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How Executives Pay Learning Forward: Leaders-as-Teachers Programs

August 17, 2018
By Lee Morrison

LAT effectivenessFor years, business leaders have shared their knowledge and skills by acting as teachers – for other leaders and for employees. And who could be better positioned to speak from business experience, organization-specific knowledge, and a strategic perspective?

Certainly, learning and development professionals have long recognized the unique expertise business executives can contribute, and many L&D functions leverage that resource through leaders-as-teachers (LAT) programs.

In 2013, as many as 90% of organizations reportedly tapped their executives to help develop up-and-coming leaders, and about 30% of companies used the LAT approach in training other employees.

More recent figures put the extent of overall LAT use at just under six in 10 organizations, with the greatest portion (39%) of those teaching efforts occurring informally. In fact, fewer than one in five companies claimed to have formal leaders-as-teachers programs in place.

In some cases, leaders’ teaching has happened organically, evolving into effective—if sometimes casual—enhancements of learning assets. But for L&D, the frenetic pace of change, heightened competitive environment, and shortening lifespans of employee skillsets make deliberate and structured application of high-powered training a must to support business survival.

Because leaders-as-teachers programs have been directly linked to organizational performance, formally incorporating the approach in a blended learning portfolio can be a differentiating L&D strategy, and one that offers business leaders unique opportunities to pay learning forward.  (If you've been thinking about using this strategy, don't miss our L&D Tips for Driving Successful Leaders-as-Teachers Programs.) 

Wide-ranging Benefits Are Associated with LAT Programs

LAT programAlthough some organizations focus leaders-as-teachers initiatives on such specific audiences as high-potential talent or emerging leaders, many companies recognize that benefits are more expansive when the audience encompasses all employees.

Many advantages of leaders’ teaching are unique to organizations, their cultures, and their learning goals. However, some of the most cited and sought-after potential gains applicable to most organizations and employees are these:

  • Expanded development opportunities for leaders and employees 
  • Communication and reinforcement of organizational culture
  • Enhanced talent visibility that strengthens succession planning 
  • Wider employee access to leaders
  • Tighter alignment/line-of-sight from job roles to business strategies
  • Organization-specific training that connects learning goals with business 
  • Objectives and supports performance
  • Enhanced overall employee engagement and involvement in learning
  • Reduced L&D costs through use of internal instructors

Teaching delivers significant benefits for participating leaders, too:

  • Expands self-awareness
  • Improves interpersonal capabilities and teaching, collaboration, and influence skills
  • Offers situations in which to model the value of learning and promote learning cultures
  • Provides professional and personal development opportunities
  • Increases visibility into organizational talent and enhances relationships with employees
  • Provides exposure to new information, different viewpoints, and employee attitudes


Stumbling Blocks May Impede Success

stumbling blocksWhile there are many potential benefits to be gained by the key stakeholders involved in LAT programs, L&D professionals understand that success with any development approach requires careful planning, knowledgeable execution, and disciplined follow-through. In short, there are multiple variables that factor into optimal LAT outcomes—and some commonly encountered problems that arise.

  1. Perhaps the greatest obstacle is time. Leaders at all levels, and especially those at the top of organizations, will be challenged to find enough hours in the workday to add teaching responsibilities to their ongoing duties. That challenge will be most difficult to overcome in companies where the value of LAT is not well-established or accepted. Further, schedule limitations and questions about the value of LAT programs can adversely affect leaders’ motivations to teach.
  2. Difficulty tying leaders’ teaching to specific business results hinders some LAT efforts, as does inability to link the programs to learning objectives—either those established for employees or development goals for the participating leaders. Lack of disciplined and accurate program measurement further exacerbates those challenges, impeding L&D’s efforts to document LAT effectiveness.
  3. Although leveraging leaders as teachers can be a cost-saving tactic for L&D, some talent development professionals cite costs associated with LAT programs among obstacles to success. Of course, costs also can refer to staff time and other non-financial resources that may figure into creating, implementing, and managing LAT programs.
  4. Employees may be resistant to the idea of being taught by company leaders, just as leaders’ attitudes toward taking on teaching duties may pose problems. And in some cases, even L&D professionals may be hesitant to accept leaders as teachers, viewing them as competitors or threats. On the other hand, every business leader simply isn’t a great candidate for teaching.

There may be other obstacles threatening the success—or even the idea—of LAT programs in your organization. It is important to understand the unique circumstances that characterize your situation and identify challenges (and potential solutions) within that context.

How L&D Can Address Barriers to LAT Effectiveness    PDF Button

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For the commonly encountered LAT roadblocks already discussed, proactive intervention by L&D can go a long way toward avoiding or mitigating the four obstacles named above.

