6 Strategies for Successful Digital Leadership Development
Thursday, July 7, 2016

There is little question that learning technology has revolutionized corporate learning and development (L&D). The number of organizations that rely on learning management systems, e-leaning courseware, virtual classrooms, massive open online courses (MOOCs), simulations, gamification, microlearning, and other new learning media continues to grow. That’s the good news. The problem is that many organizations are still struggling with getting the results they seek from digital initiatives.

Six Strategies for Digital Learning Success, a recent whitepaper from the Center for Creative Leadership, explores tactics organizations can use to make digital leadership development more successful. “When properly designed, delivered, and evaluated, digital learning initiatives can change a company’s corporate culture, improve employee engagement, and increase retention,” write Samir Mehta, CCL’s manager of digital learning products, and Holly A. Downs, senior evaluation faculty member at CCL.

So what is a digital initiative? According to CCL, it’s any learning initiative that “leverages technology to reach people that are in different places, at different times.” Initiatives can take different forms, including e-learning, virtual instructor-led training, and blended learning. The report adds that this sort of learning is typically self-paced and content is delivered through a learning management system.

CCL asserts that even though organizations may be delivering leadership development solutions online, strategies for success need to focus on culture and people rather than specific technologies. “Technology changes faster than human behavior,” write Mehta and Downs, adding that a broad digital initiative needs to begin with a clear strategy and well-planned tactics that “last beyond short-term technological changes.”

Based on 40 years of experience researching leadership and developing leaders in diverse industries around the world, CCL pinpoints six strategies that can help learning professionals use technology to its best advantage.

1. Less Is More

When embarking on new path of digital development, a company will often license a large learning library. The idea is that there is something for everyone. But that’s a mistake. In fact, some data suggests that the utilization rate for noncompliance courses can fall as low as 10 percent, explain Mehta and Downs. Instead, the authors write that “the right amount of learning, served at the right time, and in the right portions keeps a leader growing.”

2. Support From the Top

“A learning initiative, like any other initiative important to an organization, needs employee buy-in and the support of upper management.” If an initiative isn’t supported by senior leaders, say the authors, employees will not make it a priority. It’s a good idea to have the CEO or another senior leader send an email or attend a launch webinar to explain the relevance of the digital learning initiative. Better yet, make it a video.

3. Learner-Centered Design

L&D and talent professionals must do more than just provide resources for development. When designing a development initiative for leaders, it’s important to understand the organizational climate and acknowledge that most leaders are very task-focused, with little or no time set aside for their personal development, advises the CCL report.


Designers need to leverage technology so that it fits into typical routines, rather than adding another disruption. Initiatives may also want to focus on one leadership topic a month, or one topic a quarter. “Rolling that out in a very deliberate way has a high likelihood of being impactful,” add Mehta and Downs.

4. Embrace a Leaders-as-Teachers Approach

According to CCL, embracing leaders as teachers is a powerful way to scale a digital learning initiative through all levels of the organization. Unfortunately, only 17 percent of organizations have formal leaders-as-teachers programs, according to the findings of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) study, Leaders as Teachers: Engaging Employees in High-Performance Learning.

Not surprisingly, the ATD research finds that challenges to the leaders-as-teachers approach include leaders' schedule, inability to tie leaders' teaching to individual performance goals, and leaders' teaching not viewed as an important development opportunity. To successfully implement leaders as teachers, CCL contends that talent leaders will need to give employees the tools they need to become good teachers.

In Leaders as Teachers, Ed Betof explains how learning professionals can draw out the key content from leaders and turn it into something from which others can learn. “There are some nuances when working with leader-teachers that make this interaction different from work with typical subject matter experts,” writes Betof. First, while leaders may be the expert on the business, L&D pros are the expert on learning. Second, talent managers should focus on helping leaders rather than trying to impress. Remember, leaders are subject matter experts who look to L&D to help them "shine on stage" in front of their employees and peers, whether in a face-to-face or virtual session.

5. Learning Partnerships

Leadership skills “require discernment, judgment, and presence of mind, as well as the willingness and motivation to commit to the practice that is required to learn anything new,” write Mehta and Downs. To internalize these skills, learners need the support of key partners to stay motivated and engaged. Two kinds of partnerships can support in-depth learning: accountability partners and learning partners.

According to CCL, accountability partners are peers who learn together, share experiences, and discuss challenges and goals. They act as sounding boards and push one another to move beyond the status quo. Meanwhile, the role of the learning partner is to help the leader reflect on ideas and insights from the development experience. A learning partner may be a boss, mentor, coach, HR business partner, peer, or other trusted person. Support from and interaction with these partners can take place face-to-face or in the digital realm.

6. What Gets Measured Gets Done

Finally, measuring any developmental effort is important to ensure that they are effective and that the return on investment (ROI) is meaningful. Fortunately, digital learning initiatives offer some data insights that typical face-to-face developmental experiences don’t.

Don’t know where to start? By following the steps prescribed in Measuring the Success of Learning Through Technology, designers and developers can significantly affect the success of online L&D initiatives at the application and impact levels, ultimately making ROI easy to develop. Also, keep in mind that there are a variety of shortcuts you can take to measure the success of your leadership program. Check out Measuring the Success of Leadership Development for some ideas on how organizations can show the value of their digital leadership development investments.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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