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Leadership

The future of leadership development

This is part of the Hive Learning pulse report, State of Leadership 2021. In this section, we look at how organizations can effectively and sustainably develop their leaders with the Power Skills we need in leadership now.

Over the past year, we’ve noticed a monumental shift in what we need our leaders to be.

As we’ve unpacked, supporting employee mental health, becoming truly inclusive leaders, and shifting from a command and control mindset to one where every leader collaborates and ideates every day are now critical leadership behaviors. And embedding them as a core part of our culture is urgent.

But the approaches we as L&D professionals should take to prepare our leaders have changed dramatically too. In fact, new research from Fosway Group reports that only 5% of L&D leaders will “revert back to what they used to do”.

And for good reason. The skills we need from leaders today will likely evolve again in another year’s time. The world has moved from fixed to fluid. Economies, markets, and indeed company culture, will never again be seen as things that are unchangeable.

We won’t be able to rely on sets of decades-old values. Some behaviors and mindsets will always be critical for leaders to cope in a changing world — the ability to embrace and champion change, to be resilient. But some desired behaviors will continue to adapt and evolve.

Modern company culture is already fluid.

Today, leaders need to learn how to manage their team’s mental health in the midst of a pandemic and to lead inclusively — by debiasing their processes and committing to building anti-racist organizations.

Tomorrow, they may need to begin to embed sustainability as a core part of their mindset or understand new dimensions of what it truly means to be an inclusive leader. We need our culture to adapt with the times.

As the boundaries between what’s acceptable and expected in life and in work are becoming blurred, and as people’s personal and professional values become more tightly aligned, people increasingly expect more from leaders and managers. They expect them to be able to respond to the future’s headline-hitting incidents of racism or climate crises and do so authentically.

What this means is that our approach to leadership development can no longer be fixed and linear. And future-facing businesses are already choosing approaches that allow them to continually evolve with the world we live in.

P.S. This should take you no longer than 15 minutes to read, but hey, we get it, you’re busy. (The world is operating at unprecedented speed, right?).

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In the past, traditional L&D and culture transformation programs often failed because they were primarily created for static learning or corporate comms, and not real culture or behavior change.

They were:

❌ Top-down — planned, created and delivered to employees by L&D and their learning providers. This made them expensive and difficult to scale, relying on subject matter leaders spending 100s of hours every year delivering training sessions. Often, with little accountability placed onto learners to put what they’d learned into practice. And based on  what the C-suite thought their teams needed to know, without listening to their challenges.

❌ One-off — focused around short, sharp learning interventions like those training days. These weren’t often part of a longer-term plan, meaning the forgetting curve loomed large, investment wasn’t maximized, and there was no way to sustain long-term engagement or behavior change.

❌ Knowledge-based not outcome-based — the success of a program was measured on ‘what you know’, rather than ‘how your behaviors changed’ as a result. We focused on helping people understand the theory of great leadership, but not what it practically looked like or how to role model those behaviors. And we didn’t measure whether people were actually taking action.

Francis Lake, Head of Organization Development, Virgin Money UK, shared this astute assessment:

We need to think about new ways of working and not just reinvent the old ways.

Francis Lake, Head of Organization Development, Virgin Money UK

And we couldn’t agree more. From our research, we can see that our digital world has forced a new reality, with more blended approaches, more engagement, and more empowered leaders.

For one organization, engagement has doubled in EMEA. Another business has reported an incredible jump of 400% in year-on-year consumption.

It needs to be said that this hasn’t been the story for every organization and several leaders we spoke to admit that engagement is still the hardest part.

So what is the perfect recipe for leadership development programs that change and sustain cultures, mindsets and behaviors, while giving L&D teams and Heads of OD the room to flex and adapt to changing needs as they go?

We boiled it down to these key areas.

