Leadership Development on a Shoe String Budget

🕑 5 minutes read | Dec 18 2023 | By Chris Wong, TTA Learning Consultant

If there’s one phrase L&D departments rarely utter, it’s “We have way too much money and resources, how can we possibly spend and use all this”?  Truthfully, learning and development have always taken a backseat to other revenue-generating departments of organizations.  While that’s been slowly evolving, not every organization has the resources to devote to it, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

In reality, despite wanting leadership development, many organizations are running on tight margins.  In a Brandon Hall Group 2021 study on the State of Learning Practices, 52% of participating L&D departments reported a reduction of at least 25% to their budgets, with 26% reporting at least a 50% reduction.  In that same study, 47% of respondents reported not having enough financial resources, and 44% reported headcount shortages.

The good news is that even without fancy tools and resources, organizations of all sizes still have a great deal of options.  The key? Focusing on the basics and being flexible.  In this article, we’ll refresh the basic foundations your learning program needs to have, and then we’ll see how to apply them in a sample plan.

Don’t forget the basics

Without rehashing adult learning theory, the key is to understand the basics of what makes learning happen.  It’s too easy to get debate training modalities – instead, let’s examine the most critical factors to a successful learning journey:

  1. Feedback is key – The most important factor for people learning a skill is the feedback they receive on whether they’re using it correctly or not.
  2. Coaching is more effective than training – Coaching has been shown to be more effective than training because of the personalized attention. According to a 2022 Harvard Business Review Analytics Services study that surveyed 665 organizational leaders, 60% of respondents reported that coaching was effective in achieving their desired results, compared to 35% in training alone.
  3. People learn by doing – Until people actually use a skill, it’s all theoretical knowledge. Using it allows someone to encode it in their brain and muscle memory.

Before we get into options for programming, two quick side notes – using an LMS and getting buy-in.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) on a budget

LMSs’ are great tools to help track learner journeys, see pain points in learning, and deliver content quickly and efficiently.  But what if your organization has an LMS that’s lacking in features or can’t afford one?

The simplest and most cost-effective solution is to curate YouTube videos into a playlist around the desired topic, set the playlist to be private/unlisted, and then send out the link to the learners.  Total cost = $0.  The only downsides are that you won’t be able to track learner completion and the content won’t be personalized to your organization.

Getting Buy-in

Even without adequate money/resources, you’ll still need buy-in from all levels.  Start with learning your organization’s strategic plan, and its priorities, and ask senior leaders how they’d want to frame any leadership development efforts around meeting strategic initiatives.  This is how you position yourself as a strategic advisor because your program will automatically meet business needs.

Because you’re on a budget, you have to be disciplined to focus all your content and efforts solely on those strategic priorities.  Everything else is nice to have and until you can properly prove return on investment (ROI), it’ll have to wait.

Putting it all together

In Figure 1, I’ve provided a sample chart of how you can deliver leadership development programming.  You’ll notice a few things:

  1. Leadership skills are not created equally. Leadership skills are used differently at different levels.  For example, communication skills for a frontline supervisor may be focused on delivering feedback and performance expectations.  Meanwhile, VPs may need to learn media skills, present to large groups, or inspire people to action.
  2. Not everyone needs to learn everything. High potentials don’t need to learn about strategic planning yet, but higher levels do.  The sooner you identify which skills are needed the more you can focus your efforts and not waste time.
  3. The delivery methods are interchangeable and are only limited by your imagination. The frequency and length are up to you and your organizational setting.  Some find that monthly work great, while others find that longer quarterly sessions work better for them.  Descriptions of each are below:
      • Book Clubs – Choose leadership and personal development books relevant to your organization’s goals. When the group meets, you only need to have a facilitator to guide their discussion and have leaders coach each other on implementation.
      • Learning Circles/Group Coaching – Sometimes also known as a mastermind group, these are learning groups so that participants can come together, get some learning around a specific topic, and then spend time in small groups either coaching each other or practicing different scenarios.
      • Mentorship Programs – This takes a bit of effort to set up, but once you set it up, it runs by itself. Make it even more official by having a celebration ceremony once a year and it will help market itself.
      • 360 Reviews – Find ways to gather feedback for leaders from up, down, and across so they can get a clearer picture of their strengths and areas of development. There are fancy systems that do this, but you can always use Google Forms surveys to gather data and then spend some time summarizing the responses to ensure anonymity.
      • Cross-Department Projects – Assign projects that require collaboration across different departments. These projects encourage employees to step out of their comfort zones, develop problem-solving skills, and learn how to lead diverse teams. By working on real organizational challenges, participants gain practical experience and insights that are immediately applicable to their roles.
      • Internal Workshops and Lunch and Learns – Run simple workshops/lunch and learns and tap into the existing expertise of your internal talent. These informal yet educational gatherings provide employees and leaders with opportunities to share their knowledge, insights, and best practices.
      • Leadership academies – This is the most time-consuming suggestion here, but for frontline supervisors and high potentials, they can be a vehicle for demonstrating official investment. Even meeting once per month for 6 months or 5 days in a row for half-days can make a big difference in looking official.    More importantly, it begins introducing participants to other departments, which helps them to start viewing the organization from a more holistic view as opposed to just their own specific section of work.
Fig. 1. Sample chart of leadership topics and how to deliver

leadership topic chart

The Takeaway

As you can see, leadership development can be done on a shoestring budget.  The only limit is your imagination.  One caveat, organizations shouldn’t look at this article as permission to continue underfunding these initiatives.  Like many other endeavors in life, leadership development is an investment in your organization’s future.  Continuing to invest minimal resources will only place a ceiling on your leaders’ capabilities and competencies – and thus, your organization’s ability to meet its strategic goals and initiatives.

But, by remembering the basic principles and focusing on doing the basics well, you can start getting data to prove that return on investment.  By leveraging your existing resources and being creative, you can nurture talent within your organization and reach your goals.

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