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ATD Blog

Leadership Development:No Size Fits Everyone?


Fri Apr 06 2012


  Much has been written lately about the shift of workplace learning and performance to be increasingly self-directed as we continue to have options for self-service in many aspects of our lives. Patricia McLagan, in her December 2011 T+D article The Amazing Era of Self-Service Learning, points out that, “Even though the vast majority of an adult’s learning is self-managed, the focus at work primarily has been on learning that is orchestrated by the learning professional.” She goes on to say, “If we could help learners manage their learning, I speculate that there would be as much as a 500 percent increase in benefits due to clearer intentions, selection of better resources, better information processing and concentration, more focused learning, greater learning transfer, and ultimately better results.” Agreed.

This begs the question, what about leadership development programs? Customization of leadership development initiatives to be targeted toward specific needs of an organization and its learners is certainly nothing new. And yet, what would be the impact of leadership development as a self-service option with individuals customizing programs as with creating their own frozen yogurt treats or designing their own wallpaper for their smartphones? It’s interesting to think about, and definitely opens up a world of possibilities, for better or worse.


As someone who has spent the last eight years or so developing and launching leadership development programs and professional skill development curricula for various organizations, it’s easy to see that a shift toward more individual customization and self-service learning options makes sense from a learner’s perspective, given the technological demands of the workplace, the pressure to produce, younger workers continuing to enter the market in large numbers, and unrelenting competition for people’s time (and attention spans) given the speed of business.

It’s definitely a challenge for some organizations to be able to support and implement leadership development programs that include instructor-led courses, online learning, coaching, self-reflection, etc. even with a myriad of vendor options for facilitator certifications and content to purchase, let alone building out components and courses from scratch if necessary. Factor in mechanisms to offer self-service, individually customized leadership development, and the idea becomes pretty intriguing. While the concept of learning in “bite-sized” pieces has become increasingly popular (vendors such as The Mind Gym offer over a large menu of 90-minute “workouts” for professional skill development), it’s interesting to wonder how far away we are from fully-baked, self-service leadership development options, that are integrated with other talent management efforts within organizations, becoming a norm.  Anyone can read some great books on leadership, read some articles, and take a number of different leadership assessments and call it self-directed learning; yet measuring the effectiveness of these activities with an organization’s employees remains a challenge and seems to lend itself to the desire to continue to have formal, structured leadership programs.

Perhaps we can look to the concept of crowd sourcing as a way to head in the direction of self-managed leadership development programs. Companies such as Dell, Starbucks, Best Buy, and Pepsi already provide employees with opportunities for online collaboration to solve problems, generate ideas, and otherwise add their knowledge and expertise to tackle challenges, and have been doing so for years. The “problem-seeker,” “problem-solver” model that brings hyper-specialization and the global community together online through platforms such as Innocentive could be a way to approach leadership development that is more focused on the individual and what he or she has to offer aligned with a challenge a company is facing. Creating recommendations around a business issue is an element of some organizations’ leadership development programs now – it’d be interesting to see what could happen if that concept were to be combined with online collaboration with employees choosing from a menu of issues to work on and putting their influencing, communication, strategic planning, and other leadership skills into practice at the same time.

Or, maybe this is already happening and it’s just not as widely known as more formal leadership programs that are out there. What do you think? Are we headed to, or are already in, an era of self-service learning and individual customization when it comes to leadership development? Have you implemented or know of others who have implemented this type of model? Please share your thoughts on the subject, and/or your predictions, as to where leadership development is headed as we continue to experience a time of ever-increasing options for “do-it-yourself” learning and living.

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