Using Digital Learning for Executive Development

dreamstime_xs_55894278In the “old days”, e-learning was often regarded as training for the masses, rather than for the most senior personnel in an organisation.  Maybe, to be fair, that should be “old-style” e-learning, for as the approach has evolved into what we know today as “digital learning”, I don’t believe we can restrict technology-based learning to just a certain part of the business.  But as executive and senior leadership development programmes have often been limited to a largely face-to-face experience, how should we utilise digital learning options within them?

In today’s post I’m going to:

  • Look at the characteristics of C-level learners that should influence our designs
  • Use the MBTI as a way of examining the general learning preferences in the C-suite
  • Look at which digital learning solutions can support this audience
  • Share some tips based on this discussion and my own experience
What characteristics of the executive role need to be taken into account when designing their learning solutions?

Here are some of my learner insights for this most senior of training audiences.

  1. As they’ve risen through the latter ranks, they’ve probably not invested as much time in training as at the start of their careers.
  2. There is generally a need for discretion when it comes to providing their learning. Even broaching the subject might be a challenge in some cases and they may be less willing to publicise their development needs as they are more in the “public eye”.
  3. They are an audience that’s always on the move and with a real lack of time to squeeze in training.
  4. Executives may not get as much feedback as before, due to their seniority and they might well miss receiving this too.
  5. They are most certainly more action-orientated and with less time for reflection which we know is an important part of the learning process.
  6. Many will continue to survive on their strengths, at the expense of looking to improve in other areas.
  7. They might lack role models at their level, especially within their own organisation.
  8. Executives do have an interest in remaining up-to-date with current trends and practices and do their own searching with mixed results.
  9. They generally prefer to seek out what they perceive to be more expert sources of information to meet their genuine thirst for information.
  10. And finally – and sometimes worryingly – executives might simply delegate parts of their role, where they perceive they lack the required skills and knowledge.

Today’s digital learning approaches can respond to these characteristics in different ways.  We’ll see how later.

What are the learning style preferences of senior leaders?

I am going using the MBTI as our determinator, as it’s one of the most widely used diagnostics among leaders and it has also been mapped over the Kolb’s learning styles model.  There are also guidance notes for MBTI report recipients relating to how they prefer to learn, so we have a lot of research-based data with which to work.

Kolb and MBTI

In the official accompanying notes to the MBTI test, the following preferences are listed as the top four recorded for leaders in organisations:

  1. ESTJ (22.8%)
  2. ISTJ (20.7%)
  3. ENTJ (17.7%)
  4. INTJ (11.2%)

And in a significant piece of research by the Centre for Creative Leadership, their results from over 21,000 leadership course participants produced these results:

  1. ISTJ 18.2%
  2. ESTJ 16.0%
  3. ENTJ 13.1%
  4. INTJ 10.5%

Whilst Ashridge Business School’s own study of nearly 23,000 course participants stated these as the four most popular types:

  1. ESTJ 21.5%
  2. ENTJ 15.1%
  3. ISTJ 14.5%
  4. ENTP 11.3%

Combining these together, we can see that there is complete agreement on the top three, on which the rest of this post will focus.


CCL Ashridge

ESTJ (1st)

ESTJ (2nd) ESTJ (1st)
ISTJ (2nd) ISTJ (1st)

ISTJ (3rd)

ENTJ (3rd) ENTJ (3rd)

ENTJ (2nd)

INTJ (4th)

INTJ (4th)

ENTP (4th)

Supporting executive development with digital learning

So what do we know about how these personality types prefer to learn?  And what does that mean for learning content and digital learning?

MBTI Type Learning style preferences Implications for learning content Digital learning options
xxTJ Logical organisation of content with a clear plan.

Plenty of feedback on progress against deadlines.

Need to know what is expected of them.

An objective approach with a steady pace.

Clear and logical content that is clearly signposted for them in their role.

Opportunities to analyse the content.

Prefer content that is realistic and meaningful in terms of the work they do.

Learning paths have to be clearly presented.

Content needs to be linked together in a logical manner.

