2021 Trends: Learning and Development in a COVID World

After a year like the one we had in 2020, wouldn’t it be nice to have a crystal ball to see where things are headed? While no one can accurately predict random events like pandemics, we can study the impact of those events on people’s thinking.

Recently, The Ken Blanchard Companies® surveyed over 1,000 leadership, learning, and talent development professionals to better understand how they are responding to the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and how they plan to move forward in 2021. The results might reflect your own L&D challenges and give you some ideas about the future.

When asked to identify the single largest problem their learning and development team is facing in 2021 due to COVID-19, respondents revealed three main concerns.

Concern #1: Successfully Making the Shift to Virtual and Online Learning

When people gather in a physical classroom to learn, interacting with others plays a big role in learner engagement. People responding to our survey expressed concern about losing this human element and worry about how much people are staying engaged and particpating in the new virtual classroom. Many said that they are coping with feelings of loss from the absence of in-person training.

Others feel pressured by their rapidly evolving roles and the new expectations placed on them. They expressed concerns about skills gaps in design expertise, virtual facilitation, and the skillful leveraging of new tools and platforms.

They also identified ongoing logistical and technical challenges, such as session scheduling, clunky platforms, and connectivity issues. I think we can all relate to that!

Concern #2: Helping a Struggling Workforce

The impact of COVID-19 on the workforce cannot be denied or ignored. People have lost jobs and loved ones. Those fortunate enough to be working remotely have been emotionally impacted as well.

The respondents of our survey identified isolation and a loss of connection as two major concerns, reporting that these have led to increased stress, exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout.

People also expressed concerns about the overriding uncertainty in the current work environment and the sense that too much change is occurring too fast. Many acknowledged feelings of lowered morale and virtual fatigue.

Concern #3: Anxiety about Losing Their L&D Jobs

Budget cuts, layoffs, furloughs, and questions of management support were at the top of our respondents’ minds as they closed out 2020 and looked ahead to 2021.

People shared their concern that 2021 would usher in a difficult period of high expectations for converting to digital and virtual delivery, but without the resources and support necessary to be successful. This was often expressed as “too much to do, not enough resources.”

Having the resources to hold people accountable, addressing quality issues, and improving the digital skills of their trainers were cited as solutions to these problems.

Looking Ahead to 2021

Has COVID spelled the end of face-to-face training? Decidedly not. But the future will be different. A majority of respondents—57 percent—see face-to-face training as having a role, but as a part of a blended learning experience. In looking ahead to the time when face-to-face options become available again, respondents expect to use in-person and virtual instructor-led training equally.

So, when do people think they’ll be able to get back into the classroom? In our survey, July 2021 was the most oft-cited date.

The Upside of 2020

In many ways, 2020 forced us to dig deep into our own resourcefulness and find ways to navigate an uncertain future.  Blanchard senior vice president Jay Campbell put it really well when he said that “COVID-19 created a discontinuity in the normal evolutionary path toward digital and virtual. It has accelerated the shift—possibly by as much as a decade.”

As a college professor, I love the magic that happens in a classroom. Yet there’s no question that both classroom and online training create a smarter, more skilled workforce. In other words, it’s a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” proposition. I’m excited about the future of training and development. As my son, our company president Scott Blanchard, says, “There has never been a more demanding time to be in L&D—but it is also a time of great opportunity for those ready to step into this new future.”

Do This 4-Part Self-Assessment to Refire in 2021

Most people I know are not only relieved about 2020 being over, they’re also looking forward to 2021 with optimism that things will get better. Here’s a way for you to take stock of how you’re doing personally so that you are ready to refire—and step into the New Year with new, achievable goals.

(Note: Even though these concepts are from Refire! Don’t Retire, a book I wrote with my friend Mort Shaevitz, this exercise will work for you no matter what age you are!)

When you consider refiring, think in terms of four basic areas of your life: Emotional, Intellectual, Physical, and Spiritual. As you read, think about whether you would rate yourself high or low, right now, in these four areas.

  • EMOTIONAL is about being playful, friendly, joyful, loving, spontaneous, and enthusiastic. It involves reaching out to others. Our research shows that people who are emotionally close with family, friends, and work colleagues are happier, more loyal, and more productive.
  • INTELLECTUAL is what you are doing to keep your mind active and still learning. Read books, take classes, stretch your mind. Be open to learning every minute of every day! Remember, when you stop learning, you might as well lie down and let them throw the dirt over you!
  • PHYSICAL is about healthy living and includes such things as exercising, eating right, and getting plenty of sleep. It’s been easy to let some of these things lapse during quarantine, especially if you are among the millions of folks who suddenly found themselves working from home. But it’s more important now than ever before to practice self-care by making choices for yourself that will keep you in good physical condition.
  • SPIRITUAL isn’t necessarily about religion. It can also be about getting in touch with something important outside of yourself—looking outward rather than inward. It’s the opposite of material things. It’s about counting your blessings, realizing you’re not the center of the universe, working toward a higher purpose, and focusing on the greater good.

