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Leaders Don't Grow in Classrooms

Leaders today are required to learn continuously in an environment of constant change, increasing complexity, and heavy workloads. At the same time, technology for collaborating with others and accessing information has become commonplace in this environment. Think about how your employees find, consume, share, and use information today. You’ve probably noticed that people learn very differently today than in the past—grabbing the bits of information most useful at the time of need and applying it right away, rather than signing up for a course they can take in their free time. 

The 70-20-10 model of how adults learn (70 percent on the job, 20 percent from others, and 10 percent in structured learning like a classroom) emphasizes what most senior leaders intuitively know—that the best way to teach someone a job is to make them do it, and provide support along the way. And research published by the NeuroLeadership Institute shows that learning needs to be a process that unfolds over time, with smaller amounts of information shared and experimented with in a positive, engaging environment—a model called AGES (attention, generation, emotions, and spacing). 

For all these reasons, the traditional classroom course, still a staple in corporate learning, is becoming less viable as the sole means for developing leaders. Rather, it should be thought of as just one component of a broader approach to building leadership. In fact, organizations can choose from a range of approaches—from deeply immersive experiences like rotational assignments or business simulations, to ondemand resources like knowledge assets (short videos, job aids), to performance support tools built into business processes and systems to teach employees how to do a task while they do it. 

The ideal strategy uses these various approaches in some combination. With the advent of social collaboration platforms like Jive, SAP Jam, and Yammer, as well as massive open online course (MOOC) platforms, corporate learning leaders have new options to stitch together virtual class­room events, project work, knowledge assets, assessments, and team assignments into highly interactive social learning processes that can scale to hundreds or even thousands of learners simultaneously across multiple locations. 

From a practical perspective, learning functions work within limited budgets and need to de­termine the most effective ways to develop leaders within those budgets. Because of the value of high-potential leaders to the organization, the annual investment per person for your depth strategy will likely be significantly higher than the investment per person for your breadth strategy. This is true not only from a financial perspective, but also from the investment of time by senior leaders in the development process. Let’s take a look at some common approaches to support the depth (high potential) and breadth (all other leaders) development strategies.

Approaches for Developing High Potentials (Depth Strategy)

The main focus on developing high potentials is to support them in taking on new responsibilities and moving up in the organization. Organizations that do this well focus on three main goals of developing high potentials—to equip, expose, and embrace your high potentials (see Table 1). 

Table 1. Goals of Developing High Potentials

Build capabilities

Build visibility

Build commitment

• Build capabilities and business insight

• Focus priorities and time horizons

• Develop skills needed for next level of leadership

• Create internal networks

• Provide executive visibility to pool of high potentials

• Help high potentials see across the organization

• Strengthen emotional connection to the enterprise

• Continuously “re-recruit” high potentials

• Underscore long-term commitment to their careers


To accomplish all three goals, high potentials typically take on real work assignments that stretch their capabilities and force accelerated learning, and are then supported in those assignments with more structured learning and coaching to help them succeed and learn from the experiences. Organizations are likely to employ the following elements together in a program that could run from six months to two years or longer: 

  • Assessments. This could be a 360-degree assessment based on the competency model, a psychometric assessment (for example, the Birkman Method, Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, and Hogan Leadership Forecast Series), or both together to promote understanding and help identify strengths and areas to develop.

  • Individual development planning. High potentials develop individual development plans targeting specific learning areas that will help them take on new and greater responsibilities in the organization. The learning areas could include specific skills they need to perform and knowledge of different functions in the organization.

  • Assignments. Based on their individual development plans, high potentials take on individual or team assignments to expose them to new experiences and test their capabilities. These assignments can be a formal job assignment (such as a job rotation), a temporary project to lead in addition to their “day job,” or an action learning project focused on a real business problem that combines teamwork, cross-functional exposure, and coaching. These assignments incorporate senior executives as coaches and sponsors, providing the executives exposure to the high potentials and providing the high potentials with the executive oversight needed to be successful.

  • Learning sessions. Structured classroom sessions and workshops are used to support the project- and assignment-based learning on the job, providing information, skills, and tools to apply during the assignments. In the best situations, these sessions are taught by the organization’s senior executives, who also use the opportunity to expose high potentials to the culture, values, and priorities of the organization.

  • Individual coaching. Because of the intensity of high-potential development, high potentials can benefit from one-on-one coaching sessions to help them make sense of everything that is going on around them, better understand their own leadership, and integrate the learning so they can apply it in other situations.

Approaches for Broad-Based Leadership Development (Breadth Strategy)

In broad-based leadership development, the goal is to help leaders excel in their current role. This means ramping up quickly to new responsibilities and learning to drive high performance from their teams. Because the focus is on the performance of the leader and the team at the current level, your organization may need to leverage a set of core development activities to move the leader through the key phases of the job, as well as provide on-demand learning assets that can address leadership needs in the moment. Let’s take a look at how each type of learning might work.1:1 Coaching Sessions


The core development activities could be organized around three key phases of development: onboarding, progression, and transition (see Figure 1). The figure uses the example of a learning path for a frontline leader, which could take two to four years to move through the three phases. 

Figure 1. Three Stages of Development


(0-6 months in a role)

(12-18 months in a role)

(2+ years in a role)

Key Objectives

Learning the basics 

Making the transition topeople leadership

Learning your unique strengths and gaps 

Mastering the subtleties of top performance

Exploring skills and mindset for the next level 

Stretching beyond your current role

Sample Topics

• Role of the Frontline Leader and Making the Transition

• Essentials of Performance Management

• Understanding and Coaching to Business Metrics

• Time Management for Managers

• 360-Degree Assessment and Feedback

• Individual Development Plan(aligned to assessment results)

• Selecting and Developing Talent

• Building a High-Performing Team•

• Introduction to Managing Managers

• Cross-Functional Stretch Assignment

• Job Shadowing of a Second-Level Manager•

With the above structure in place, additional on-demand learning assets can provide quick sup­port that a leader could use as needs arise. Following the frontline leader example, the organization may, for example, make available short videos by leaders in the organization, job aids, and other resources that help the leader perform tasks like preparing for a corrective action discus­sion, planning a team meeting, or writing a performance review. 

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from chapter 19 of The ATD Talent Management Handbook . Edited by learning and development authority Terry Bickham, this handbook covers the entire talent management cycle, from talent acquisition and engagement to leadership development and succession planning.

About the Author
Larry Clark, vice president of talent and technology development for Comcast Cable, leads the leadership and capability development agenda for its field and headquarters operations. In addition, he is responsible for the professional and technical development for Comcast’s tech­nology groups. He has also been responsible for directing Comcast’s talent management and succession planning efforts. Before joining Comcast, he spent 12 years at Microsoft in learning, organizational development, and talent management for its global field organization. Earlier in his career, he spent several years in organizational development, consulting across multiple industries in the areas of training, total quality management, high-performance work teams, and strategic process management.
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