Hybrid transmission?
Reflections on the design of international leadership development in 2021-22

23. August 2021 - Nathan Hobbs, Director, Client solutions Share

We know that the world will never be the same again, however there is more hesitation in our industry now than there was one year ago and just when we had learned to thrive. Meanwhile, those clients who commissioned “plug-in hybrid” development solutions have not looked back and seem to be setting the trend for 2021-22.

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A complicated switch from virtual to hybrid

Having spent months working from home and venturing out only to the supermarket, to get a vaccine or stand in relatives’ gardens and catch up at a social distance, I recently had my first hybrid working day. It all seemed very innocent at first look: the team would meet face to face in Central London then visit several possible new offices and decide which one we liked the best (and it’s a stunner). However, I had a client pitch first thing that would in other times have meant travel to Germany, and so by the time I could rock up at my local train station engineering works would mean no direct trains and a 2-hour journey time.


And so straight after the pitch I drove 60 miles, parked up next to a tube station in West London, took a client project team meeting on MS Teams from the car and then the underground into Holborn. Not such an innocent day. I had been jealous to hear a client tell of his recent business trip to Mexico, more jealous still to hear clients’ everyday stories of being back at their actual desks at least some of the time, and here I was putting more time into planning a trip into the office than I would have once spent planning the trip to Germany for that pitch.


And that got me thinking about the relative certainty of the first lockdown. It felt anything but certain at the time, however clients had a simple choice to make, either to embrace virtual L&D or delay everything until 2022. The navigators found a way to continue developing their leaders, and the survivors battened down the hatches ready to weather the storm as best they could. We will be forever grateful to those clients who chose to reimagine their leadership programmes and keep going, and for their spirit of adventure that we could work things out as we went along. 2020 ended up being a particularly intense year for everyone, and we limped into the Holidays looking forward to two weeks of decompression and relaxation with our immediate families.


In some contrast, 2021 seems to be more complex and uncertain than ever before.


A more complex reality

In some contrast, 2021 seems to be more complex and uncertain than ever before. Pandemic regulations are by now relaxing in some areas, however continually changing and continuing to confuse. For example, masks are optional however remain advisable; masks are not required on public transport in most of England however are mandatory in Wales, Scotland and London. Some venues ask customers to wear masks, some do not, some people comply with the request and others do not. In our everyday lives we are unsure how to behave on public transport, at the theatre or even in the supermarket now that social distancing is no longer mandated.


Many firms will be back at their desks from September at least some of the time and learning to navigate in a hybrid world where many activities continue to be remote.  Following the financial crash of 2008, the return to business travel lagged consumer travel by several years. This time around we have developed significant remote working capabilities and for the most part our customers and clients have embraced virtual deal making at least for the time being. It looks like we’ll be working in this hybrid way for the foreseeable future, and with more limited travel.


Hybrid programmes that integrate digital self-guided learning with virtual live sessions, coaching and more limited in-person workshops are definitely the way forward.


Prospects for the future

I cannot imagine a return to multiple-module in-person international programmes any time soon. We have become pretty good at virtual development by now and although it may feel that something is missing, we continue to deliver good results. Leaders have learned to collaborate virtually and virtual “learning to learn” is not so different. However, most leaders express frustration at the lack of in-person exchange. Promises that we will meet again one day when “this is all over” may sound melodramatic, however we can all agree that it would be great to meet in person!


Our industry has talked about integrating digital and virtual solutions into Leadership Development for the past six years, however we have only begun to deliver on that promise and there can surely be no going back. Hybrid programmes that integrate digital self-guided learning with virtual live sessions, coaching and more limited in-person workshops are definitely the way forward.


Except that the pandemic continues. International business travel in September and October is already looking problematic and plans to restart in-person workshops during Autumn 2021 are already at risk. Those whose visas ran out may face significant delays in getting them renewed, travel from some countries requires quarantine on arrival or homecoming, there are multiple COVID variants and we Brits are navigating a post Brexit Europe, where each country has its own regulations for international business travellers.


Interest in executive coaching remains strong as a proven and cost-effective way to provide remote support to leaders in their development.


Client expectations for programmes

Some clients continue to delay Learning and Development decisions and take a wait and see approach in the hope of in-person development at some point soon. Some others who initially embraced virtual development are also waiting for the tide to turn. Interest in executive coaching remains strong as a proven and cost-effective way to provide remote support to leaders in their development, however hesitation about programmatic solutions continues. If our ultimate success depended on 18-24 people travelling from all over Europe or the Americas to work together in a single location, it would be easy to understand client reluctance.


Some clients had the foresight to commission hybrid development programmes during the pandemic, where equivalent “parallel form” virtual and in-person modules were designed from the outset. Now that our immediate plans are compromised and in-person workshops impractical, it is relatively straightforward to create additional digital and virtual content.


Who will be the navigators of 2022?

The navigators of 2022 will be those integrating in-person learning methods where plausible with an equivalent package of virtual methods where not. Programmes may begin using in-person “energy sources” and continue with virtual methods or mix and match depending on region and cohort. Other navigators are those taking an emergent no-design approach, putting leaders’ immediate reality at the forefront of their inquiry and providing access to specific learning content as needed; perhaps something to explore in another article.


Plug-in hybrids maybe the transition to electric or a side show on the road to hydrogen power, and similarly hybrid development may be good enough for now but not the ultimate solution. We do know that leaders crave in-person development and networking experiences, and arguably these are vital to deliver full impact. Hybrid solutions could just be the key to enabling leader development in the next 12 months.

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Nathan Hobbs

Nathan Hobbs draws on 25 years professional practice as an organisational psychologist, and has over the years consulted in the areas of talent management, leadership and organisation development. He draws on a wide mix of disciplines and past experiences in his approach, working closely with clients to create impactful solutions that integrate the business agenda with participants’ development needs.

You can contact Nathan Hobbs at nho@mannaz.com or +44 796 288 1445.