As I’m writing this, I’d rate myself high in the Emotional area—I have lots of people around me that I can reach out to and love. I’m also doing well in the Spiritual area—I am in close contact with my Higher Power (for me, it’s God), and I enter my days slowly with prayer, gratitude, and a positive outlook.

I’m more of a work in progress in the Intellectual and Physical realms, so I’m going to look at improving in those two areas in 2021.

Intellectually, I’m excited about finishing writing a book with my colleague Randy Conley, tentatively titled DUH! Why Isn’t Common Sense Common Practice? I’m also looking forward to working on a book with my son, Scott. Writing really gets my mind going!

Physically, I need to get on my recumbent bike for at least 30 minutes a day and take my dog, Joy, for walks 3 or 4 times a week. In addition, I need to get back to doing my stretching and weight exercises daily. To make these activities happen, as my colleague Art Turock has said for years, I need to ask myself, “Am I just interested in these things, or am I committed?” When you’re merely interested, you sometimes put things off until tomorrow. But when you’re committed, you do what you say you are going to do, no matter what!

So how did you do? If you gave yourself a not-great rating in any of these areas, don’t sweat it! We all had a rough 2020. Just set one reasonable goal at a time—a goal you know you can commit to, and achieve, in 2021. When you accomplish that goal, set another attainable goal in a different area. Before you know it, you will be refiring on all cylinders!

So Happy New Year to you and yours. Refire to make 2021 a great year!

The 2020 Silver Lining

As we approach December 31, it’s a good time to reflect on this historic year. I’m sure there are many things we’ll all want to leave behind. Yet there may be some things we will want to carry with us into the future.

There’s no question that 2020 has taken a toll on tens of millions of people. The loss of loved ones, jobs, businesses, and the cherished daily activities we used to take for granted has tested us all. I don’t know about you, but I’m more than ready to get my vaccine and say goodbye to social distancing! I really miss hugging my friends and extended family. I also won’t miss reading about yet another company going out of business due to the pandemic. And I sure won’t miss watching the numbers of sick and dying going up on a daily basis.

A few weeks ago, our friend Simon Sinek joined our “Determining Your Leadership Point of View” class via Zoom. During a discussion about what a trial this year has been, we discussed an interesting point: despite the challenges of 2020, it’s possible that many of us are going to look back at this time with more positive than negative feelings.

Don’t get me wrong—my heart goes out to those who have suffered painful losses this year, and I grieve right along with them. Yet if life has taught me anything, it’s to look for the silver lining, no matter how dark it gets. So let’s look at the positives.

What’s Good about 2020?

One positive to come out of this pandemic is that it has forced us to adapt in ways that have created positive changes for the future. For example, thanks to Zoom and similar technologies, our company has been able to make an amazing turnaround from classroom and in-person training to hundreds of online sessions every month. Going forward, this means that we’ll reach more people around the world than ever before.

For me, personally, I’m excited that thanks to Zoom, I can contribute to associates and clients without traveling. I must admit, I don’t miss airports and flying!

Another friend of mine appreciates the way that working online reduces the amount of traffic on the road and pollution in the air.

Spending time at home has allowed many of us to finally get around to making needed changes, such as overdue maintenance, decluttering, and organization. Those of us who’ve been working from home have been able to adapt our environs to suit our needs for office space, exercise areas, or places where kids can do their classwork.

A major positive has been getting to spend so much time with our loved ones at home.  Margie and I have certainly enjoyed our time together watching Netflix and snuggling with our beloved dog, Joy.

As for friends and colleagues outside our COVID bubbles, we’ve come to realize what a privilege it is to have those relationships in our lives and just how important they are to us. I think we all have a backlog of people we intend to socialize with as soon as it’s safe!

On my Facebook page recently, I posed the question: What have been the positives for you, your organization, and your family from this pandemic? Here are some of the replies:

“Rediscovered lost strengths and launched a new business to help thousands of people who lost their jobs.”

“Spiritual growth and insight.”

“For my organization? Innovation, agility, and flexibility.”

The coming year promises a return to a more familiar way of life, as well as the opportunity to apply our learnings from the past tumultuous twelve months.  So—what will you take forward from this year into 2021?

Monitoring and Tracking Performance

One of the most important aspects of being an SLII® leader is communicating clearly with people regarding their performance. After you’ve made performance standards clear so that each person knows what a good job looks like, you must closely monitor individual performance and provide frequent feedback. Monitoring and tracking performance is a key directive leadership behavior of an SLII® leader.

When you lead people who are working on a task or goal but not yet fully competent, you are there to help them in their development. You not only observe their progress and provide direction, you also listen to their concerns and answer their questions. They need praising when you catch them doing things right and redirecting when you see them beginning to go off track. They also need regular performance check-in meetings with you.