There needs to be clear signposting of timings, objectives and any deadlines; with visible progress indicators to keep this busy group on-track.

A two-way stream for feedback.

Content needs to be made relevant to their roles.

Content should include realistic issues that reflect their work and on which they can think (in their different ways).

Create learning apps that bring together related content into one place, using clear menus to present a logical structure and path; and progress along it.

Embed at least a one-to-one communication channel into apps for feedback.

Include options to customise the content depending on role, etc.

Provide a selection of video clips providing different slants on the content depending on the choice of the learner.

Create bite-sized learning nuggets based on short simulations to allow them to analyse the content in realistic scenarios.

Exxx Discuss thoughts out loud.

Dive straight in.

Have lots of interaction with other people learning the same things.

Look everywhere for supporting ideas.

Try things out for themselves; and as quickly as possible.

Need ways they can connect with other learners.

Content that allows them to grasp the basics that they can then discuss or simply try out straight away.

Provide lots of examples of others talking about the subject, with differing viewpoints.

Consider adding in social communication channels into apps and discussion forums supporting other content.  Remember to keep these forums private for your senior-level invited audience.

Short learning nuggets that focus on the essentials at a high level, with suggestions for taking the ideas further.

Checklists will be a good method here and address the need to timely, fast-to-consume content.

Libraries of talking-heads videos of internally-recognised colleagues; use of third-party libraries of content featuring leading CEOs and business school faculty.

Create learning nuggets that contain real-time feedback (i.e. live polling) on how others are answering the same questions.

Ixxx Keep thoughts private until they are comfortable with them.

Try things out in their own heads first.

Prefer to learn on their own and in private.

Come up with their own supporting ideas.

Don’t rush to try things out, without having thought things through.

Happy to learn on their own and at their own pace.

No need to converse with a group, though do like to have contact with at least one person to share thoughts before going public.

Want to choose when they learn, so they can be left undisturbed.

Like lots of time to listen and observe.

A great audience for most self-paced digital learning options.

Provide options for private one-to-one conversations on social learning platforms; even a connection to a virtual coach.

Ensure the learning content allows them to control the pace, so they can pause and repeat as necessary.

Series of related learning nuggets will provide a good source of digestible content.

Executive book summaries can balance the time-to-learn barrier with the need to digest all the key facts.

Podcasts and video content offers opportunities to listen and observe in private.

Drawing out the themes of this discussion and reflecting on my own first-hand experience, here are my top tips for using digital learning for executive development.

  1. Think mobile – this is a group that doesn’t stay still and will grab learning whenever it can. It also offers the most discrete way to consume learning content.
  2. Keep content items short, relevant and realistic; and include treatments that both present the key ideas fast, as well as with more depth; and provide tools they can use straight away.
  3. Use video and ensure that the clips feature respected authoritative sources, such as internal champions or external C-level experts and respected business school faculty.
  4. Offer subscriptions to executive book summary services, to give your executives fast access to both the latest thinking, plus the staple diet of readings they should have undertaken.
  5. Include channels for them to seek support and feedback as needed.
  6. Create a private C-level learning portal to which they can turn as needed to access content and communicate with their fellow learners, learning facilitators and coaches.
  7. Have the most senior person possible (aim for the CEO) as your key stakeholder and ask them to steer the curriculum based on the business strategy, as well as the needs of the individual executives.
  8. Don’t forget to include the basics in the curriculum, including lots about your business – it’s amazing how quickly C-level officials become out-of-touch there – and the core leadership skills they need, but might have skipped on their route to the top.

My final thought.  We shouldn’t forget that this group will still benefit from all the advantages that a face-to-face learning experience can bring.  So continue to think about blended learning programmes and work with your senior sponsor to define those in terms of the audiences, the content and the most appropriate time to organise them.  But in the meantime, there is no reason why this audience can’t start benefiting from using digital learning. In fact, let them be the role models for embracing digital learning in your organisation.

Using Digital Learning for Executive Development

3 thoughts on “Using Digital Learning for Executive Development

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