How to Create Leadership Fluency

Cultivating communities of practice for seasoned and aspiring leaders

August 01, 2021 | By Rachel Watts and Bryan Harber
Female learner working on computer

In this article in Industry Training Magazine, published in July/August 2021, Training Generalists, Rachel Watts and Bryan Harber, share their six-point learning approach to creating leadership fluency.

How do we help learning concepts flow through our organizations to ensure that its leaders are speaking and practicing a “leadership language”? Leadership language and practices should reinforce the organization’s guiding principles, such as values, mission, vision and competencies. It takes more than a one-and-done training class approach to create sustainable, effective leadership development. Instead, it takes a learning and development (L&D) strategy of providing multi-touchpoint learning experiences to develop current leaders while simultaneously creating a leadership pipeline of emerging and aspiring leaders.

This article highlights practices for connecting current leadership development programs with other learning offerings, such as regularly scheduled training sessions, microlearning and self-directed learning. Another key component is creating learning communities of practice within the organization to allow leaders to share and explore latest ideas and skills, as well as to become fluent in the leadership language and practices that express the organization’s guiding principles.

Leadership Fluency

Fluency is the state of being fluent, or rather the ability to express oneself smoothly, easily or readily. Being fluent is usually associated with the ability to speak, write or read a language “accurately and with facility.” It is also being able to comprehend and apply ideas appropriately. Looking deeper into the definition, however, being fluent also applies to movement, style or practice that is smooth and graceful, and the ability to “flow freely” or be “fluid.”

Applying all aspects of fluency to leadership development comes in handy for L&D professionals. As pointed out in “Why Leadership Development Isn’t Developing Leaders,” an HBR article, leaders in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment need to be intuitive, fluid and more collaborative. Developing leaders who are fluent not only helps ensure that all levels and areas of leadership are congruent with each other but also with the changing needs of others and the organization. Leaders who are fluent possess an awareness – of self and others – enabling them to comprehend different and sometimes ambiguous situations, and they are able to adapt their style to meet those needs while still maintaining the organization’s guiding principles.

So how do we as L&D professionals and designers create the conditions for this to happen and open up opportunities for all leaders? Looking at some tips of how people become fluent is helpful.

How to Become Fluent

Numerous studies from language experts have shown that to become fluent in a language, the learner should:

  • Immerse themselves
  • Practice using the language
  • Stay committed daily
  • Engage with local literature, films, music, etc.
  • Push themselves out of their comfort zone
  • Find a language learning partner or group

As L&D professionals, we know that mastering any type of skill involves a process. It also involves intentional practice and exposure to the new learning through different touchpoints and interacting with people of various skill levels.

6-point Learning Approach to Creating Leadership Fluency

L&D professionals can apply similar concepts from the language experts to leadership development. For example, focusing on design to allow for both formal and informal learning touchpoints generates opportunities for immersion and can encourage learners to stay committed to practicing skills.

Taking a more comprehensive approach to the learning design of leadership development also makes certain that leadership language aligns in the various offerings. There are many benefits to this approach, such as addressing learning retention, or the forgetting curve, one of the biggest challenges for L&D professionals. L&D professionals can reinforce learning in myriad forms and have participants build on learning concepts gained from previous sessions. This approach also leverages the model of spaced learning delivery, where content is reintroduced over specified intervals.

Here are approaches we have found successful in our leadership development design that draw from the method language experts use to help learners gain fluency. Leaders can learn:

From Those Already Performing the Skill.

Both seasoned and emerging leaders can benefit from this learning touchpoint. It gives emerging leaders an occasion to learn directly from seasoned leaders. Additionally, when leaders are the recipient of cross-training, working in a different area of the organization can help break down silos and promote better awareness of others. Some best practices include job shadowing, cross-training, and job sharing or rotation.

Incorporating job shadowing, for example, into a leadership development program creates experiential learning for the participants. Learners can encounter in-real-time problems or situations and take part in real-life, in-action solutions.

By Taking on Additional Responsibilities.

This approach can push participants outside of their comfort zones by placing them into unfamiliar situations where they can learn and grow. It gives them a chance to stretch their talents beyond their current expertise and to perform at higher levels. Some examples include stretch assignments, special projects and committee work.

Adding stretch assignments or special projects into your leadership development program provides an opportunity for practicing new skills. It also allows participants to prove their capabilities.

It takes more than a one-and-done training class approach to create sustainable, effective leadership development.

Through Formal and Informal Training.

Formal learning tends to be the bread-and-butter of most L&D training programs; however, it’s often not enough or even the right fit for some learners. Incorporating resources that point current and potential participants to other learning opportunities that align with your offerings can ensure leadership fluency continues. Some examples include external training and professional development courses, certifications or badges, and degree-seeking programs.

Most external training and professional development from vendors such as LinkedIn Learning and Coursera allow L&D practitioners to create custom learning paths. Integrating learning paths through these external vendors with existing internal programs is a great way to have participants engage with leading experts in other organizations while discussing and analyzing learned concepts with others.

By Group Participation.

Group participation is almost a given in most training sessions. However, forming semi-structured groups outside of formal offerings, or in addition to programs can provide more support and space to help participants gain leadership fluency. Some examples include communities of practice, service or volunteering, and online forums and social learning.

Leveraging Microsoft Teams or Slack is a great way to build social learning and communities of practice. For instance, you can create a channel specifically for a leadership development course where participants can reach out to others with questions or to share resources.

With Guidance from Others.

There are many proven benefits of learners seeking guidance from others as a component of their professional development. For instance, when added to a formal learning experience, it can promote a learning culture and help build connections between participants, as well as growth. Some examples of these types of learning experiences include coaching, mentoring and mastermind groups.

Adding coaching and/or mentoring programs into your leadership development design produces one of the biggest opportunities for integrating different leadership development programs and cultivating leadership fluency. You can add a component to your executive leadership program where leaders must coach participants for an aspiring leaders’ program, for example. This design simultaneously teaches executive leaders some needed coaching skills while allowing aspiring leaders to receive the benefit of their coach’s experience.

From Self-study.

One main benefit of including self-study opportunities in leadership development design is that it encourages learners to develop self-directed learning skills. This approach can also help to promote a learning culture within the organization. Some examples include books, articles and blogs, videos, and podcasts and interviews.

Including a list of other learning resources as a “next steps in your learning” can enhance the learning experience. For example, you can develop a “Read, Watch, Listen” series as a way to interconnect and reinforce learning offerings. This approach also reinforces and expands learning concepts for past participants.

Your Call to Action

Now it is time to assess your leadership development design and approach. To help you promote leadership fluency in your programs, we suggest these steps:

Assess Your Approach:

  • What are your organization’s guiding principles?
  • What are your current leadership development offerings?
  • How do your current leadership development offerings reinforce the language and practice of your guiding principles?

Apply New Strategies:

  • How will you adapt your current learning offerings and programs based on the six-point learning approach?
  • What other learning opportunities will you put in place to continue the learning conversation?
  • What new ideas will you take away and continue to explore within your organization?

Build Your Own Community of Practice:

  • Who can you connect with to share learning resources, best practices and ideas to try?
  • Who else within your organization or network is performing similar work you can partner with?
  • How can you ensure sustainability for your group?

Rachel Watts and Bryan Harber are training generalists at Georgia Institute of Technology who focus on leadership development, onboarding and communication skills. Together, they bring over 20 years of L&D experience to their roles.