The ranks of corporate leadership are undergoing a generational shift, and new and existing corporate leaders must develop new skill sets if their organizations are to keep pace with changes in their industries and their workforces.

Recently, we had a chance to speak with Ian Fanton, senior vice president and head of Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, about his organization’s “2018 State of Leadership Development Report.” Check out a full transcript of the chat, minimally edited for style and clarity, to learn more about cutting-edge trends and best practices in leadership development today:

Recruiter.com: Businesses in all areas are being forced to adapt to new technologies, work methods, and cultural changes. What role does learning and development (L&D) — particularly as applied to leadership development — play in organizational transformation?

Ian Fanton: Transformation is the new normal. Organizations today need to transform to stay competitive and to ensure longevity.

When it comes to L&D’s impact on supporting organizational transformation, the results were not surprising, and not vastly different from what we learned in our 2016 report. Organizations that see L&D as business-critical continue to be top performers. These businesses continue to deliver top performance compared to their peers on crucial metrics such as revenue growth, market position, and future growth.

This is largely because L&D is the front line in ensuring any organization has the leaders they need to successfully transform. Transformation requires leaders with a very specific set of skills and mindset. They need to step up early in the transformation process, inspire extraordinary levels of engagement, tap into the power of teamwork and collaboration, and quickly build business processes and systems to create new systems while maintaining the old.

Drawing on these abilities, transformation leaders swiftly make sense of the changes unfolding in their environments. They act effectively and efficiently to build an organization that will thrive in a new landscape. L&D has an important role to play to make sure these leaders exist in their organizations. It’s a lot of pressure, but we believe that by excelling on three fronts — building organizational agility, delivering programs that put learners at the center, and partnering in new ways with stakeholders across the business — L&D teams can help their organizations develop the leaders they need to guide the business toward successful transformation.

RC: What type of ROI do L&D programs offer a company?

IF: We know from our research that when L&D is a top priority, transformations are more successful. Change is never easy — whether at the organizational, team, or individual level. L&D practitioners who reinvent themselves and their teams now to meet their organizations’ ever-shifting needs will stand the best chance of designing and delivering innovative leadership development programs that deliver business results and affect the company’s bottom line. This will set the stage for leadership development that will build the capabilities and mindsets transformation leaders must have in order to be proactive and adaptive in the face of change.

RC: What advice can you give business leaders to help them ensure their leadership development initiatives remain innovative and effective?

IF: Leadership development has proven itself to be one of the vehicles that moves organizations towards successful transformation, and L&D teams are by extension the drivers of that vehicle. So much of the responsibility for successful transformation lands on L&D. We believe that to be this driver, L&D will adjust in the same way organizations need to adjust in today’s complex environment: They will be more tightly linked to strategy, they will become more adaptable, and they’ll become more highly specialized toward key areas of the business.

To help an organization ensure its L&D initiatives remain effective, advice we would give is to focus on building organizational agility to ensure businesses have the leaders they need to be successful. Companies will also need to engage their millennial leaders by delivering learner-focused programs that are more personalized and relevant to the business. And finally, they will need to think about partnership differently in order to innovate and deepen their understanding of their audiences and their needs.

RC: Millennials are beginning to dominate management and executive roles. How must L&D teams adapt to these generational changes in leadership?

IF: Millennials are more significant counterparts on L&D programming than ever. Overall, our findings showed how much more critical millennials are of L&D program effectiveness when compared to their older counterparts. This cohort looks for more from their development, and the results backed that up: Respondents under 36 expressed the strongest agreement with the need for innovation in leadership development.

It was really interesting to see the differences in the age groups as to the problems with their development opportunities. Respondents in the millennial cohort were more likely to identify poor content, insufficient thinking and expertise from outside sources, and a failure to make a compelling return-on-investment case as barriers to L&D program effectiveness in their organizations than boomers, for example.

As millennials are making up a larger percentage of today’s workforce and moving into managerial positions, getting their buy-in is a critical challenge that must be addressed. Millennials want programs that are tightly relevant to the organization’s goals and their day-to-day roles. To help younger leaders build the capabilities and mindsets essential for successfully leading transformation, L&D teams will have to tie development programs tightly to the change programs their organizations launch. It is a great opportunity for L&D professionals to tap into millennials’ energy and creativity to devise innovative programs that the cohort will readily embrace, while also meeting the organization’s needs.

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