Most of the time, evolution happens slowly, changes take place over hundreds or thousands of years. But that’s not the case for shifts in the modern workplace. There, we’ve seen a rapid evolution over the past few years, one that has prompted us to reconsider what we value in our leaders, and how we help them grow through leadership development initiatives.
In a 2023 Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report, sponsored by Torch, researchers found that leadership development is evolving in three key ways to meet the moment, and prepare for the future. These trends, based on quantitative and qualitative insights of 665 business leaders from across industries and around the world, suggest that the strategy, scope, and skills of leadership development are all changing for the better.
Let’s take a closer look at these changes.
#1: Strategy: From one-size-fits-all to one-size-fits-one
Leadership development is becoming more personalized, and tailored to an individual’s unique strengths, growth opportunities, and work context. In fact, the vast majority of respondents (86%) agree that personalized leadership development, such as coaching and mentoring, is required in our changing work environment.
This signals a strategic shift from relying solely on leadership skills training–often point-in-time sessions that do not reliably lead to learning or long-term behavior change–to a more effective approach. Research has found that 75% of learners forget what they learn within six days, unless they practice those lessons in the context of their work, and are held accountable for their growth and learning.
Respondents see this in their own programs. They rated leadership skills training as less effective than personalized and relationship-based options: 35% rate skills training as extremely or very effective versus 60% for coaching. What’s behind this gap? One reason is that respondents see relationship-based options as being more supportive of participants, leading to better results, with 86% agreeing that relationship-based leadership development makes candidates feel truly supported on their leadership journey, and that these approaches achieve better results than more passive methods of development.
#2: Skills: From “soft” to “essential”
Empathetic communication. Active listening. Cultivating emerging leaders. Motivating teams. For decades, organizational leaders labeled these as “soft” skills. Embedded in this language was an implicit message: that these skills are easier to learn than “hard” technical skills, and therefore less valuable.
This is shifting. Today, new workforce and strategic imperatives have changed the leadership style organizations need, and therefore the skills they value and invest in their people developing. In the face of global crises and workers who are often motivated as much by workplace values and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as compensation, many organizations are moving from authoritative leadership styles towards trust-based ones. Economic uncertainty has made it even more important for leaders to guide and inspire their teams through ambiguity.
Today’s successful leaders are skilled in building, and sustaining, strong, trusted relationships across their organizations. These are skills that often cannot be learned in isolation, but must be strengthened in collaboration with a skilled advisor, such as a coach.
Reflecting the importance of upskilling leaders in these essential relational skills, all respondents intend to increase their use of leadership development initiatives over the next couple of years, with the greatest planned increases in leadership skills training (61%), mentoring (55%) and leadership coaching (50%).
#3: Scope: From exclusive to inclusive.
In the past, leadership development opportunities were primarily offered to senior executives or “high-potential” leaders, with lots of ambiguity on the definition of potential inside organizations. But this strategy can be a backdoor for bias: The ranks of senior leadership inside most organizations still don’t include underrepresented groups, such as women and people of color. What’s more, other Torch research shows that whether or not an employee has “potential” is often determined through informal manager recommendations, versus a formal, more objective process.
Luckily, many leaders know this is a problem. 64% of HBR research respondents strongly agreed that it’s important to provide leadership development more broadly across their organizations. Roughly half of organizations are working to increase the equity and inclusiveness of their mentoring and coaching programs.
Research suggests that this is a smart business decision. According to RedThread Research and others, inclusive development selection processes are linked to retention, engagement and higher organizational performance. Employees at high-performing organizations are two times as likely as those at lower-performing organizations to say that they get equal access to development opportunities. When employees don’t see a path for their development, they’re more likely to quit.
Want to learn how you can evolve your leadership development programs to focus on more personalized, relationship-based and inclusive experiences for your people? We’d love to talk to you!