What are forward-thinking HR leaders thinking about? What keeps them up at night? What factors are shaping their work now and as they prepare for the next year or two?

In the last 6 months, I interviewed 17 leaders from new, young tech companies and traditional powerhouses, including Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Microsoft, Genentech and Prudential.

From these conversations—and two panel discussions in May and June sponsored by The Conference Board—I’m hearing the ideas and themes shaping the future of leadership development.

Here are 3 big ones:

1. Cognitive Overload. New initiatives continue to be added onto people’s plates with no one removing any of the existing work. “People are almost bursting at the seams,” said one person I interviewed. “People are walking around triggered about 90% of the time,” said another. “The job of the leader is around de-escalation.”

This idea of de-escalating, calming, and building personal reserves is crucial. Organizations need to find ways for people and teams to keep up the energy and get results—without running them into the ground. One engineering company we worked with realized that their “protect the asset” mantra was working well with their physical assets, but not so well with their most important asset, their people.

To remedy this, they brought their top 100 leaders together and taught them the latest research based methods for how to build resilience for themselves and their teams. Using short videos and discussions questions, each leader then ran a one hour sessions with their teams where they shared the content and discussed how they could apply as a team.

Within 3 weeks, the new resilience tools had spread to over a thousand employees.

What is your organization doing to share tools and methods to build resilience?

2. Open System Leadership Development. I heard a great story from a leader responsible for creating a corporate university at a top consulting firm. Initially, he couldn’t convince senior leaders to participate in leadership development.

One senior partner pulled him aside and said, “Rob, let me give you some advice … never run a training when the markets are open … and remember, the markets are always open somewhere in the world.”

Rob figured they needed to tie learning and development to what partners cared about—the clients. So they created “open system” leadership development, inviting clients, potential clients and suppliers to participate in workshops.

It worked! Clients loved being in the room with the firm, and partners showed up because they wanted to spend more time with the people in their system who determined their success. In the process, the participants built new networks, learned about each other’s challenges and came to see how their larger system operated.

And all this while the markets stayed open somewhere in the world…

What would it look like if you got the whole system learning together?

3. Culture-Specific Change. “The pace of change is breathtaking,” my interviewees agreed. One put the challenge like this: “How can our leaders make sense of the changes in real time? We need them to dismantle and rebuild the airplane while it is still in flight.”

The world of leadership development has traditionally taught leaders ‘generic’ change models. This assumes that either all organizational cultures are the same or how to lead change is the same regardless of company culture.

CCL’s experience working with many organizations is that this is not true. For this reason, we are now testing and creating data-driven, organization specific change tools. We are using various analytics—including network analysis—to help leaders unpack the patterns and culture of the organization and how to work with, not against that culture.

One promising new research project aims to help organizations understand their ‘Change Equation,’ the unique set of factors associated with successful change in a specific organization.

If there were consistent patterns in your organization that differentiated successful change initiatives from change failures, wouldn’t you want to know what they were?

What is your organization doing to help leaders learn to lead change in your company culture? 

So, what do you think? What are your experiences? How are you adapting leadership development in the context of overload, openness, and culture specific change?

And, if you want to learn more about the Change Equation research project and how to get involved, email me at petrien@ccl.org.

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