It’s important to schedule these check-in meetings in a frequency based on the individual’s development level on their current task or goal. When a task is brand new to a person, you need to meet often to give specific direction for the first few weeks. After they have a bit of experience behind them, the meetings can be twice a week or so to focus on the goal. As they become more confident and competent, once a week is probably enough and can involve mainly listening on your part. After the person is on top of the task, regular meetings may not even be necessary unless they choose to request your help.

An SLII® leader who works this closely with their team members may find it unnecessary to conduct a yearly performance review with each person. Why? Because performance review should be an ongoing process that happens during open, honest discussions leaders have with their people throughout the year. When check-in meetings are scheduled according to development level, open and honest discussions about performance take place on an ongoing basis, creating mutual understanding and agreement. If these meetings are effective, the year-end performance review would simply be a review of what has already been discussed. There would be no surprises.

The concept of development level-based meetings leads into one of the most important—and mutually fulfilling—parts of SLII® leadership: one-on-one meetings. The purpose of one-on-ones is for managers and direct reports to get to know each other as human beings. These regularly scheduled meetings between manager and individual performer are meant to continue year after year, indefinitely.

At least once every two weeks, managers hold a 15- to 30-minute meeting with each of their people. The manager is responsible for scheduling the meeting but the individual contributor sets the agenda. This is a time for people to talk to their managers about anything on their hearts and minds—it’s their meeting. In the old days, most businesspeople had a traditional military attitude of “Don’t get close to your direct reports. You can’t make hard decisions if you have an emotional attachment to your people.” Yet rival organizations will come after your best people—so knowing them and caring for them, beyond being an enjoyable part of your job as an SLII® leader, is a competitive edge. Too often, talented people report that their executive recruiter knows and cares more about their hopes and dreams than their manager does. Don’t let this be said about you. One-on-one meetings create job satisfaction and genuine, even lifelong, relationships.

There you have it! If you have been a faithful follower of my blog posts, you now know the fourteen all-important SLII® micro skills—seven directive and seven supportive leadership behaviors. These actions not only shape and control what, how, and when things are done, they also develop mutual trust and respect between SLII® leaders and their team members. If you’ve missed a few, please feel free to go back and read my previous posts at any time. And watch this space for many more leadership topics to come!

Sharing Information About Yourself

In years past, the leader was the boss. Yesterday’s leaders shared information on a need-to-know basis and personal disclosures were rare.

Since then, leadership has evolved. Successful leaders today can no longer lead based solely on the power of their title or position. They must create genuine partnerships with those they lead, based on the following fundamental belief:

Leadership is not something you do to people;

It’s something you do with people.

So, how do you create genuine connection with the people who work with you? One of the most effective practices is Sharing Information About Yourself—which is one of the fourteen SLII® micro skills I’ve been discussing in my last several blogs.

How to Share About Yourself Effectively

Like many skills, there’s a right way and a wrong way to share information about yourself in a work setting. Let’s begin with the right way.

A good start is to share your Leadership Point of View with the people you lead. Your Leadership Point of View describes the key people who have influenced your life—such as parents, grandparents, coaches, or bosses—and what you learned about leadership from these people. It also describes key events that were turning points for you and explains what you learned from those experiences. Finally, your Leadership Point of View identifies your personal purpose and values. By sharing your Leadership Point of View, people will know your values, what you expect from yourself, and what you expect from them.

It’s Not About You

Use good judgment when sharing information about yourself. Remember, the purpose of sharing about yourself is to foster a thriving partnership. It’s not about you; it’s about creating connection.

Keep the focus on sharing information that will be useful to the person you’re leading. The information you share should put them at ease and help them relate to you. Do not waste people’s time by oversharing or disclosing personal information that could make people uncomfortable.

Before you disclose personal information, ask yourself: Will this information serve the person I am leading? Perhaps you have a personal anecdote that can help someone understand why a task is important. Maybe you have a story about an error you made that can illustrate why a certain policy or procedure makes sense. It can be helpful to share your mistakes with others, so that they don’t have to learn the hard way.

It’s Okay To Be Vulnerable

As Brené Brown contends in her bestselling book, Dare to Lead, it’s okay for leaders to be vulnerable. You might think that if you admit you don’t know how to solve every problem, people will see you as weak. Quite the contrary. When you show your vulnerabilities, rather than thinking less of you, people will think more of you. Why? Because they already know you don’t know everything!

For example, my team is aware of the fact that I often don’t know how to say no. I’ve never heard a bad idea, so I say yes too easily. As a result, I tend to become overcommitted—which puts stress on me and my team. That’s why we established a system a few years ago for me to give out my executive assistant’s business card instead of my own, so she can help screen calls and talk with me about which business proposals are realistic considering my time, energy, and the team’s resources.

Did admitting I have a hard time saying no weaken my leadership? Not in the least. In fact, it led to a solution that made work easier for all of us.

So—with others’ best interests in mind—share information about yourself with your team. You’ll be building trust, strengthening relationships, and leading more effectively.