Is it possible to develop leaders remotely?

You can do everything remotely as well or better than in the office. Everything or almost everything. It is a way of working that can make it more difficult to develop or bring out leaders. Unless you consider that the remote leader is a species in itself or that the current development approaches are obsolete.

Can businesses “create” leaders?

This is perhaps the first question that needs to be asked and I have never believed that leaders can be ” created “, any more than managers can be created (at least the ” good ” ones). On the other hand, it can help people who have predispositions, a potential, to develop.

Thus, many companies try to detect “leaders in the making”, whether they are aware of it or not, in order to help them progress and realize their potential.

Once these people have been identified, they are given the opportunity to develop a certain number of skills, to become aware of their potential and to assert it. A sort of “fast track” to high responsibility positions that ensures that the people concerned do not get lost along the way, that the company does not “waste” them and that they do not feel like going elsewhere because they are not recognized enough.

Leadership development programs “bug” at a distance

But these approaches seem to have difficulties to go through the “full remote” era in which we have switched in the last year and from which we don’t know yet when we will get out and how.

A few months ago a friend identified as a “leader of tomorrow” in her company told me roughly: “the program hasn’t stopped but all the seminars and group activities have been stopped and all that’s left is long and boring sessions on Teams…the group dynamic is somehow broken

, it’s not like it was at the beginning“.

The first reaction is to say that there is nothing new under the sun and that she is only experiencing what millions of employees are going through when a training course designed for face-to-face training is transposed to distance using collective video sessions: hell! There is a real issue about the fact that by moving to distance, businesses have tried to do the same as before by simply changing the channels and tools, and this goes well beyond training, but it is a subject in itself. But in terms of the specific case of leadership development I don’t think it’s just about the form.

One can also say that there are very specific subjects that do not go well at a distance. I think that some training courses can very well be transposed to distance by totally rethinking their format but the specific case we are talking about is not one of them.

Leadership, a training like no other

A leadership development program is not like any other training. Without going into too much detail, it must meet several needs.

First of all, the development of the leadership of each individual. We are talking about the acquisition and development of “soft skills”. This cannot be achieved by consuming content alone. It also requires interaction with trainers, with coaches, with peers. This can work remotely to a certain extent and I have recently experienced this with my own staff: there are remote soft skills development approaches that work very well.

But there is also a collective notion. First of all because, as we have just seen, some things require interaction. But especially because these programs are based on a collective basis, on a notion of group, of class, that is taken together from one point to another over a given period.

When it comes to developing the future leaders of a company, it goes beyond the acquisition of certain skills, it is a matter of creating a team spirit among them, a feeling of belonging to what may look like a sort of internal elite, coupled with a reinforced feeling of belonging and engagement with the company, which does not invest in them just to see them leave 6 months later.

It is no longer a matter of group training sessions but of group activities. Activities where they get to know each other and carry out projects together. And here we come back to long remote training sessions: it doesn’t work.

The training logic can be covered in whole or in part at a distance, depending on the subject and its ambitions. If you add things like teambuilding and joint projects, which often require creativity, it no longer works.

Having sound and image is one thing but it is not enough. You can do good creative workshops/brainstorms, collaborate from a distance but it will never be like “in real life”. You lose spontaneity, it’s more “framed”, less laughter, less asides. And overall, you lose a large part of the context, the collective reflections are not as spontaneous and then you lose the everything that’s “off”. For this type of event, what happens “on the side” is just as important as what happens during the event. The dinners, the parties… everything that creates a real shared experience. There is an immersive dimension to these events that cannot be reproduced from a distance.

Even as a proponent of “high dose” remote working, even if I am convinced by the new forms of remote learning, I am convinced that two things do not work or do not work well in such a context: creativity and teambuilding. And in the case of future leaders development programs, we are right in the middle of it. They may not be the only ones concerned, but they are an excellent example.

Attention, fatigue and “friction”.

Without going into too much detail this can be explained by 3 factors:

The first is the difficulty of maintaining one’s attention for a long time in front of a screen. A series of meetings works even if it is tiring. But a long training session at a distance does not work, everyone drops out little by little.

I’m surprised to see businesses still offering internal/external events or totally remote conferences in long formats of a day or more. The loss of attention even when the participants are connected must be huge. And I’m not even talking about the “no shows” or those who leave quickly.

This is for the “traditional” part, where a group listens to a speaker. But let’s talk about the sessions that require group collaboration and creativity.

Besides, as I said, being less fluid, spontaneous, “human”, they are much more tiring than in person, not to say exhausting.

And to remain in the comparison with conferences / seminars, what is missing is what makes them so valuable: networking. It’s where the professional and the personal mix, where links and shared experiences are created, where we “rub shoulders” to get to know each other, share and/or confront experiences and ideas. If you want to create cohesion in a group that will have to take high responsibilities tomorrow, this part is vital!

Is a “remote leader” different from a “normal” leader?

All my reasoning can collapse in front of an objection: indeed, a leader at a distance is different from “old” leaders, so he will develop differently according to the constraints related to the distance.

And I am the first to say that there is a specificity in “digital leadership” and that to recruit an employee or a manager who will evolve in a mainly remote context, we will look for other qualities than those we were looking for before.

But I don’t think it’s necessarily “instead of” what we were looking for before but “in addition to“.

A remote team is a team before it is remote, and the fact that businesses that have opted for “full remote” insist on multiplying face-to-face socialization events says a lot. There are development programs whose ambition requires going beyond the transmission of remote knowledge: they require collective practice, joint ownership, and the creation of a feeling of belonging to the group that requires more than sharing sessions together.

Is the “leader factory” broken?

Given the current context, one may wonder if programs that require “more than training” are not at a dead end and, in the case that interests us, if there will not be a “hole” in the “graduation” of “future leaders” or “high potentials”.

While this is a difficult situation for those experiencing it, it is less serious at the enterprise level. One or two years with leader or high potential programs running at reduced speed and in a degraded mode is not a catastrophe in itself. It’s just a warning signal.

A two-level warning signal.

Firstly, on the need to rethink such programs in depth when moving to distance and not only to see them from the angle of a channel change.

Then on the fact that if it is perfectly possible to work at a distance, the conditions necessary for the development of individuals to do so and, a fortiori, to lead in such a context, requires more.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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