4 pillars of modern leadership development

Leadership Development programs of the future must be:

💡 Democratic — driven by the changing and immediate needs of your workforce, identified by your workforce; where everyone knows what good looks like, is empowered to take action and ownership, and has permission to call out their peers when they’re not being true to your values

💡 Actionable — programs must be practical, not theoretical; leaders need toolkits with clear action steps and activities they can easily follow each week to help them build up good habits; all actions must be measurable with action-learning cycles baked in at every level

💡 Social — every leader needs to be on the same page at the same time so learning should be group-based and focused on developing meaningful connections between peers both in digital tools and ‘real-life’; peers should have opportunities to reflect, share challenges and ideas in a purposeful way so they can learn from and support one another as they go

💡 Contagious — if you follow steps 1 to 3, your leadership development programs should become self-sustaining as leaders role model behavior, share with their peers, and the change becomes contagious

Throughout history, hierarchies housed in high towers have claimed to rule, but real power has resided in the networks in the town square below. It is networks that innovate. And it is through networks that revolutionary ideas can contagiously spread.

Niall Ferguson, Stanford Academic & Author

Here’s what each of these dimensions looks like in practice.  


To make learning valuable, listen closely and find out which skills people are asking for help with and which knowledge gaps they need to fill to solve their immediate and near-term challenges. Innovative organizations like Mastercard are democratizing talent development and basing their development on what their teams need — not just on what the powers that be decide.

Collaborative learning tools can be your friend here. Many Hive Learning customers use our peer learning analytics to create listening posts within our platform.

Much like the town hall sessions that so many companies ran in response to Black Lives Matter, our Culture Acceleration team works with customers to unlock deep insight using sentiment analysis and conversation tracking to identify what employees are struggling with, capture frequently asked questions and then respond.

As well as giving employees a voice and equipping people teams with the insight to quickly sense and respond, many communities also become quickly self-sufficient.

In one peer learning community designed for over 100,000 frontline workers, we found that in just under three months the network effect became so strong that a worker asking for help would receive 10s of responses within minutes.

This enabled many workers to problem-solve effectively, and allowed their employer to hear what people were asking, respond, and even use that to inform policy — releasing relevant, timely, and practical content in a matter of hours or days in response.

This disrupts the stubborn statistic that 90% of online communities are lurkers. One Hive Learning customer saw a 51% increase of learners who went from what we call ‘reader’ to ‘leader’, pushing the total number of contributors from 44% to 95%.

There are three clear benefits.

1. Learning networks become self-sustaining and talent teams only need to chime in where necessary or where there’s value to be added.

2. This is an opportunity for talent teams to see who is role modeling important leadership behaviors so they can pinpoint future leaders in the talent pipeline.

3. These mechanisms can also be particularly powerful when it comes to building belonging in dispersed workforces, helping people who previously thought of themselves as being part of a division of 100 people to creating strong connections to the other 10s of 1000s of people like them all over the world.

This is democratic learning in action, driven by and for the people in the ‘town square below’.
A spotlight on peer learning
Several contributors we spoke to came to the same revelation: that there is a learning sweet spot that revolves around the learning experiences that happen between people.

In an interview with Raconteur, Legal & General’s (L&G) head of development experiences and innovation Gemma Paterson shared L&G’s goal of getting hundreds of people collaborating, sharing and accessing resources by the end of the year — amazingly L&G were able to see the benefits of peer learning “in a couple of weeks”.

Gemma attributes this to the fact that the whole world has shifted and people are more open to experimentation. Digital or online learning is more interactive and user friendly than the days of click-through eLearning. And the good news is that there is existing momentum to benefit from if organizations act now.

Using Hive Learning’s platform, L&G has built a peer learning culture through a central source of truth where learners are encouraged to “pay it forward”. People are prompted to share information with others on the platform which bakes in an element of accountability and means everyone goes on the same journey at the same time, even if it’s virtual.

Our contributors shared the same pleasant surprise on the benefits of peer learning.

Peer learning breaks down those infamous knowledge silos that so many organizations harbor. It does this by acting as a dedicated space where employees are actively encouraged to share knowledge.

It’s obvious that power skills come more naturally to some leaders than others. A peer learning culture where leaders can talk amongst themselves and help each other build those skills will be each organization’s secret weapon that’s unique to the diversity of people in them.


A dire lack of action was the creaky step in learning that everyone seemed to finally notice in 2020. Take racial inequality, for example. Once people finish learning about the concepts and are on board with change, the same thing always comes up. They want to know what to do next.

Your leaders might know what inclusion means and why it’s important. But when they show up to work, do they know how to actually be inclusive? Likewise with mental health. Your managers realize that they need to be having conversations about it with their team, but do all your managers know how to start that conversation? Or do employees have to accept the luck of the draw with their manager’s natural abilities? Power skills can’t just be ‘done’ with the ease that we execute a technical skill we’ve just learned.

