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The tumultuous corporate landscape is influencing learning and development just as it is impacting every part of every company.  

Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of Executive Development Associates; and Prof Sattar Bawany, regional MD of Executive Development Associates, as well as CEO of the Centre for Executive Education, explore the top trends.

There are two things we can say with certainty about the future: it will be different, and it will surprise.

Now, more than ever, leaders have to navigate unfamiliar times, a quickening pace of change, and increasing expectations – thus challenging them to find new ways to lead their organisations.

The diverse and escalating demands on leaders are reflected in the study, 2016 Trends in Executive Development: A Benchmark Report, by Executive Development Associates (EDA) along with Pearson TalentLens and Performance Assessment Network (PAN).

This research is based on survey results from 466 organisations worldwide, and below are the major trends and implications that emerged from it for executive development.

Creating a powerful, engaging vision is still #1

Respondents highlighted the ability to create a vision, convey it to others, and to engage people around that vision as the single most important capability needed for the emerging generation of leaders.

Executive development programmes often focus on helping leaders develop or improve in these competencies. In addition, all of this learning must take place while the leader is continuing to fulfill his/her job responsibilities.

The leaders who master these competencies typically produce better results on almost every measure of effectiveness: financial, productivity, employee engagement, etc. It’s work, but its payoffs are significant.

Customers’ changing requirements influence executive education

Customers’ changing requirements are increasingly influential in shaping executive development, moving up in significance from the 2014 report from #4 to #2.

Additionally, for the first time, executives plan to address customer focus as a top priority in executive education.

Given its appearance near the top of both the influence and ‘hot topics’ rankings, executive development leaders are very likely to be searching for creative ways to ensure development efforts focus on meeting customers’ changing requirements.

Preparedness for a VUCA world

Leading in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) not only provides a challenging environment for executive development programmes to have an impact: it also provides a much-needed range of new competencies.

Chief among the new VUCA-related competencies is a high level of cognitive readiness (Morrison & Fletcher, 2002).

While critical thinking has been a hot topic for the past six years, this is the first year that respondents noted the importance of developing cognitive readiness to be able to think critically.

Interestingly, organisations are prioritising cognitive readiness as the #3 priority for 2016 executive development programmes.

From these trends, two issues are clear: first, organisations will need to think creatively about the processes they employ to accelerate the development of cognitive readiness of leaders.

Second, organisations may want to explain why, in practice, cognitive readiness is so important, and define their expectations of leaders from both a behavioral and outcome perspective.

Lack of bench strength persists

From 2000-2014, lack of bench strength was in the top five of the most influential internal and external influences driving executive development.

In 2016, lack of bench strength was rated as the #6 influencer on executive development, yet it was rated as the #13 “key priority” for executive development.

This suggests that some issues are being recognised as major influences on business and leadership, but they are not being addressed at the same level.

Recommendations on what can be done 

Participating executives reported that the development activities for the next generation of leaders are most likely to include mentoring and developmental job assignments.

Other activities were assessment and feedback, executive coaching, and customised training programmes developed by internal staff.

While all of these activities have strong developmental value, they do not specifically focus on teaching leaders how to create a vision and engage others around it.

Additionally, it is unlikely that these activities target the cognitive readiness skills needed for sustained success and effectiveness in a VUCA environment.

A more systemic approach involving proactive career management and development will provide real-world experience that will provide leaders with unparalleled first-hand development.

Tip 1: Training

Leadership training programmes may be strengthened to include inspiring and engaging others, as well as situational awareness, attentional control, and sensemaking – by incorporating exercises designed to increase awareness of their impact, such as case studies.

Additionally, opportunities for application can be provided in experience-based leader development approaches such as action learning, where participants apply the concepts to real business issues, and their colleagues and facilitators provide feedback based on behaviours they observed.

Tip 2: Action learning and structured facilitation

Action learning provides an ideal setting for practicing new skills in a relatively ‘safe’ situation.

When faced with one’s own failure to learn from experience or to handle ambiguity in a live interaction with colleagues, and feedback from colleagues makes it clear that it was noticed, leaders are more likely to prioritise those needs for further development if they are directed to a classroom setting.

Structured, facilitated reflection significantly also enhances participants’ awareness of their own behaviours followed by providing feedback to their colleagues on what they have observed to further reinforce what the skills look like in “real life.”

Tip 3: Mentoring and coaching

The “hands-on” approach of mentoring can enable leaders to observe what someone who has mastered these important skills does, and to solicit advice and coaching on how to transfer what they have observed into their own work.

It may be challenging to find a mentor who has highly developed cognitive readiness skills, so being mindful of the mentor’s skillset will be a key to success.

Executive coaching also has significant potential for developing leaders’ capabilities around creating a vision, engaging others around it, and the cognitive readiness skills for a VUCA environment.

This type of coaching would need to be focused on all skills in an integrated manner, and the executives, HR partners, mentors, coaches, and others involved in the development programme may agree on specific goals and followed by regular meetings to discuss progress.


1) Hagemann, B. et al., 2016 Trends in Executive Development: A Benchmark Report, published by EDA; Pearson TalentLens and Performance Assessment Network (PAN), February 2016.

2) Morrison, John E.; Fletcher, J.D., Institute for Defense, Cognitive Readiness (Alexandria, VA: Oct 2002).

3) Bawany, S., Transforming the Next Gen leaders: Leadership Pipeline for Succession Planning in in Leadership Excellence Essentials, Issue 07.2014.

Image: Shutterstock

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