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Self-Directed Learning: What You Need to Make It Count

Published Tue May 25 2021


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Self-directed leadership development has been on the rise for the past few years, but why? Because it’s easy to deploy, people can do it when it’s convenient for them, and people can pursue the topics that are of value to them. But if it isn’t structured properly, it can backfire. So it’s important to understand how to leverage it for the best results.

What Is Self-Directed Learning?

It’s just as it sounds: a learner taking responsibility for their own learning. They decide what they need to learn, set their own goals, and choose which resources and strategies will work best for them. Above all, they create their own learning plan. They are also in charge of carrying it out.

So, what is self-directed leadership development? It’s when someone creates their own learning path to grow their leadership skills. They take the reins of their own leadership development journey and execute it on their own terms. This approach can create a worry that people simply won’t do follow through. This worry is the number-one problem with self-directed leadership development. Leaders (even highly motivated learners) are busy. And it can be tough for them to make the time for development when they already have a crushing to-do list. For most companies, the reaction to self-directed learning is mixed. In DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021, about 24 percent of learners said they wanted more access to self-directed learning through online learning libraries. Meanwhile, 39 percent said they wanted more formal training. Is it possible to use self-directed leadership development effectively? Yes, but with some caveats.

What Leads to Self-Directed Learning Going Well?

How the company sets up and supports learners in a self-directed leadership development program has a major impact. Six key factors influence success:

1. There’s a thoughtful communication strategy about the value behind the learning and when, where, and why learners should use it.

2. Internal senior leaders within the company are sponsors of the program and advocate for using it.

3. The learning isn’t done in isolation or “thrown over the wall.” There is guidance for learners about which courses or modules would be most impactful for them based on their leadership level and the leadership challenges they face.

4. The company personalizes learning based on the specific needs of the individual learner.

5. Even though the learning is self-directed, the company still provides opportunities to network with peers easily. Leaders should share what they’re learning, how they’re applying it, and how they’re using it to overcome challenges.

6. The leader’s manager clarifies how self-directed learning is connected to the leader’s individual development plan.

What Leads to Self-Directed Learning Going Poorly?

While self-directed learning can go well, there are also situations when it can be risky. For example, self-directed learning will likely go poorly for the learner if the company:

  • Makes self-directed learning available but doesn’t provide guidance on how to use it. HR says, “Here you go! Best of luck.”

  • Doesn’t tell learners why and how the learning experience will benefit them.

  • Doesn’t offer incentives to learners to complete the learning.

  • Doesn’t reinforce the benefits of completing the learning. If new skills aren’t reinforced or made into habits early, then the learning won’t stick.

  • Makes no tie to how the learning connects to the leader’s personal development plan.

  • Offers inconsistent content. For example, many learning libraries offer a huge array of content, often with multiple courses on the same topic. How does the leader know which is best? Additionally, if leaders all take different courses on the same topic, there’s no consistency in the company’s approach to leadership and its culture.

  • Doesn’t vet the learning first to make sure it’s in line with the company’s values. See this unfortunate example of inclusion training gone wrong.

  • Includes only theoretical content with no opportunity for any practice or application.

So when should self-directed learning be used, and when should it be avoided? And what are some best practices to ensure it’s effective? Read DDI’s blog for more.

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