First, we have to create the right environment where leaders can successfully implement what they learn. It’s common sense for people teams, but it’s also something that continues to stump organizations again and again when expensive training programs are paid for and nothing changes. When environmental factors are ignored, the fledgling seeds of change are no match for the Goliath-sized pushback of old attitudes and practices.

Then and only then can you anchor the behavior you expect people to model in a specific action.

There’s no point beating around the bush here: you need to spell it out.

Minimize the mental load and make actions small and easy enough to regularly slot into the schedule of the most time-poor leader. Task learners with trying out one new action at regular intervals so it becomes a habit-building exercise that snowballs into a set of new behaviors. Culture is a collective set of behavior — this is what turns plain, old learning into real culture change.

Organizations must embed learning and action as an everyday part of the culture. Why every day? Ask behavior scientist and New York Times bestselling author, BJ Fogg, who’s written extensively on how to get behaviors to stick by turning them into habits.

We know that cultures are defined by what happens every day within an organization, which is why we need to embed change as part of people’s average work day to change that culture.

That’s why content needs to be both bite-sized and actionable, so it can move learners from a ‘training’ mindset to an ‘everyday learning’ one. Our resources typically include actions to take away, like our guide to have smoother conversations about Black Lives Matter and our programs are designed to be interactive and prompt conversation with polls, quizzes and thought-provoking questions to comment on, like in Privilege & Identity, a free pathway we’ve shared on the Hive Learning website.

This approach is what leaders need now that they are expected to make and fulfill promises on topics like looking after their employee’s mental health and advancing racial equity in the workplace. This breaks down lofty ambitions into tangible, meaningful progress.

Businesses that aren’t creating a culture of everyday learning are already missing out. Bersin & Associates research found that High Impact Learning Organizations see profit growth that is around triple that of their peers.

One of the simplest ways to get people to do something regularly? Get their peers to do it too.

Before you repurpose your existing channels of communication as your new learning hub, take note of experts in technology and organizational behavior who explain that social tools aren’t a good enough classroom because “learning on social tools happens at a remove, while others go about their work, so people don’t think of it as learning”.

This means learning retention from social tools like MS Teams is really low. People don’t pick up amazing skills just because conversations on the topic are happening in front of them.

Tools like Zoom, Slack and MS Teams are invaluable for remote working. But these platforms are designed for instantaneous hits of information — the learning equivalent to Googling something to quickly fill a short-term knowledge gap, not taking in information that you’re likely to remember or use in the long term. In order to sustain a culture where everyone stays open to collaboration and continual learning, we need a solution that’s built for that.

With a dedicated space that people are primed to associate with learning, you can then tap into the powerful social ties we all have to drive that learning. As our customers know, the simple act of someone modeling a desired behavior in a shared learning platform is extremely effective. It triggers activity spikes in the platform, drawing people back in and adding another micro milestone in their learning habit.

This kind of purposeful, social learning taps into the powerful niggling feeling that has propelled us into action at one time or another: FOMO. Harness the fear of missing out to draw learners back into learning by notifying them about conversations happening on the platform without them.

Side note: this is different from shaming. Most of us know all too well that shaming a person into doing something or canceling them for doing the wrong thing is no way to build understanding and push new ideas or behaviors forward. Social learning is the learning equivalent of calling someone in, taking them on the journey with you and allowing people to improve together.

Leaders we spoke to noticed that this group-based learning approach is what has helped skyrocket culture change at scale — the process of having every leader on the same page at the same time. Not only that, but it also boosts psychological safety and develops meaningful connections between peers, whether that’s digitally or in ‘real life’.

Influence plays a part here too — seeing other influential peers practice learning reinforces it as a business and personal priority.
img class=”wp-image-8370″ style=”border-radius: 10px;” src=”https://test-hive-learning-marketing.pantheonsite.io/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Brad-Hartman-nudge.png” width=”100%” height=”auto” />
Forward-thinking L&D leaders have already taken advantage of the fact that digital learning means we can maximize the power of learning alongside our peers.

