Recently, our Chief Operating Officer, Donna Iacopucci, participated in an ATD webinar, "Human-Centered Design for Workforce Development," alongside our partner, Class Technologies. We found the discussion to be rich and compelling and wanted to bring the ideas we presented to this forum as well. What resonated most with us was the panel's emphasis on creating opportunities for personal connections in L&D programming. Now, that can mean a few things:

  1. Creating opportunities for participants to connect with fellow participants,
  2. Allowing participants time and space to connect key learnings from the program to their day-to-day work, or
  3. Designing training programs that enable participants to connect deeply and meaningfully with themselves and the program content. 

Each of these best practices contribute to a powerful learner experience and we'll spend the rest of this article exploring them further. Before we do, however, it's worth noting that in our 30+ years of experience, we've also found them to be critical components of leadership development programs that go far beyond one-time training events to create deep and material change throughout entire organizations. It's these impacts — financial, cultural, behavioral, and so much more — that result in frequent and consistent recognition from industry awards organizations. And, it's ultimately why more than 95% of our clients are repeat customers — they are confident our programs will leave a lasting positive impact on their organization.

1. Fostering peer connections during development programs.

As we all know, one of the challenges of a hybrid/virtual work environment is that people are craving authentic human connection. That's why the most effective leadership development programs for this moment in time contain multiple opportunities for participants to form meaningful — and lasting — connections with peers in the program. Here's what that looks like in practice:

  • Engaging activities and real-world simulations: Look to integrate collaborative and engaging team-building activities and simulations in every programs. For example, if you're launching a social learning experience, explore ways to blend virtual or classroom experiences with platform activities, allowing participants to gather and share insights. Interactive activities like breakout rooms, chat discussions, polls, and other hands-on group exercises all provide opportunities for participants to gather to review content, synthesize key learnings, exchange viewpoints and takeaways, and work in sub-groups on real business issues or milestones. Another option is to create experiences outside of the content topics and company issues to bring participants together to reach those powerful ah-ha moments. (See what that looked like at Thermo Fisher Scientific).
  • Peer-to-peer discussion and collaboration: Regardless of the modality, prioritize rich discussions and meaningful collaboration to create spaces for participants to actively engage in thoughtful conversations, share insights, and collectively deepen their understanding of the subject matter.
  • Learning groups: Encourage active participation and knowledge sharing by forming learning groups. One example is to feature cohort groups dedicated to specific topics of interest. The groups could either be created by the learning team or by cohort members. Users contribute their insights and engage in discussions to expand the entire cohort’s knowledge.
  • Gamification: Where appropriate, look to leverage gamification to encourage participation and healthy competition through active participation. This fosters a sense of community and creates a rich experience for participants.

2. Encouraging participants to make connections between key learnings and the real world.

Effective programs also allocate time and space for participants to bring the key learnings from the class to daily life back on the job. This reinforces the skills and techniques learned in the program and holds participants accountable for furthering their growth in real, actionable ways. Here are some ways to make the training come to life outside of the classroom:

  • Action planning: Utilize action planning to allow the participant to meet with their manager (and direct reports if they are senior leaders) to discuss developmental goals for the program and share commitments around how they will leverage the skills and techniques learned in the program once they are back on the job.
  • Manager involvement: Consider creating a Manager’s Guide, which can provide a brief summary of each core content area and lists conversation starters — questions that the manager can ask their direct report to support the learning and grow together.
  • Support tools and resources: What take-home materials can you provide to support and guide participants as they begin using the skills and techniques back on the job. Hint: If your program features specific scripts or phrases leaders need to use, make sure those are featured prominently.
  • Real-world application: We can all feel eyes roll — or close altogether — when our material gets a little too theoretical, esoteric, or vague. Learners crave relevant, hands-on, actionable, and practical activities that allow them to envision how they will put these new skills to work back on the job. In a senior leader program, for instance, that might involve participants working on a "Bright Idea Project," where they would apply new thinking and problem solving to a real issue currently facing the organization. (See how National Grid leveraged this concept with their senior leaders).

3. Creating time and space for self-reflection and deeper connections with the content.

We know that in addition to craving human connection, people are also craving a stronger sense of purpose and a deeper connection with their organization, beyond just a transactional relationship. Leadership development programs can be phenomenal catalysts to support and build this connection. We also know that people are seeking professional development and peer collaboration opportunities after feeling disconnected from their organizations during the pandemic. Leadership development programs are a great way for organizations to invest in their leaders and create a unified culture across the enterprise. Here's how leadership development programs can empower leaders to think deeper and really connect with the content:

  • Tackle sensitive topics: As an organization, take this opportunity to define and set expectations and objectives around hot button workplace issues and topics, including building trust, psychological safety and accountability, valuing differences, unconscious bias, as well as diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Then, leverage leadership development programs to expose leaders to bold thinking, while creating a safe space for these deep discussions in the workplace. Ultimately, this approach will create a foundation for deeper work in developing norms and protocols around these more sensitive topics back on the job and will make space for frequently marginalized communities. (For more, check out this article on how to foster psychological safety as a leader).
  • Thoughtful introspection: To maximize time together, consider instructing participants to engage in self-reflection and skills practice outside the classroom, keeping journals about their progress. That way, when they return to the program, they can gather in small groups to discuss their experiences, challenges, and successes and ask for peer insights on what went well and how they might be even better next time.
  • Be real: Employees expect real conversations about real workplace scenarios. Having training be practical with opportunities for rich real discussions about the business and its issues can result in meaningful actions and lasting change.
  • Continue the learning: Explore the best way to reinforce the learning at your organization. Maybe that's a series of reinforcement emails or perhaps it takes the shape of ongoing coaching or mentorship programs. It could even be a standing quarterly check-in session with each learning cohort or key skills and learnings could be baked into broader organizational competencies and performance reviews. Whatever form it takes, we know that reinforcement is extremely effective in deepening the learner's personal connection with — and commitment to — the content over time. The end result is a lasting behavior change that goes well beyond the official end of the program.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, we know that learning organizations become thriving organizations. We also know that people don't learn best from self-directed learning libraries or one-time training events — they crave meaningful peer exchange, hands-on activities, real-world application, collaborative reflection, and deeper connections with their workplace. Leadership development can be a powerful tool for organizations looking to create a true community by fostering employee engagement, increasing talent retention, and valuing all voices. After all, people thrive when they feel heard and seen by their leaders and empowered to make meaningful contributions to the organization. Are your leaders ready to lead in this human-centric workplace revolution?

Entelechy has built its reputation on creating powerful human-centric learning experiences for leaders at all levels. Our models are clear, simple, and concise — yet extremely effective. Our unique licensing model allows clients to embed those powerful models across the organization. In a short time, our performance management tools become so engrained in an organization's culture that they become second nature and are "just the way we lead here." This proven approach creates lasting behavior change, fosters a culture of leadership, and results in a deeper, longer-lasting impact on the organization.

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