engage in discussion, and more importantly, connect with their peers, which helps cement learning.

3. Engage Learners With Relevance

Part of making learning a way of work is directly connecting to someone’s daily work.

When using facilitated learning, facilitators must understand daily challenges facing the group, from broad industry challenges to a company’s specific culture to their job functions. We need to use relevant examples and draw connections about how their skills affect their jobs.

Assessment and feedback are also helpful, particularly 360-degree surveys and manager feedback. When leaders see how their behavior relates to their success, they are more likely to continue developing for better outcomes.


4. Build Trust

In the learning space, our biggest competitor is Google. It’s the first place people look to solve a problem. But in reality, a search can turn up results of varying quality. It could be inconsistent with a company’s values, or it could simply be wrong.

Our job is to give leaders a more trusted resource than Google, which is a tall order. One way is to show the research behind what we offer as well as internal success stories from other leaders. Impact data is a powerful way to demonstrate why leaders should pay attention and make time for their own development.

5. Above All: Be Human

We should always keep in mind that leadership is deeply human. Leaders are going to make mistakes and development can help them turn failures into productive action. Furthermore, leaders deal with other humans—on their teams, as their stakeholders, and as their bosses. And every one of those people demands their empathy, understanding, and guidance.

Leadership development must stay closely tethered to the ultimate goal: better human interactions, which allow leaders to be more effective in all they do. That’s why development programs must have a deep strain of humanity, connecting people through stories, examples, peer conversations, and more to help them navigate the complex world of work relationships.

What Happens When Development Becomes a Way of Work?

When I traveled internationally often, I was chatting with a friend about international customs forms, which require you to fill in career information.

My friend, a senior leader at a global manufacturer, always filled in “engineer.” But one day, he realized it had been decades since he’d engineered anything. Rather, he spent his days strategizing, inspiring, guiding, coaching, and influencing. His real work was as a leader. He just happened to have an engineering degree. So why didn’t he write “leader” on the form?

Making development a way of work is about making leadership a way of work. It’s about helping people shift away from thinking of themselves as successful for producing a certain amount of work, and instead value the influence they have on others. In this blog, I’ve covered tactics to help us engage leaders in ongoing learning and development.

I’ll leave you with a challenge: How many of your leaders would write down “leader” as their profession? And how will your development programs improve that number?

About the Author

Tacy M. Byham, PhD, is CEO of Development Dimensions International (DDI). She is co-author of the book Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.

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Thank you, Tacy for sharing your wisdom and your insight. You always make me think of new ideas.
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