Research & Thought Leadership

How to design and deliver impactful leadership development virtually

Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort

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In the face of coronavirus organizations are grappling with the challenge of shifting face-to-face activities online. Yet, within many Learning and Development (L&D) functions, this online migration already started some time ago. However, for most the question of how to successfully shift a face-to-face experience to an online one remains an enigma. We would like to share our experience of best practice with you here.

Begin your design process with the employee learning experience in mind.

Know your audience, understand what insights, skills and behavioural changes you wish to foster. Then design a process that will deliver this in the virtual space. Provide your leaders with a clear reason for engaging with you online by focussing on ‘What’s in it for you’. If you want them to engage in multiple sessions or modules, provide a clear structure or spine to your program. Clearly signpost content, task and process and ensure a user-friendly experience.

Balance task, process and relationship

In the online environment, process is key. Planning a delivery structure that will allow participants to explore and experience concepts together is core to successful learning. That is why we recommend that you avoid ‘teaching’ or ‘transmitting’ knowledge during your sessions. Instead, we encourage you to design a process that allows for collaboration, application and reflection. Doing this will also allow you and your participants to build relationships, another key ingredient to making learning real and relevant.

Prepare your participants in advance

Ensure that your participants know what will be expected from them during your virtual session. If possible, share your theoretical concepts with them in advance. Guide them in their preparation to enable them to participate fully in a rich conversation when they join the session. Where possible, you may even delegate some of the discussion topics to them as co-hosts to mix things up a bit. Contract with them on how you want them to partner with each other in the virtual sessions to manage expectations.

Beware of how quickly time goes by in the virtual space

“Time flies when you are having fun”. This is also true for learning in the virtual space. It takes longer to foster connection, discussion and stimulate discussion in the virtual space. So, we recommend that you only focus on one key concept or message you want to explore together per session. Avoid the temptation to overload your design with slides and models. Instead, design creative exercises to allow participants to apply theory to their own contexts. To do this, you will need a minimum of two hours. For some topics you can even keep them engaged online for up to four hours, with two small comfort breaks.

Keep your audience engaged

Mood becomes amplified in the virtual space. This means that if one participant is feeling disinterested, the sense of disengagement will quickly spread through the ‘room’. To counter this, you as presenter can do a few things. Manage your own mood and energy and be prepared to put on your ‘game face’. See your role as that of a professional chat host, making your audience feel engaged and entertained. Vary the pace and keep surprising them with new requests for contributions or participation. Solicit feedback randomly so that participants never know when they will need to contribute, thus keeping them focused and alert. Work in small groups, using the breakout room technologies available and find a helpful way of hearing back from groups.

Manage your own ego

As with in person learning, as facilitators we need to make the learning about our participants and not about us. This is particularly true in the virtual space where less from us is definitely more value to them. Don’t make the session about you talking at them unless you are hosting an informative webinar. Instead, facilitate a dialogue between where you help them make sense of the theory or concepts they are asked to consider.

Have fun

Learning in the online environment can be exciting and fun. However, to achieve this you need to be prepared and proficient in online delivery. This requires three things: a good design; some basic technical skills; and plenty of practice in hosting a dynamic online learning experience.

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