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Self-Directed Leadership Development: All You Need to Know

April 21, 2021

Alex Smith


Everything you need to know about self-directed leadership development. Learn what to do to ensure it’s successful, which pitfalls to watch out for, best practices, and more.

The past few years have seen a big rise in self-directed leadership development.

Why? It’s easy to deploy. People can do it when it’s convenient for them. And they can pursue exactly the topics that are of value to them.

At least, that’s the promise. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the right learning choice for leadership development.

In this blog, we’ll explore how to use self-directed leadership development well and what can lead to it going poorly. And we’ll teach you how to leverage it for best results.

What is self-directed learning?

Before we get started, let’s start with a common definition. What is self-directed learning exactly?

It’s just as it sounds: learning where an individual takes responsibility for their own learning. They decide what they need to learn, set their own learning goals, and choose which learning resources and strategies will work best for them. Above all, they create their own plan for learning. They are also completely in charge of carrying it out.

So what is self-directed leadership development? It’s when an individual creates their own learning path to grow their leadership skills. Essentially, they take the reins of their own leadership development journey and then execute it on their own terms.

Already you can likely see the big danger: People simply won’t do it. And that’s the number-one problem with self-directed leadership development. Leaders (even highly motivated learners) are busy. And it can be tough for them to make the time for development when they already have a crushing to-do list.

For most companies, the reaction to self-directed learning has been mixed. In our Global Leadership Forecast 2021, about 24% of learners said they wanted more access to self-directed learning through online learning libraries. Meanwhile, 39% said they wanted more formal training.

So is it possible to use self-directed leadership development effectively? Yes, but with some caveats.

What leads to self-directed learning going well?

How the company sets up and supports learners in a self-directed leadership development program has a major impact. Here are six key factors that influence success:

1. There’s a thoughtful communication strategy about the value behind the learning and when/where/why learners should use it.

2. Internal senior leaders within the company are sponsors of the program and strong advocates for people to use it.

3. The learning isn’t done in isolation or “thrown over the wall.” There is guidance for learners on which courses or modules would be most impactful for them based on their leadership level and the leadership challenges they are facing.

4. The company does a good job personalizing the learning based on specific needs of the individual learner.

5. Even though the learning is self-directed, the company still provides opportunities to easily network with peers. Leaders should be able to share what they’re learning, how they’re applying it, and how they’re using it to overcome challenges.

6. The leader’s manager makes it clear how the self-directed learning is connected to the leader’s individual development plan.

What leads to self-directed learning going poorly?

While self-directed learning can go well, there are also situations when it can be risky. For example, self-directed learning will likely go poorly for the learner if the company:

  • Makes self-directed learning available but doesn’t provide guidance on how to use it. HR says, “Here you go! Best of luck.”
  • Doesn’t tell learners why and how the learning experience will benefit them.
  • Doesn’t offer incentives to learners to complete the learning.
  • Doesn’t reinforce the benefits of completing the learning. If new skills aren’t reinforced or made into habits early, then the learning won’t stick.
  • Makes no tie to how the learning is connected to the leader’s personal development plan.
  • Offers inconsistent content. For example, many learning libraries offer a huge array of content, often with multiple courses on the same topic. How does the leader know which is best? Additionally, if leaders all take different courses on the same topic, there’s no consistency in the company’s approach to leadership and its culture.
  • Doesn’t vet the learning first to make sure it’s in line with the company’s values. See this unfortunate example of inclusion training gone wrong.
  • Includes only theoretical content with no opportunity for any practice or application.

Which situations can most benefit from self-directed leadership development?

Self-directed leadership development can be incredibly valuable under the right circumstances. So in which situations can it be most valuable?

In general, self-directed leadership development works best when it’s combined with coordinated group learning journeys. What we mean by that is that self-directed learning is not the only option for leadership development. Rather, it’s used as a valuable option for real-time challenges and supports other types of development that are offered by the organization. Self-directed learning can help fill in the gaps, especially when leaders need information now. Here are a few examples:

1. New role

When someone steps into a new leadership role, they usually need support right away, especially to solve urgent problems. However, many companies only offer group training on an annual or irregular basis. As a result, leaders struggle through their first several months or even years. For example, in our Frontline Leader Project, we found that new leaders don’t get training until they’ve been on the job for approximately four years.

In the meantime, these individuals could greatly benefit from self-directed leadership development to help them get started right away. That way, they have a foundation to start and can deepen their skills when they go through the formal group program.

