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9 Ideas for Creating Effective Online Leadership Programs

Leadership programs have traditionally been delivered face-to-face, with online seen as inappropriate for the audience, but the shift to working online during the pandemic has helped us challenge these assumptions. Over the past 2 years we have worked with a number of organisations to take their leadership programs online; we experimented and tried some new things, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. While many people can’t wait to return to in-person experiences, the reality of the new remote work force is that online learning, even in the leadership space, is going to need to be part of the mix going forward. To help organisations make the transition to this new way of delivering leadership training, we thought we would share some of the ideas, tips and techniques that have been successful for us.

1. Take the time to onboard participants effectively 

Leaders are busy, but if you set clear expectations up front they make the time for important things. We found that a good onboarding experience to an online program significantly improves commitment and engagement from leaders. As soon as a leader enrolls in a program we take the time to set clear expectations, get them excited about the program and make a connection with them. We have tried various elements in our onboarding flow, but the core elements we always include are a short video from the lead facilitator, a simple to follow learning journey map, key dates and sessions to add to their diary (via a calendar integration), a learning contract for them to commit to and an opportunity for personal goal setting. 

2.  Blend it with virtual sessions

Leaders like connections, networking and to learn through the sharing of ideas. Pure self-paced learning doesn’t usually work for leaders, so we recommend including virtual sessions throughout your learning journey. These sessions should focus on the sharing of knowledge and ideas and making connections with others, and be supported by self-paced learning and reading. 

3. Spread it out and make it a “learning sprint”

In person training is undertaken in blocks of days because it's impractical to spread it out. Travel takes time and accommodation is expensive. Virtual sessions have no such problems - however they are tedious if they are too long, and participants will start multi-tasking if you ask them to commit too long to each virtual session. To get the most out of a leader’s time, and for more effective learning, spread the sessions out over a two to three weeks interspersed with self-paced learning and on the job activities. This enables participants to reflect and try things between sessions - making each session more engaging and interactive. We have found that about 10 hours total learning time over two weeks is a sweet spot. 

4.  Benchmark with Diagnostics

Leaders like measures and they like feedback, so consider including a benchmarking diagnostic at the beginning and/or end of your learning journey. Diagnostics are a great way to stimulate reflection and to understand the unique needs of each cohort of learners. They are also a great way of including the leader’s manager in the learning process if you use a manager-completed diagnostic. 

5. Include Manager Led Coaching

Another very effective way of creating engagement is to involve the leader’s manager in the learning process as a coach. The manager knows the leader will and can help create context for the learning. Keep it simple though, and not too onerous. Provide the manager with a short coaching guide to explain how they can help and ask the leader and their manager to set aside a couple of times throughout the learning journey to work together on coaching activities. The more concrete and specific you can make activities the better.

6. Include a “Plan on a Page” Output

Leaders like practical outcomes from their training, stuff they can implement straight away. They also like simplicity and easy to recall models. One technique we use regularly is to use a “plan on a page” activity as the spine of the program. This is where the leader progressively completes a practical plan or activity on a single page (usually A3 size) that helps summarise the outcomes of the program in their own context. This can use an existing established model (eg the business model canvas) or you can design your own model for your program (eg. My Executive Blueprint). This then becomes a simple reminder and action plan for the leader they can print and post on their wall. 

7. Use existing social channels

Leaders don't need more channels of communication to check. If you are going to have asynchronous social learning as part of your experience, choose a channel the cohort already uses day to day - such as Teams, Slack or WhatsApp.

8. More reflection, less quizzing

Leaders are good at comprehension; they don’t need to be quizzed on knowledge or continuously challenged through scenario questions. It’s far better to get leaders to reflect on their own practice and put new knowledge and models into their own context. In your self-paced learning, instead of multiple choice quiz questions, try a reflective question with constructive feedback.

9. Make it a journey 

Keep the user experience and interface clean and simple. Leaders aren’t very patient when it comes to learning new technology and they don’t need their learning to be entertaining - just short, sharp and to the point. Choose a platform that enables you to lay out a clear easy to follow learning journey. Unfortunately this is unlikely to be your regular LMS, as these are designed for compliance learning, not longer form upskilling experiences that enable you to bring together a range of activities like coaching, diagnostics, virtual workshops and action learning activities.

Josh Humphries
7 December 2021 4 Min Read

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