Businesswoman making video call to business partner, webcam chat
ATD Blog

Mastering Virtual Leadership Development

Friday, October 2, 2020

Now it sounds crazy to me, but I used to think that the best way to train leaders was to lock them in a room with me for eight hours. Then, poof, they would be able to internalize that learning and apply it. What was I thinking?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced me to try a new virtual model—one that I’ve found to be much more effective. Here’s why virtual instructor-led learning is better and how to do it well.

Why It's Better

It’s efficient. It’s easier and cheaper to get leaders in the same place on a virtual platform than to fly or drive them in. Given how busy they are, making learning convenient for leaders is essential.

It’s interactive. Presentations were always a bad idea. One person talks and attempts to “download” ideas to a passive audience. Really? Virtual platforms make everyone equal and demand dialogue and participation. Leaders are impatient. If we don’t engage them, they’ll quickly lose interest and start multitasking.

It’s memorable. Leaders forget 50 percent of what they learn in classrooms an hour later and 70 percent a day later. We don’t yet have research on the effectiveness of virtual learning, but it’s coming. My client feedback suggests participants learn and retain more through virtual learning.

It’s “chunkable.” With virtual learning I can teach small portions and provide time for practice, application, and experimentation in between short sessions. Leaders are short on time, so they love having short sessions.


It's scalable. I can reach 200 leaders as easily as 20. Easy access to training across the globe makes learning more inclusive. No one at home or in remote offices is left out.

It’s comfortable. Leaders are getting more used to virtual platforms where they can curate their content and customize the experience for themselves. At last, the user experience is becoming central to how they learn.

How to Do It Well

Limit distractions. Leaders need to set boundaries wherever they are so they can focus. This means closing doors, shutting down email and instant messaging, and turning off text messages or anything else that could interrupt them. This means they need to change their relationship with screens and computers. They have to connect with others on a computer instead of using it to transact.


Engage attention. Invite leaders to bring up their chat window and ask them at least one question every 20 minutes. You can even call on them by name, which will ensure everyone will stay awake. You can also ask for feedback by using the thumbs up/thumbs down feature or asking for a round of emoticons on how they are doing. Polling is another way to get attention but takes more time to set up and gives leaders less freedom in responding. Setting up breakout sessions is also possible, especially if you have a large group, but it can be risky. I have had platforms crash numerous times during breakouts.

Create a safe space. Set ground rules so leaders know how their chats or comments will be used or recorded. I like the “Vegas rule”—what’s said in the session stays there. It also helps if I can show vulnerability. Leaders are constantly in the spotlight, so if I can be real and human it helps them worry less about being judged. The interactions in virtual space can be as intimate as in person.

Chunk and pace your content. Small is beautiful. I have experimented with up to two-hour sessions with senior teams but am convinced 50 minutes is the best length. Don’t try to cover too much. What used to be a daylong program I now teach in eight one-hour sessions, once each week. It is also important to get comfortable with silence. Don’t rush to fill dead space with more content. Take a drink of water. Take a mindful breath. The less I talk, the more engagement I get.

Give homework. Leaders tend to be experiential learners, so most of their learning happens before and after class. I give pre-work so leaders come in with context and are primed for learning. Then I guide them to try things out and build an action plan for ongoing learning over the course of the program. I pair them up to practice exercises in between sessions. For example, I have them practice listening to each other and coaching each other. They love connecting in this way, building community, and extending their learning.

Practice and prepare. I need to prepare even more for virtual leadership sessions than for in-person ones. I need to know what questions I want to ask, the timing of my content, and what pivot choices I have. Practice helps. The more I teach virtually, the more comfortable I become. This shows up in my delivery during learning sessions.

There are certainly downsides to virtual learning for leaders. We are dependent on the capabilities of the platforms we choose. For example, some platforms have lots of extra features like whiteboards and others are plain vanilla. And in a virtual session I can’t pull a struggling leader aside during a break to find out what is going on. But given all the benefits, virtual learning is here to stay. If you are not yet comfortable, it’s time to give it a try. We aren’t going back into the classroom anytime soon.

About the Author

Joshua Ehrlich is chairman of the Global Leadership Council, an international network of experts in leadership and organizational transformation whose vision is to create mindful leaders, teams, and organizations.

He is a senior advisor and coach who helps leaders drive innovation and change. He is a leading authority on succeeding in demanding environments and an expert on mindful leadership. Based on his research, he helps individuals, teams and organizations develop their engagement, resilience and strategic thinking. Josh has worked with hundreds of executives and dozens of teams in multinational companies, including more than 50 of the Fortune 100 across multiple industries.

Josh is the author of Mindshifting: Focus for Performance.

Sign In to Post a Comment
I agree with Erlich. In 2017 I developed a 24 hr virtual leadership class for IRS managers. I conducted 2 pilots, 12 classes (so far) and 2 train the trainers. The class is six, four-hr days over 3 mths. We include small group discussions, peer group coaching, individiual reading. Level 1 & 2 measures show higher ratings than classroom. Unsoliticted Level 3 (behavior change) feedback received DURING THE CLASS show immediate results. It can work! Good design matters!
I agree with him on the subject. I just wish he supported it better. We in L&D need to get better at identifying quality research to support the things we want instead of supporting things that sound good but aren't grounded in reality. Else we end up with undying myths like learning styles.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
I disagree David. Since mid-March we have been delivering ALL of our education programs (aka training) virtually including emotional intelligence, coaching (helping leaders be more "coach like"), programs based on The ONE Thing (certified to deliver internally), and an accountability program based on the work of Linda Galindo. Many of our programs are full, 6-hour deliverables. NPS scores have been high (most recent EI was 81), engagement and interactivity is high, and survey scores positive.
I'm not sure what in my comment you're replying to because nothing you say relates to my post.
My issue isn't virtual training - it's absolutely viable! - but rather the poor justification for it in the article, including relying on some L&D myths and misconceptions.
Virtual is the future regardless of the pandemic but we need to justify it carefully so decision makers don't force us to misuse it. The overall message here is right, but the author clouds the issue with faulty info.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Virtual learning is important but your article supports it poorly.
1) It is not as scalable as you say. 200 participants is a webinar, not a training. Research at Columbia indicates the ideal virtual class size tops at 20-25 participants.
2) You lose a significant amount interactivity with that huge number of participants.
3) Your retention stats are faulty. A review of 14 research articles says forgetting varies wildly, anywhere from 0% to 73% in the one-to-two day range.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.