Going Virtual: How to Engage, Develop and Inspire Leaders by Taking Leadership Development Online

The best organizations know that their leaders- their people – are the key to their business success. But how can they develop leaders effectively now that the live events, travel, and in-person interaction that make leadership development so engaging are suddenly off-limits?

The challenges are real, but so is the urgency to find good solutions, because employees need support now more than ever. You can provide support in a way that is engaging, impactful, and powerful. We understand the challenges you are facing.

We know that leadership development programs can take a back seat to the urgent priorities businesses face today, but as executive coaches, consultants, and advisors to businesses and teams around the world, we also know they are desperately needed. Employees at every level are struggling not just to adjust to their new reality, but because they feel disconnected from each other, demotivated by the interruption in their careers and lives, and disincentivized by a “new normal” that deprioritizes their development.

We understand. We know that you don’t want to suspend the programs you worked so hard to perfect, and we know you value not only your people but also value the opportunity to grow and develop top talent. It’s just that “on top of everything else,” trying to suddenly redesign all of your programs to fit a virtual platform seems awfully overwhelming. As a result, some organizations are canceling or postponing programs, and while that may be the easy answer, it may also be seriously detrimental. Employees need to know they are still valued, and their company is willing to invest in them, grow them, and advance them so they can stay motivated and engaged.

Luckily, it is possible to serve and support your talented leaders, even in a virtual, work-from-home world. Just listen to the comments of a leader we know who attended what was supposed to be a high-touch, inspiring, two-day kick-off to a prestigious leadership development program – one that we suddenly pivoted to transform into an online version when the pandemic forced businesses to shutdown.

“It is great how quickly time flies while I was attending the sessions, how close I felt to the group and all things I have already learned and how quickly I can start to put new ideas into practice now!”

Any facilitator or executive sponsor would be pleased to hear their program had made a positive impact on participants, but the fact that such an impact can be achieved virtually– that’s a result businesses now need.

If you are looking at your flagship in-person leadership development programs and are wondering, “How do we make this work?” in the new coronavirus reality, your concerns are well founded. They are also not beyond hope. We’ll show you how.

We can show you how, because we know how. At LRI, we are no newcomers to virtual leadership development. For the past 10 years, we have been bringing large scale, global virtual programming to international organizations so their leadership development programs can reach their participants in every corner of the world. The very strategies that have been so effective in a pre-Covid world are equally effective now.

We know going virtual isn’t always easy. Here’s where we’d like to help. Below follow our principles for designing virtual leadership development that we hope will help you “be there” for your employees now when they need you most.

Make it Easy. Yes, there are some whiz-bang technologies out there for giving virtual meetings “wow” factor, but if you’re moving fast and/or are new to the virtual scene, save those for later. Make the systems you use for your virtual platform as simple and streamlined as possible. This avoids having to set up large networks of administrative support and prevents frustration for everyone. Even a pre-established public platform, like Zoom or Skype, works well, and many people are familiar with them already. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel!

Create Connections. When going digital, the biggest loss is the in-person connection. Remedy this by using video screens whenever possible to make people feel like they’re in the same room. Intentional use of interactive activities throughout the event, like chatting, surveys, Q&A sessions and fielding personal questions, can help people connect and make sure the event is engaging, warm and connected. Even a simple icebreaker like a one-word check-in via the chat function (Lori – Energized! Bill Stressed!) can gauge how people are doing and provide a touch of humanity.

Think Visual and Audio. Just as one would do when facilitating a live meeting, making effective use of on-screen audiovisuals is important and only a reinforcement of the content. Sometimes virtual meeting attendees have trouble accessing either the audio or the visual options for a meeting. If careful thought hasn’t been given to providing a complete message that can be either seen or heard (if not both), participants can lose interest and events can lose their value. This is a challenge that can easily be overcome. Producing and distributing an articulate, succinct presentation along with quality video, slides, onscreen materials, and liberal use of the platform’s icons (hands raised, thumbs up, etc.) ensures that everyone gets the most value out of the session, whether they can access only the audio, only the video, or both.

Preserve, Share and Re-Show the Event. Every virtual session should be recorded, and the recording, as well as materials shared, should be distributed after the event. Companies can certainly put parameters in place when it comes to sharing proprietary information, but if attendees have any issues logging on, often due to logistics, they should be able to catch up on their own time. Bonus – this also solves the challenges presented by differences in time zone, making it easy to replay the same event more than once to serve everyone involved.

Be There for Participants, Before and After the Event. If the intention is to create an outstanding virtual experience to make up for a live event that has been canceled, make sure people can engage as thoroughly as possible. Before the event, offer quick and easy training to be sure the technology is accessible. After the event, stick around for “coffee hour Q&A” where participants can ask questions, follow up on what they’ve learned, and clarify next steps.

As we have assisted our client partners in moving their large-scale, international events into virtual sessions, we have found the principles above to be enormously helpful in achieving success. Not only do participants feel connected, inspired and engaged, but organizations are discovering a model for the future in which virtual events can serve as a viable alternative (but not a replacement) for live events.

Even in a world where employees are separated from each other, leadership development delivered across the miles has the potential to bring them together and create a powerful community.

If we can help you in any way as you rethink your leadership development programs for a virtual world, please reach out. We’d be happy to help.

Contributed by Joelle Jay, Ph.D.

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