Leaders are made, not born. They may start out with innate talent — business acumen, confidence, intelligence, creativity — but the right tenor of leadership development is essential along the way. And one of the biggest areas where executive-level training is important, both as leaders rise through the ranks and once they’re in place on an executive team, is the arena of soft skills. This includes capabilities like crisis communication, handling difficult conversations, de-escalation techniques, and empathy building among teams.
We know virtual reality (VR) is a radically effective way to train frontline workers, warehouse and manufacturing employees, customer service representatives, and others. But there is also a place for VR at the executive level of leadership and development (L&D).
The concept of learning by doing is thousands of years old, and VR enables this technique in a digital format. When VR is done correctly, the brain of the learner is transported inside an experience or situation, which enables the brain to “learn by doing” in a bona fide neurological way. This technique has been used for a long time in certain arenas — think of the pilot learning to navigate using a flight simulator. Now, thanks to major improvements in VR technology, it’s equally effective for training executives in the soft skills they need.
Verity Creedy is Product Management Director at Development Dimensions International (DDI), an international human resources and leadership development consultancy with longtime expertise and credibility. In a recent webinar with Strivr, Creedy spoke about how VR and immersive experiences can massively elevate the support of C-level executives to be better leaders in five specific (and extremely important) areas.
The mass shift to the virtual workplace
The sudden normalization of remote and hybrid work models during the pandemic kept leaders on their toes. Remote work is a big part of the leadership discussion right now, regardless of what industry and company we’re talking about. “Leaders have never been under quite so much pressure as they are right now,” says Creedy. “There’s been a fundamental shift, almost like a reset.”
Executives are grappling with how to best support both in–person and remote teams and how to manage teams toward collaboration, creativity, and productivity without being physically with them all the time. Here’s how VR can help.
Executive VR training for remote work leadership
Leading remote and hybrid teams takes a different skill set than leading teams that are entirely in-person. LinkedIn lists the most important soft skills for remote leadership as communication, emotional intelligence, and empathy. VR can be used to teach executives these types of soft skills by letting them “roleplay” in a highly realistic environment where they’re given feedback as they go. This type of empathy-building has been used by enterprise organizations like Walmart to teach frontline associates for a while now, but the applications for executive leadership are also profound.
Using empathy to create a better culture
Of course, empathy has always been an incredibly important trait for executives. When leaders can gain (and share) the ability to put themselves in the shoes of others, they get better at things like handling conflict, navigating difficult conversations, and coaching employees to change their behaviors. Efforts to engage in challenging conversations around things like equity and justice also require massive amounts of empathy. And, of course, to skillfully let go of an employee requires empathy.
Conflict isn’t always about a small interpersonal disagreement. It can be about politics or interpersonal decision-making. Creedy says, “Empathy is an incredibly important skill for leaders to be able to manage.”
Executive VR training for empathy
Using empathy to deal with conflict is such an important skill set for leaders that it’s the first of four Immersive Learning simulations DDI itself is launching in partnership with Strivr. DDI is also launching modules around inclusion, coaching, and change. Giving people the ability to experience learning in a simulated environment allows them to hone their practice, learn by making mistakes in a safe environment, repeatedly practice, and keep improving over time.
Fostering inclusion and trust
There’s a global conversation happening around issues such as justice and equity in the workplace. The need for inclusive culture is an imperative in every company today, and that has to be both supported by and modeled by leadership.
Without VR, it gets tricky for executives to learn by trial and error in this domain. You don’t want leaders practicing on their direct reports. An ineffective conversation around equity can do damage that’s difficult to repair. Role-playing, unfortunately, is not all that effective either. Peers tend to go easier on each other than a real situation might portray.
Executive VR training for fostering inclusion and trust
We’ve all had the experience of the three-hour online sexual harassment training or the hours-long in-person equity lecture capped off with a quiz. But the research in academic labs has proven that just 20 minutes in a VR headset is as effective as hours in front of a computer or at a lecture.
Creedy calls VR “an empathy generator, because you can simulate experiences people go through their entire lives not having, personally.” This is a strong value-driver of VR-based leadership training.
4 Handling the wellbeing (and burnout) of employees
This one is more of a human issue than a business issue, and it highlights how important people are finally becoming within organizations. Leadership training is at its most valuable when it comes to the “human moments.”
“Training leaders to deal with these very human moments is absolutely possible,” confirms Creedy. “But it is important to provide just the right setup for leaders. There are some really tried and true methods that work.” They include assessing leaders appropriately for their soft skills but also providing opportunities to practice improvement. And as Creedy continues, “It’s really difficult to do that practice in traditional L&D formats.”
Executive VR training for managing employee wellbeing
In a VR environment, executives can practice conversations with employees without negatively impacting relationships as they endure a learning curve. (VR can also be used to directly impact the burnout level of employees, as one CHOC Nursing Research and Innovation study has found.)
Supporting resilience among change
According to a mid-pandemic survey of leaders by DDI, 55% of CEOs say developing the next generation of leaders is their top priority. That concern beat out major contenders such as global recession and worries about the competitive landscape and data security threats. CHROs, in particular, recognize a growing need to upskill their CEOs, so they’re ready to handle whatever future change may come our way. This is bringing an appropriate and long-overdue focus to L&D.
Executive VR training for innovation and change
In addition to empathy, communication, and other soft skills that VR is so good at teaching, another important area of skills-building for leaders is the ability to think in innovative, creative ways and come up with new ideas. We all saw how important this was during the pandemic.
Innovation can be taught, and VR is a great way to teach it. According to PwC, VR learners are naturally more confident in applying what they’re taught, more focused, and more emotionally connected to the L&D content they’re presented with. Like all kinds of employees, leaders have to be able to make mistakes in a safe environment to learn and grow in their careers.
Immersive learning for executive L&D
To invest in your executives, succeed in your succession planning, and support your leaders and your culture, you have to invest in the right L&D methodologies and technologies. To learn more about how VR can benefit executive upskilling, stream the on-demand webinar with Creedy and Strivr CEO Derek Belch: VR for leadership skills: Developing the next generation of leaders with Immersive Learning.
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