Outlook 2013: Trends in Leadership Development

Recent research shows that leadership development has become more of a priority than ever before, despite restricted budgets in other areas of HR spending. The 2012 Bersin & Associates Leadership Development Factbook reveals that L&D spending has increased 14% over the past year. Surprisingly, the study also reveals a distinct shift in the distribution of L&D investment among managerial layers.
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with John Myers, President and CEO of TRACOM Group, to discuss these developments, as well as new trends in learning technology, new challenges that leaders of the future will face, and the skills that will be required to succeed as a global leader in coming years.

Spending on Training and Development

The Bersin Factbook reveals that today’s leadership-development spending is more evenly distributed among first-level, mid-level and senior leaders, veering away from the traditional focus on spending at the top. Mr. Myers explained that many companies have delayed or overlooked investment in their next generation of leaders, relying instead on seasoned company veterans and high-level jobseekers to fill executive roles. According to an article in newsmax.com, around 10,000 people are expected to retire each day for the next 17 years, as the baby-boomer generation enters their senior years. This has given organizations a wakeup call, says John, and executives now realize that they need to have a bank of experienced leaders on the inside from which to choose when all levels of leadership positions need to be filled. Developing high-potential leaders at these various levels of an organization is of paramount importance to avoid gaps in leadership skills that can threaten organizational performance.

I asked John why L&D spending has increased so dramatically in a time when spending in other areas seems to be tightening. He revealed that as the number of employees in a company decreases, the need for effective leadership skills rises in tandem. Smaller companies require all employees to fill varied and often unrelated roles, and this is especially true of leaders. Also, leading a mix of employees and external contractors is becoming more norm than exception, increasing the need for flexible and creative leaders with a diverse range of skills.

HR Consultants or HR Staff?

Given the trend for smaller workforces, what is the ideal balance between in-house L&D specialists and external contractors? Myers describes today’s landscape as being different than the past, in which sales managers, HR staff and technical specialists often found themselves assigned to training positions temporarily as part of their upward career development. New L&D programs in universities around the world have created a new breed of training specialist, pushing temporary training assignments out the door.

Although in-house training staff brings more value to the table than ever before, training consultants still play a pivotal role.  “The ideal solution is a partnership between contractors and internal teams.” says John, “Consultants bring a wider breadth of knowledge and experience to the table, while no one understands the inner workings of a company better than HR staff.” Using outside consultants to augment and enhance staffers’ inside perspectives can lead to the most effective and leading-edge learning programs as well as much great reach.

Leaders of the Future

About the popular discussion of “new skills” needed for the next generation of leaders, John says that there is no such thing as truly “new” management competencies. However, he noted that there are several shifts in businesses in virtually all industries that require today’s managers to apply skills in new ways, or to revive skills that have fallen out of favor in recent decades.

One such movement is the shift towards doing business on a global scale – not only in terms of serving customers around the world, but also of geographically distant branches, international subsidiaries and the rise of virtual teams. Another is the shift away from manual labor to knowledge work, even in traditionally manual roles such as factory machine operators. Both of these factors combine to make collaboration of the utmost importance in modern companies, and managers must be more able than ever to foster creative collaboration among diverse employees from around the world. Tomorrow’s leaders will be judged more on their “soft skills,” such as communication and conflict management, than on their technical competency or the raw output of their teams.

A recent article from the Wall Street Journal, “Must-Have Job Skills in 2013,” lists communication, flexibility and improved productivity among the most valuable skills for employees in the coming year. All three of these skills can be bolstered by leaders competent in encouraging and facilitating collaboration and teamwork.

Interstate Brands and the Hostess brand serve as a recent example of the vital importance of being able to work together. Now that the company has entered bankruptcy, there is probably more than one person involved in the disagreement who wishes they had a chance to go back to the bargaining table. This example proves that the ability to collaborate and work effectively with others can make or break an entire organization.

Learning Technology 

There is a trend in learning programs to shift away from full-day programs or week-long retreats towards more frequent learning delivered in smaller portions. Today’s smaller workforces do not always have the luxury of redundant employees who can cover for each other, Mr. Myers noted. Also, research has revealed that not everyone learns as efficiently in intense, week-long training sessions as in self-paced study taken one step at a time. Today’s L&D initiatives are geared less toward gaining heavy loads of breakthrough knowledge and more towards continuous, incremental improvements with practical and measurable applications.

John sees technology playing an important role in the continuing development of training methodology – advances in communication technology allow for self-paced learning enhanced by multiple forms of media. That being said, there are still skills that are best taught in a classroom setting. Interpersonal skills such as those learned through the SOCIAL STYLE Model are a prime example. Consider learning about body language in conflict situations – this interpretive skill must be seen and practiced in person to be truly mastered.

Looking five to twenty years ahead, technology does have the potential to replace physical classroom settings, while leaving all of the crucial components of in-person group learning intact. Video-conferencing technology allows universities to conduct lectures among several classrooms spread around the world, for example, with distant students able to interact with each other and a professor in real time. This kind of technology can provide the same benefits of in-person group learning, while cutting back on travel time and minimizing the impact of training on productivity.

Looking even further ahead, it may even be possible for artificial intelligence (AI) systems to mimic real teachers or students in the future. Considering the body-language example above in light of a recent article from the New York Times, “But How Do You Really Feel? Someday the Computer May Know,” it may soon be possible for an AI to recognize mood, intention and stress in computer users, while also mirroring the same states back to the learners, providing the type of interpersonal nuance that today is only possible among people.


All of these developments point to a valuable opportunity. Companies that can orient their L&D programs around the new skills needed for leaders in the future, find the ideal balance between internal staff and contractors, and leverage the newest technological developments in L&D can stand to gain an advantage over their competitors through the productive power of smaller, smarter teams with more flexible and collaborative leaders.

Dave Ingram is a Project Coordinator at TRACOM Group. His writing has been featured in The Motley Fool, The Houston Chronicle, NYSE Moneysense and Yahoo. 

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