Leadership Development Trends in 2021

June 14, 2021 8:56 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

by Daniel Stewart, President of Stewart Leadership


How is your organization developing leaders for the future? This is what we asked when we surveyed over 300 Human Resource leaders across 15+ industries within the US in April of 2021. We wanted to know how organizations wrestling with a tight labor market, remote work, social justice issues, mental health challenges, increasing digitization, and political unrest view and develop their leaders. 

Current leadership development trends inform our expectations of leaders today and how we anticipate leadership evolving in the coming years. To understand this, we wanted to know how are organizations answering these key questions:

  • What skills and mindsets do leaders need as they rally their teams for the future? 

  • How are we defining leadership success? 

  • What development approaches are working (or not)?

  • What strategies and approaches will help us prepare future leaders?

With our partner, From Day One, we surveyed 310 respondents who collectively represented five levels in their organizations - with 80% at the manager level or above. The participants worked in more than 15 industries with most working for companies with more than $50 million in revenues. Each generation currently in the workforce was represented in the survey with Gen X being the most numerous at 55% followed by Baby Boomers (23%) and Millennials (21%). Gen Z came in at 1% of the survey respondents. We looked at the overall data as well as the data in context with the demographic information above. From that research, here are the top five trends in developing leaders in 2021

Leadership Development Priorities

Companies of all sizes are putting a higher priority on cohort programs rather than targeted, individual approaches. Smaller companies were more likely to focus on getting back to the basics of leadership development, and managers at all levels in the organization are focused on development conversations backed with individual action plans. 

78% of respondents, when asked to choose among several priorities for the next 18 months selected one of these four options:

  • Promote development conversations and action plans (22%)

  • Acquire micro-learnings and virtual tools for all levels (20%)

  • Create cohort development programs for specific audiences (18%)

  • Get back to basics of leadership development (17%)

Leadership Preparation 

Of all the generations. Baby Boomers expressed the most confidence that the leaders in their organization are prepared to deliver results, while the largest companies represented in the survey were most optimistic about the preparedness of their leaders.  A concerning 40% of respondents from organizations with revenues of $500 million - $1 billion or more were neutral or pessimistic about their leaders being prepared for the future.  Overall 65% of respondents agree or strongly agree that their leaders are prepared, leaving 35% of respondents unsure that their leaders can deliver both business results and people results. 

Leadership Development Investment by Level in Organization 

Organizations of all levels reported that Managers (28%) and Directors (23%) are being targeted with the highest level of leadership development investment reflecting the ongoing trend of focusing on developing strong managers. Investing in Individual Contributors (22%) proved a higher priority than focusing investment dollars on Vice Presidents (10%), Senior Leaders (11%), and C-Suite Executives (96%).

Desired Future Leadership Style

More than 88% of respondents expressed a strong preference for leadership styles that demonstrate trust and confidence in employees exemplified by supporting the employee’s work by providing feedback, recognition, and support. A micromanagement approach of driving an employee’s work by providing detailed day-to-day directions and guidance was strongly rejected. 

Respondents also wanted a collaborative approach to problem-solving, expressing a desire for leaders who influence results by breaking down silos, collaborating across functions, and overcoming obstacles through clever approaches. While 76% of respondents preferred the collaborative approach, only 24% of respondents expressed a preference for leaders who would drive results through a focus on leading function priorities and goals. 

Top Leadership Development Approaches

When asked to choose from a range of leadership development approaches, respondents tended to select development approaches that could be conducted in a virtual environment. The top approach selected by survey participants was, “Development through projects, assignments, and job positions.” All levels in the organization and all company sizes favored this approach. Workshops, webinars, and formal cohort programs conducted virtually also rose to the top of the list, with Baby Boomers expressing a strong preference for virtual workshops. 

Top Strategic Priorities and Critical Leadership Skills

HR leaders have been highly motivated to proactively respond to the challenges of conducting business today. A slim majority will place their primary focus on engaging and retaining employees (19%) while 18% of respondents will focus on building an inclusive culture. Millennials, in particular, ranked building an inclusive culture as their top priority, as did the majority of directors and senior managers. Other top priorities include aligning strategic direction and goals (15%), finding the right balance of in-person, remote, and hybrid (12%), and upskilling managers to lead change and transformation (10%)

The critical leadership skills included aligning strategic priorities with building the employee experience. The most commonly selected skills noted for leadership investment were communication (12%), building an engaging experience (11%), connection (8%), and inclusion and belonging (8%). 

Want to Know More?

You can read our full research report by visiting StewartLeadership.com/Research

Also, to see our webinar detailing the full report and our recommended next steps, visit Stewartleadership.com/Webinar


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