Can leadership be taught virtually with great success?

Written by Kirsty Allen 14 Apr 2020

COVID-19 requires us to think differently. Face to face training interactions are temporarily suspended, so this begs a crucial question for everyone in leadership development: can we successfully develop leaders using virtual sessions? And if so, how?

What makes successful leadership development?

Most readers of this blog will be firmly in the camp of measuring ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘activities’. The difference here is between “we ran programs for one hundred leaders” to “we created learning that enabled 100 leaders to become measurably better leaders”. The key measures might be:

  • Did the leaders on our programs learn, and deploy, new leadership behaviours that increased the productivity and engagement of their team?

  • Did the leaders in our programs contribute to better organisational outcomes? For example: better results/productivity, less regretted churn (they retained the best talent), more desired churn (they weeded out and exited poor performers), better immediate results from hiring, better succession plans (more team members either ready to be promoted, or having been promoted)?

  • Did the participants’ managers report that their direct reports emerged as more confident and competent leaders from the program?

Over the past six years, at HFL we have accepted that even face-to-face (FTF) leadership programs often do not past these success measures. In particular, front-line leadership programs can be ‘information overload’ and ‘death by slide deck’ experiences that don’t translate into many new leadership behaviours being deployed with great results by participants.


Most of the literature describing ‘best practise’ these days will focus on the methods of learning.

  • Is the learning approach experiential – participants doing things, practising new skills?

  • Is the approach leveraging the experience of the participants in the room – helping them own and direct their own learning?

  • Is the approach incremental – building on skills over time, more of a learning journey than an event?

  • Are the participants being held to account for their progress – do they have learning action plans that are regularly referenced, added to, and executed?

  • Are regular check-ins held with program facilitators and managers?

  • Is reflection and feedback built in to all aspects of the program?

When you come to think of it, none of these attributes of excellent leadership programs require the participants being in the same room – they simply require the participants to be able to have meaningful dialogue with both the facilitator and other participants in a safe and trusting environment, and be able to practice leadership – typically the framing and execution of powerful conversations.

Even HFL’s FTF programs have morphed into far more blended constructs, with many follow up sessions with managers and participants executed virtually video-conference.

Small group coaching meets its moment

Properly structured, small group leadership coaching works as well virtually as it does FTF. This is because essentially – at its heart – the program is based around three participants discussing collaboratively which approaches work best for shared leadership situations, assisted by an expert leadership coach. It works particularly well because the situations we discuss are real – leader A has a poor performing member of their team, as does (no surprise here) leader B and leader C.

Video-conference solutions such as Zoom, Skype or MS Teams bring these four players together as if they were in the same room. The difference in the quality of the program is not geographical location – it is in the quality of the conversation. The capture of key insights, and the ability and motivation of the participants to go forth and deploy.

The aspects of small group coaching that participants rave about the most have nothing to do with being geographically close:

  • “…the expertise of ‘my coach’

  • “…we can talk about my problems on my team”

  • “…we take confidence in knowing that every leader faces these challenges, not just me”

  • “…we have time to practice actual, real conversations that we need to have with real people”

Small group leadership coaching is lauded by participants as being immediately useful and actionable. At HFL we call this “news they can use”.

So virtual can work as well as face to face?

We’d say yes, conclusively, if you operate a small group coaching design. It works as well as FTF. And we have the data to prove it. Episodic, accountable, one subject at a time, practical and applied – this works perfectly well using Zoom, or even just on the phone (although video-conference is far superior).

We’d say no if you are intending to execute long days, huge slide decks, and take very much a training as opposed to a coaching/facilitation teaching approach.

To be truly successful, the small group leadership coach has to deploy the eight principles of small group coaching effectively. Understand that the ‘answer is in the room’. Understand that asking penetrative questions, rather than providing answers, provides the most impactful and lasting learning. Understanding that being able to play-act roles – perhaps of a discouraged team member, or an overly ambitious one, or one who is struggling to be competent – is a critical coaching skill these days. It’s making it real, and making it memorable, and creating the opportunity for leaders to see for themselves what works and what doesn’t, in a safe environment.

Not every coach finds this transition – or indeed, coaching a small group rather than a single leader – easy to master. It’s why our small group coaching service – Fastlead – spends so much time on accrediting our coaching network. And indeed, many facilitators can’t help them selves in these sessions, and spend too much time ‘delivering content’ as opposed to letting the participants do the heavy lifting.

But with the right process, approach and preparation, virtual leadership development via small group coaching works brilliantly.

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