6 Steps To Achieving The New Leadership Development Paradigm

Published: Mar 26, 2021



There is growing uncertainty about what a post-pandemic workforce will look like. Who will return to the office and how? How will work space be addressed or restructured? What new policies must be put into place to ensure safety, productivity, and accountability?

Faced with more questions than answers, managers must reimagine the employee experience. Amid this cultural transformation, new skills are needed to manage an entirely remote or hybrid workforce. One thing is for certain: Managers must commit to developing and engaging emerging leadership talent to ensure continued business growth and competitiveness.


As the return to work will perhaps never be a return to “normal,” today’s leaders struggle with how to transition employees accustomed to the freedom of working from home (WFH) back to a centralized office environment. That’s of course assuming that there will remain a physical office to bring workers back to—or that they will even want it. Recent studies, as highlighted by the Wall Street Journal on January 2, 2021 in “Is a Home Office Actually More Productive? Some Workers Think So,” suggest that 80% of employees prefer to continue working remotely for three or more days a week once the pandemic is over.

But whether or not there’s a live office setting, there’s an even bigger issue. How do we continue to develop talent to ensure that the leadership bench is strong? During the past year, many businesses put leadership development programs on hold in light of other priorities reshuffled by the pandemic’s impact. A recent Vaya Vision survey of more than 1,000 professionals reported that 64% of employees believe that leadership development either stalled or was hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These programs may have suffered a setback, but that’s no excuse to let them languish. Going forward, we need to adapt to our new reality. The focus must be on maintaining and improving company culture, and that means that leadership development cannot be treated as an afterthought. It must be engrained in the company culture, and it’s up to today’s managers to reinforce their commitment to employee growth—whenever and wherever.

But how can we develop emerging leaders remotely? Here are six steps that organizations can follow to take their leadership development imperative to the next level:

  1. Lighten your touch. First, leaders can no longer use a heavy-handed, micro-managerial approach to developing others. The helicopter model of monitoring employees simply isn’t effective. In fact, it can actually make problems worse. As revealed by the Harvard Business Review on July 30, 2020 in “Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues,” nearly half (49%) of employees recently surveyed reported severe anxiety when subjected to stringent monitoring by remote managers.
    As informal lines of communication and access are now more limited, leaders must rethink their management style. The new hybrid work environment impacts how they build rapport, coach, and develop others, work as a team more effectively, offer feedback, and even have difficult conversations. More than ever, managers need to set clear goals and expectations, provide enough direction, and empower employees to take more ownership of their professional development.
  2. Emphasize soft skills. Now that the workforce is going more remote, many of the skills that once required in-person contact (i.e., live, face-to-face meetings) need to be applied virtually. Developing tomorrow’s leaders requires a new emphasis on soft skills. The three Cs— communication, compassion, and collaboration—must be cultivated. Keeping high-potential (HiPo) leaders engaged and motivated is key.
    A WFH setting reinforces an “I can just do it myself” mentality because it’s easier for managers and their direct reports to detach and not be present. Taking a softer approach by nurturing relationships and focusing on building connections can offset the effects of isolation.
  3. Cultivate talent diversity. Just as important is the need to identify strong performers earlier in the pipeline. Managers need to look deeper than just surface attributes of those who show promise and are willing to assume broader leadership responsibilities. In the past, nominating emerging leaders was based on “looks like me, sounds like me, acts like me” criteria—usually by an employee’s own manager or boss’s boss. Not anymore. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that we’re building a more diverse and inclusive leadership bench. Today’s leadership development training should be accessible to women, people of color, and others who have historically been underserved. Achieving D&I in future leadership depends on making a conscious effort to embrace it earlier rather than later.
  4. Assess HiPos objectively. How can we ensure that the selection of emerging leaders is completely objective? By recognizing that HiPo talent requires an unbiased assessment—optimally performed by a neutral party. It should be designed and validated to ensure that it eliminates gender, ethnicity, age, and other biases, as well as to highlight leadership capabilities—not just technical performance. While skills such as aptitude and proficiency are important, soft skills and other measures of leadership potential are equally worthy of recognition and development. Given the emerging hybrid workforce, there are now leadership assessment services that can be conducted virtually with the same rigor and detailed insights as those done in person.
  5. Keep employees engaged. Once the assessment process is complete, now what? It’s one thing to identify and place HiPos into a leadership development program; it’s another to ensure that they’re making measurable progress. This is especially challenging in a remote setting. Provide emerging talent with a learning experience that engages them in a purposeful, personalized manner. Leadership training should be available as a virtual platform that offers on-demand access and allows employees to practice their skills in real-world scenarios. To keep talent actively involved, managers must mentor and support individual development remotely throughout the program. This manager involvement, coupled with coaching and peer-to-peer interaction, will help keep employees engaged, motivated, and accountable.
  6. Train and retain. Highly engaged employees not only evolve as leaders, they tend to stay much longer at companies that are committed to developing their skills. Not surprisingly, according to Gallup in June 2016, 87% of Millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them in a job. After all, your people are the backbone of your business—and your most competitive asset. Without the right minds powering the road ahead, your company is ill-prepared to seize new opportunities and leapfrog the competition. That’s why investing in your emerging leaders by committing to their growth invariably leads to higher employee loyalty and retention.


Accelerating the development of leadership in emerging HiPos helps organizations to remain competitive during this time of massive change. While the perception may be that skill building is more challenging in a remote arena, it doesn’t have to be. With the right tools and manager involvement, your WFH and hybrid employees can learn the skills, habits, and behaviors that will prepare them to become great leaders.

As we move forward into the new decade, we’ll see that the most valued leadership qualities focus on inclusion, agility, and a growth mindset. These behaviors must be cultivated now to reap the benefits of the future—and they must start from the top.


Paul Eccher, PhD, is the co-founder, CEO and president of Vaya Group (www.vayapath.com). He has more than 25 years of experience partnering with Fortune 500 clients to leverage talent and improve business results, and is an expert in the areas of executive assessment, coaching for performance, and talent management.