This longer-term, multiple touchpoint approach makes sense online in a way it never could in person, thanks to the ease of hopping on a recurring call versus gathering executives for expensive conferences and away days. This slow burn is easier to manage and more achievable than an overnight culture shift.

Creating this network of peers and taking a more drip-fed approach to learning overcomes the loneliness of online learning. It carves out a dedicated space for peer learning and normalizes the practice of sharing challenges and ideas purposefully so leaders can learn from and support one another as they go.


Once you’re a) giving leaders the tools they need, b) showing them exactly how to apply it and c) making that learning process something that people can support and inspire each other to do, that’s when you lay the groundwork for learning to take root.

Corie Pauling, SVP, Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer at TIAA summed this up well at our panel on scaling inclusion digitally,

“If you think you can’t be the change, you are totally wrong. You need to create a space where everyone understands how they can own it and make it inspiring.”

When you do these three things, people rally behind each other and behaviors start to change. This is how to move the needle sustainably and allow learning and behavior change to thrive.

The world has changed and leaders will have to adapt and learn if they want to keep up.

So what can we learn from what organizations did in 2020 and how they’re gearing up for the inevitable changes ahead?

We’ve summarized the key action steps below for developing leaders, creating culture change and futureproofing organizations.

 Review your leadership development. Are you giving leaders what they need to build the power skills they need? Will your method of delivery work for workforces who need a) a digital approach and b) to be connected to their colleagues? Change anything that doesn’t work and align your content with what leaders and employees are asking for.

 Build psychological safety. Start by giving leaders a safe space to ask each other questions. Encourage leaders to model vulnerability and reframe failure and your organization’s response to it.

 Foster a culture of everyday learning. What message does your organization give about where learning falls in its business priorities? Be explicit about the expectations of continual learning and how leaders can put what they’ve learned into practice through content that is bite-sized and actionable.

✅ Nurture peer-to-peer learning. Give people a space where they can get into the habit of asking each other questions and sharing their ideas. Take everyone on the same learning journey together so your organization’s culture shifts with them.

 Encourage open-mindedness. Power skills aren’t easy to learn and neither is leading in a world that’s constantly changing. Instill your leaders with a growth mindset and make it cool for them to listen and learn from those around them.

There’s no going back to the old ways of leadership development when so much is now new to today’s leaders. Use these action steps to tackle and embed the harder-to-learn skills that the new model of leadership demands and set a culture of learning in motion.

A huge thank you to our expert contributors

Amanda Pick, Culture & Engagement Executive at Volkswagen Financial Services (UK)

Anila Brown, Head of Organizational Development and Learning at Harris Computer Systems

Bill Ball, Director of Learning and Development at DISYS

Brad Hartman, Chief People Officer at FerGene

Catherine Schlieben, HR Director – Talent at National Grid

Jacquie Murphy, Head of Learning and Development at Smith and Williamson

Josh Zimmerman, Head of Learning and Development at GitLab Inc.

Lydia Charilaou (MCIPD), Head of Learning and Development Olam Cocoa at Olam International UK Ltd.

Magdalena Blechoska, Europe Region Talent Director at UPS

Maricar Obieta, Global Head of Learning & Leadership Development at Willis Towers Watson

Michael Fraccaro, Chief People Officer at Mastercard

Miriam Williams, Global Curriculum Design Director at Mars

Paula Leach, Founder and Executive Coach of Vantage Points Consulting

Renee Romulus MBA, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, SWP, Vice President, Global Talent Development at FTI Consulting

Ruth Gotian, Ed.D., M.S., Chief Learning Officer in Anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine

Tracy Ting, SVP, CHRO at Encore Capital Group

Anonymous, Learning Innovation Partner at a multinational pharmaceutical company

Anonymous, Global Learning Curriculum Lead at a major UK bank

State of Leadership 2021

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Chanel Diep (she/her)

Chanel is a Content Producer at Hive Learning and works across our programs, delivering behaviour change in areas ranging from diversity and inclusion to wellbeing. Nurturing a personal interest in all things inclusion, Chanel says her job is as much about learning new things as it is about unlearning. Before joining Hive Learning, Chanel championed inclusive travel writing by challenging the use of colonial names and stubbornly tracking down accented characters. Away from the laptop, Chanel spends her time co-parenting her 70+ plants and feebly resisting sweet treats.

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