• Mar 01 2021

Four Emerging Leadership Development Trends for 2021

From being tossed into a global, virtual workplace experiment to managing employee well-being to navigating social justice movements, ExecOnline’s four emerging leadership development trends encompass bringing stability to a new normal and creating the environment for organizations to forge ahead stronger, together.

1. Development Equity for a Stronger Pipeline 

A diverse talent pipeline is a top priority for many organizations and in 2021, this is especially true. However many organizations are already behind. For example, Black Americans are 13.4% of the population, but only 3.2% of Advanced Leaders.¹ Women are 50.8% of the population, but only 26.5% of Advanced Leaders.² It is crucial to the advancement of underrepresented minorities and women and the success of organizations for CHROs to provide development equity — equal access for the underrepresented minorities and women to formalized, career-enhancing development opportunities — to maintain a diverse talent pipeline. Not only is this the ‘right’ thing to do, research shows that organizations are more successful with women in leadership positions.³

At ExecOnline, we have a Development Equity Council that works with Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers and Chief Human Resources Officers and focuses on identifying and sharing practices that lead to development equity, resulting in progress on overarching diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives.

As a result of the demands of both personal and professional obligations associated with the pandemic, women, especially women of color, are leaving the workforce in higher numbers and more rapidly than men.⁴ This means an already underrepresented population in your current pipeline is going to decrease even further. While there is much to be done to create balance and support for women who bear family and childcare responsibilities so they don’t have to leave work in the first place, CHROs in the shorter-term can focus on bringing women back into the workforce and re-onboarding them by making development a priority without it being a burden.

ExecOnline works with clients to identify the right leaders for the right programs at the right time, and many of our partners have gender priorities we help them achieve. By following our enrollment best practices and leveraging our data to support development equity, we are able to measure gender diversity over time at the industry and organizational level. If development equity is a priority for your organization, begin by measuring the demographics of your participants in all development programs and take the first step in working to balance the scale.

2. Fostering Relationships and Connections Through Virtual Leadership Development

The major pillars of workplace culture –relationships, beliefs and values, communication methods– are being challenged with organizations going virtual. Without a strong company culture, productivity, performance, engagement, and well-being will be negatively impacted.³ Many organizations rely on in-person events and trainings to sustain company culture and believe the same outcomes cannot be achieved in a virtual environment. However, if executed correctly, culture sustainment can be accomplished through virtual development.

Across 2020, ExecOnline surveyed program participants (N = 1,772) to gather real-time feedback related to their current work environment. Across all levels, the biggest challenges and barriers centered around relationships and having a connection to both corporate and team culture. It is imperative for CHROs and their teams to evolve their cultures to create organizational ecosystems that support relationships and connections in the remote work world.

Here’s where CHROs can focus to keep their organizational culture alive and well in a remote work environment. Consider partnering with ExecOnline where our programs are specifically designed to promote networking and encourage connection through participants’ learning experience with their colleagues, peers at other organizations, and faculty. Additionally, ensure your teams are creating a virtual work environment that fosters belonging and connection. This can look like Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), technology enabling video conferencing, and creating formal mentoring/coaching partnerships. 

3. Empathetic + Supportive Leadership

 As organizations continue to function by doing more with less, CHROs need to have an extremely critical eye on prioritizing and targeting effective resources that meet the needs of their people. In the first months of the pandemic, employees were craving empathy as they navigated and worked to find a new normal for themselves and their families. Nearly a year into the global pandemic, employees’ needs have changed and empathetic leadership is now an absolute. But in addition to empathy, what do leaders report they need in the current business environment to be more successful? The answer may be surprising. In the same ExecOnline survey referenced above, leaders were asked to rank 10 options that could help them be more effective in the current business environment. Leaders responded that their top ‘wants’ are:  

  1. More resources – budget, people, etc.
  2. Leadership development opportunities to learn new skills
  3. Stronger connection to the organization – sense of camaraderie and belonging

With more resources being a top want, triaging and allocating resources is a key leadership capability for 2021 (and likely beyond). As for supportive leadership, that looks like leaders leveraging data to make informed decisions on how to best allot resources and target the needs of employees to keep them engaged and successful in achieving their goals. It’s important to recognize that resources go beyond budgets. It also includes workforce management and team development–specifically addressing head count and how to develop a team of the right players with the right skillsets. Two of ExecOnline’s executive programs, Leading Effective Decision-Making with Yale School of Management and Building and Leading Effective Teams with Columbia Business School, can help your leaders quickly and effectively build these capabilities. 

4. High-ROI, Application-Based Leadership Development

 Over the last 6-9 months, many organizations were thrown into the virtual workplace experiment. CHROs and Leadership Development leaders used their best judgement as to what programs and services to build or buy to support their workforce in the virtual world. With the new year, it’s time for leaders to determine where to continue investing. The challenge is, many leaders don’t possess the capability to measure the impact of their investments to determine where to cut and where to double-down. In a 2019 Deloitte survey of U.S. executives, 67% report they are not comfortable accessing or using data from their tools and resources.⁶ Like the old adage, ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure,’ it is imperative for senior leaders to make decisions using data and analytics as the expectation to do more with less continues to rise.

If your organization isn’t measuring the ROI and impact of your Leadership Development programs, now is the time to start. Working with ExecOnline arms HR leaders with impactful ROI data, which goes way beyond the smiley sheets. Not only are we able to collect feedback on program satisfaction and learning comprehension, we also measure application, business impact, and ROI. Additionally, with our project-based approach, we provide clients with real financial impact data.


¹ Coqual (formerly Center for Talent Innovation), “Being Black in Corporate America” 2019.

² Catalyst, “Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies” 2020.

³ Sandberg, Daniel. “When Women Lead, Firms Win.” S&P Global. Accessed February 2020. https://www.spglobal.com/_division_assets/images/special-editorial/iif-2019/whenwomenlead_.pdf 

⁴ Gogoi, Pallavi. “Stuck-At-Home Moms: The Pandemic’s Devastating Toll on Women.” NPR. Accessed February 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/28/928253674/stuck-at-home-moms-the-pandemics-devastating-toll-on-women

⁵ Hall, John. “Company Culture Doesn’t Just Impact Well-Being — It Also Impacts Productivity.” Forbes. Accessed February 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnhall/2020/03/13/company-culture-doesnt-just-impact-well-being—it-also-impacts-productivity

⁶ Smith, Tim. “Analytics and AI-driven enterprises thrive in the Age of With.” Deloitte. Accessed February 2020. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/analytics/insight-driven-organization.html

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