Even if they are going through a formal program right away, self-directed options can help to supplement and provide real-time support to challenges as they come up.

2. Immediate need

Also known as, I have this problem today, right now. And I haven’t been trained on how to deal with this leadership challenge yet. A common example is conflict. A leader might not have had formal training yet in resolving conflict. But suddenly, they’ve got two team members who are at each other’s throats.

Most often, a leader’s first reaction is to turn to Google. But how do you know that whatever article or YouTube video they might find is high quality? They might follow the wrong advice.

Instead, if leaders have access to on-demand learning, they can quickly access information that’s in line with your company culture and values. It’s especially helpful if you have short content here, such as quick videos, microcourses, and on-demand tools. That way, they have support for the issues they have today.

3. There’s a crisis

Crises come and go in every company. A crisis can be caused by external factors, as we saw over and over again in 2020. But a crisis may also be the result of internal factors, such as the announcement of a merger, a company scandal, or the sudden departure of a key senior leader.

In these moments, leaders need resources to support their teams quickly. They need to know how to have tough conversations, meeting both the personal and practical needs of concerned team members. They also need to show empathy, show support, and create a vision for the future.

In these cases, a rapid response set of resources like microcourses, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc., can be a big help. Leaders can quickly get what they need and respond to their teams.

When is self-directed leadership development at its very best?

Essentially, leadership development is at its best when people get the right development for the right moment. At DDI, we often call this “making development a way of work.”

In short, the idea is that development isn’t separate from your day job. Instead, they’re closely intertwined and codependent on each other.

When you experience major moments of change in your job, you need significant development. And you need the support of your peers. It’s usually not the best time to leave people on their own.

But in many of the daily moments of leadership, self-directed learning helps you to make leadership your own. You explore things that interest you. You work on the areas where you’re struggling. You get support for the problem at hand.

In fact, we’ve seen tremendous benefits when companies combine self-directed learning with traditional learning journeys that include group-based leader development, either in-person or virtual. It’s this blend of giving learners access to content as they need it for their own personal challenges with a strategic, ongoing approach to professional development that’s built on the idea that people learn best together. (As long as the learning experience is personalized.)

Adding self-directed learning to leadership development: 4 best practices

But how does this all work? Here are a few best practices we recommend for shifting to a program that includes both self-directed leadership development and more traditional group-based learning:

1. Have a kickoff with senior leaders to introduce and advocate for the program. Give special emphasis to the value self-directed learning can bring when combined with traditional group-based leadership development. Demo and show examples of the self-directed content during the kickoff with examples of when and how to use it.

2. Ask learners to complete a piece of self-directed content within the next two weeks after the kickoff. Allow them to be flexible in what they choose. And be sure to give them guidance on how to navigate your technology. Choose something that will be easy to apply and valuable in positively changing their behavior on the job.  

3. At the end of those two weeks, have learners meet in peer learning groups to discuss what they learned, how they will apply it, and what they want to learn next. Peers can then coach each other and share additional application ideas. An important added benefit to this approach is that peers will hear about different pieces of content available to them via these conversations. These exchanges can create momentum for the self-directed portion of your learning.

If you can, have these peer learning groups agree on a recurring cadence so leaders can discuss learnings and insights from self-directed learning.

4. When you get to the more traditional part of your learning program, have your facilitators reinforce the importance of self-directed learning. And even consider doing a demo of the technology and overviewing what’s there as a reminder. You can even give them time in class to use the tech, complete content, and then discuss with peers.

What does self-directed leadership development success look like?

If your learners are making self-directed learning a “habit,” then you have been successful. If every time they have a leadership challenge, they are searching for world-class content to help them overcome it, then you will see better leadership in your organization. And when your leaders are successful, they will be more engaged, improving your culture and leading to better business results.

But positive habits don’t happen by accident. They need an intentional approach to be successful. The most common mistake with self-directed learning is that companies purchase it, but then don’t put in the work to set up a structure to allow positive habits to form.

Learn about DDI’s leadership development subscription, which offers the best of both worlds in group and self-directed learning.

Alex Smith is a consulting manager within DDI’s US Operations. In his current role, he leads a team of consultants and is also the engagement manager for several of DDI’s largest-scale client partnerships across the globe. Alex lives an hour outside of NYC with his wife and two young children, ages 6 and 4.

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