Leadership development in 2023: 5 tips for staying ahead of the curve

In part 2 of this two-part series, Anthony Mitchell looks ahead at what leadership development will look like over the next 5 years

In this two-part series, Anthony Mitchell looks at the latest trends in leadership development and looks ahead to more significant transformation of this domain in the next five years

In part one, I looked at what emerging practices have shaped leadership development, especially in some of the most pioneering organisations I work with. So far, so good. Now for Part 2: what leadership development will look like in 2023.

These are my predictions, based on the best emerging practices. My belief is that all seven of the below will be commonplace by 2023. If you really want to be ahead of the game, you should have them all in place through your key interventions by 2020 at the latest.

1. Far better incorporation of proven adult learning principles
It has taken a long time, but the realisation is coming that leadership is to important to simply ‘do’ leadership development. It must actually work!

The significant dollar-cost and time-cost of leadership development will come under greater scrutiny. There will be greater knowledge of how programs must be designed and delivered to be effective and there will be mandatory design requirements to ensure these are incorporated. This will in turn mean a reduction of ‘death by Powerpoint’, ‘talking head’ and ‘framework after framework’ programs. Instead, interventions will demonstrate:

  • Much greater clarity on what mental representations the intervention should create (often drawing on findings from neuroscience)
  • Far more stretch, supported by far better and more frequent feedback, reflection and consolidation
  • Meaningful assessment of progress, as a basis for shaping further development

The methodologies of Agile will be applied to the design and delivery of leadership development. For example, rather than designing a grand intervention then launching it, companies will develop rough alpha versions, then quickly test and refine them, using pilots not to launch the program but simply to explore competing hypotheses. This will mean trialling at least two different approaches and using the data from them for learning rather than yes/no decisions.

“It has taken a long time, but the realisation is coming that leadership is to important to simply ‘do’ leadership development”

2. Meaningful evaluation
My company was recently engaged to conduct a proper post-program evaluation of a major intervention. Of the nine major success principles that we evaluate programs against, easily the weakest was the quality of the program’s evaluation (at the time it was run). This was not just from the organisation’s perspective – participants felt this even more strongly.

We will see far better ‘evaluation of impact’. Importantly, we will see far better ‘evaluation for impact’ – that is, evaluation used not simply to assess the intervention’s success, but to materially improve the program, in the course of delivering it. This impact will focus on real capability shifts and real business outcomes, not simply subjective views of participant experience and program logistics as we see all too often today.

3.Even more ‘snackable’ learning
This will be an interesting tension. Digital delivery and the operating rhythm of companies will drive even more modular approaches. Employees will not only have flexibility about what to learn, but also about how to engage with the learning (e.g. choice of modality and timetable). The challenge of this level of optionality will be to ensure that such approaches still lead to desired outcomes. A key factor to enable this will be

4. Program engagement based on pull not push
The responsibility for learning will become far more shared. While organisations must provide the menu and make it visible and compelling, there will be far more emphasis on the participant to select what they need and get the most out of it. To ensure that this does not lead to disengagement with learning, companies will require that leaders meet a KPI based around their learning and growth. Companies will also be more interested in leadership in the form of high-performing teams

“Employees will not only have flexibility about what to learn, but also about how to engage with the learning”

5. From level-based cohort programs to intact team interventions
Increasingly, companies may feel that level-based programs are inconsistent with their drive to de-layer and de-bureaucratise their organisation. Furthermore, with so many studies of the world’s leading technology/innovation companies showing the strong causal role of psychological safety, we will see more interventions work at the level of ‘team’.

6. Real on-the-job leadership development
Right now, companies speak of integrated learning journeys, but the reality seldom measures up. The future will look very different. This will be assisted by:

  • Core development around meta-learning, so that leaders understand how to approach on-the-job development
  • Accountability for on-the-job learning
  • Support for the on-the-job learning – using rapid feedback, embedded coaching, technology and other tools to help leaders reflect and process what they are ‘learning by doing’
  • Effective data capture of the impact of on-the-job learning

7. Leveraging the power of technology
All of the above – better adult learning, better evaluation, more snackable learning, pull-based learning, team-based interventions and real on-the-job development – will be enabled by better, smarter and more ubiquitous technologies. These technologies will drive more evidence-based and accountable programs, more accessible, flexible and cost-effective delivery models, and better ways to reinforce new skills and habits.

Technology has the potential to transform leadership development even further over the next five years. The rapid evolution in areas such as sensors, biometrics, real-time brain scanning (e.g. of neurotransmitters and neural pathways), VR-based avatars and M2M systems means that is will be possible for leaders to more clearly see the impact of positive and negative behaviours, the underpinning neural mechanisms and link between changes in brain pattern, behaviours and outcomes. The impact of this is analogous to the change from traditional photography to digital – suddenly, the level of visibility and control of responses may sky-rocket.

“Right now, companies speak of integrated learning journeys, but the reality seldom measures up. The future will look very different”

The way forward
What does all this add up to? It means that while formal programs still have a key role, leadership development interventions will be much more flexible and responsive than we have ever seen. In many cases, they will barely resemble what was once considered leadership development.

The good news is that they will deliver better outcomes in terms of skills, behaviours and business impacts. The even better news is that both leadership and learning will be taken more seriously than ever. However, the challenging news is that they will be more accountable than ever and that those responsible for their design and delivery will have to be able to prove the value they have produced.

5 tips for starting tomorrow’s leadership development today
Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is needed for your organisation to survive and thrive in 2023? What is the role of leadership in driving the priorities, capabilities and culture essential to your value proposition?
  2. How much do you really know about the impact you achieve with your programs today? How could you have much better evidence?
  3. How quickly can you mobilise leadership development interventions? If you needed to build a key capability in all of your leaders in the next 3-6 months (not 2-3 years), how could you make that happen?
  4. How much are you relying on off-the-job events to build leadership? If you had to achieve 90% of leadership development improvement on the job, how could you weave this into the fabric of your organisation?
  5. How can you use development technologies that are materially different to what you using today? How could you use technology to improve immediacy, flexibility, cost-effectiveness and impact?

Once you can answer these questions positively, you can get to 2023 well before everyone else.