  1. The time crunch can be an especially difficult challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Careful planning can ensure that most leaders’ schedules are accommodated. In some companies, L&D professionals recruit leaders from many organizational levels to ensure that no single individual is asked to bear an unrealistic load. Other learning functions solve the time problem by limiting teaching assignments and by involving leaders on a rotating basis, providing plenty of teaching downtime.
  2. Seasoned learning pros also make it their priority to firmly establish the perception of LAT programs as valuable contributions to the organization. Part of that goal is accomplished through comprehensive and consistent education and communication about leaders-as-teachers programs, including success stories and testimonials from participants.
  3. Measurement is an indispensable help in affirming LAT value. For any course or training program, defining appropriate metrics at the outset is the key that enables L&D to demonstrate ties to business results and organizational objectives. When leaders teach, their own development goals should reflect their experiences. L&D’s ability to point to specific gains (both individual and organizational) driven by LAT programs also will aid in motivating leaders to teach.
  4. Whether leaders’ teaching increases or decreases L&D costs tends to be contextual. As is true of any learning initiative, budget projections and resource needs should be thoroughly examined before implementation proceeds to ensure that anticipated benefits are likely to outweigh associated costs.
  5. Managing attitudes of the various stakeholders involved in LAT programs relies heavily on education about the initiatives, with particular attention paid to conveying the value for all concerned. Some L&D practitioners prepare a short orientation to set employees’ expectations, and many screen leaders to assess their teaching skills and needs for support. If employees are hesitant to accept leaders as teachers, focused efforts to establish and communicate leaders’ credentials and credibility can be helpful.


More L&D Tips to Drive Successful Leaders-as-Teachers Programs

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In addition to the actions already discussed, try these tips to support effective LAT outcomes:

  • Design formal LAT programs. Although many organizations take a somewhat casual approach to leaders’ teaching, make a firm commitment by creating a formal, structured program. Remember to base LAT interventions on specific desired business goals and results, establish the program’s value, educate and communicate about program details, and measure outcomes.
  • Determine your own best practices. Once you know the business imperatives for your LAT initiative, you can decide the best uses of (and ways to save) leaders’ time. Should they teach full courses? Single training modules? Teach in small increments during regular meetings? Facilitate discussions? Which applications best suit your organization, your leaders, and your employees’ learning needs?
  • Create a participation process. Many L&D functions develop selection criteria to determine which leaders will be selected to teach. In other organizations, the expectation that leaders at specified levels will teach is included in their job descriptions and/or performance goals. The leader-as-teacher role should be thoroughly defined, including responsibilities involved, the selection process clearly communicated, and training provided to participating leaders as needed.
  • Take L&D ownership of LAT. In some companies, senior leadership teams or other functions oversee leaders’ teaching. However, many organizations recognize the wisdom of having their L&D functions own LAT programs. L&D professionals have the expertise to help with content choices and design, evaluate teaching skills, and provide the training and support leaders need for success.
  • Make participation easy for leaders. Consider leaders’ strengths when designing their teaching roles; empower them to find comfortable ways to share their knowledge. Often, leaders are good storytellers, and their experiences and lessons learned make strong additions to content for leadership development programs, along with many other training applications. Companies frequently involve leaders (as company historians and brand or culture ambassadors) in new-hire orientations and onboarding or capitalize on executives’ networking abilities by having them teach others how to make effective connections.
  • Encourage action. When considering teaching roles for leaders, find ways to involve them in action-learning interventions. This can be accomplished by having executives facilitate live simulations, guide problem-solving sessions, lead hands-on skill-building exercises, or conduct other experiential training.
Note: if you're looking for ways to get employees to pay learning forward, don't miss our related post Are Your Employees Paying Learning Forward? It features 8 Tips for L&D to Improve Knowledge Sharing at Work.


Media Partners—Your Leader in Teaching

Award-winning video training programs from Media Partners can perfectly complement learning interventions involving leaders who teach. Videos capture and present scenarios that occur in workplaces worldwide, providing outstanding opportunities for leaders to illustrate powerful concepts and drive discussions that support strong training results.

Visit Media Partners or call to speak with a knowledgeable learning advisor who can suggest the video training products you need to drive high-performance learning in your organization.

Here are a few we highly recommend:

A Leader’s Guide to Delegating provides practical "how to's" for the delegator and delegatee and shows how delegating is a key way leaders can develop employees.
The Pygmalion Effect shows leaders the powerful impact their expectations have on those they are trying to train or mentor. Leaders learn behaviors that communicate positive expectations. 
Make Mentoring Count contains 16 micro-videos that enable leaders to develop effective mentoring skills.