Business Transformation

How AI-Based Leadership Development Complements Human Coaching

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed many underlying problems in traditional coaching and leadership training methods. Most obviously, in-person coaching and traditional leadership development events have been canceled because doing them safely has been a struggle. But the issues run deeper than that. Human leadership development is expensive, time-consuming, and usually only available to executives and upper management. By contrast, AI-based leadership development like what the Cultivate platform offers is low-cost, can easily scale to an entire organization, and requires much less time and energy from the user. AI-based options actually complement human coaching well and I believe they’ll continue to be widely adopted even after in-person events are safe to attend again.

2020 was a stressful time for everyone, managers included. Attrition is up (the U.S. had a net employment loss of 5.5 million in 2020), and leadership development is a key factor in employee’s decisions to stay or go. In fact, research from the Work Institute found that three out of four employees that quit could have been retained, and 22 out of every 100 left specifically for career development. Furthermore, managers that excelled at in-person leadership might struggle to maintain a connection with their teams while remote. It takes a different set of skills to thrive as a remote manager – everyone is having to re-learn how to lead in this new work world. Leadership development programs can help with this retraining process, so it’s more important than ever that organizations have a safe, effective way to deliver them.

The challenges of human leadership development

Even before Covid-19, periodic “one and done” training and yearly seminars were often less effective because people struggled to retain the information and skills they learned without regular reinforcement. These trainings are expensive and don’t scale well (there are only so many leadership speakers and coaches out there), so leadership development has been largely restricted to upper-level management and executives. Middle managers have been left out, even though these managers are arguably just as important. Gallup found that managers account for a stunning 70% of the variance in team engagement across business units. The best types of coaching include regular and consistent “touches,” but most human coaching can’t take this approach. Human coaching – whether in-person or done via videoconferencing – also takes up valuable time and the #1 reason employees don’t engage in workplace learning is because they don’t have the time.

While leadership training is critical, (see this Harvard Business Review article for a good overview of general leadership development benefits), it needs to evolve.

AI-based leadership development offers low-cost, scalable, easy-to-use option

The good news is that digital, AI-based coaching platforms may offer a solution to upskill managers in the flow of how we work today. These solutions can allow everyone to stay socially distant and safe, but also cost less and are easier to scale than traditional coaching, and thus can be made available to far more managers and leaders. These platforms (more akin to People Analytics Technology) take in data from HR tools, feedback platforms, emails, instant messages (such as Microsoft Teams and Slack for Business) and calendar meeting invites and use it to find patterns and trends. Then they provide real-time analysis and feedback to managers to help them become more self-aware and improve their leadership skills.

AI-based platforms can complement human coaching in several ways:

  • Repeated touches to help lessons sink in – By providing feedback in the flow of work in a non-programmatic way (using Slack bots or e-mails for example), AI-based coaching tools reinforce lessons repeatedly over a long period of time to produce actual changes in behavior and improved self-awareness. They can fill in the gaps between human training sessions, and help users put the lessons they learn from other coaching into practice.
  • Low cost – AI-based coaching platforms cost a fraction per user of what human training does (as low as a few dollars per user per month) and can scale up as needed without limits. If implemented correctly, these platforms have the potential to provide cost-effective coaching to all people leaders (especially those at multinational corporations with global teams) who want it. This can lead to a two-tier model where executives and high-value people leaders receive human coaching, and other managers who would otherwise be left out have access to AI-based coaching.
  • No user input – These platforms analyze existing digital data, so they don’t require users to fill out surveys or do any work to benefit from it. This makes it easier for busy employees to take advantage of them.
  • Deeper analytics through AI/ML – Artificial intelligence and machine learning engines allow these platforms to measure a user’s digital behaviors, like how often they ask their team members for input and how many messages they send after hours. This analysis can offer valuable insights, like what types of behaviors correlate with more high-performing employees or how company culture differs between business units.
  • More objective – These platforms are based on objective data from employee’s digital interactions, so they’re less susceptible to biases than self-reported surveys.

While the U.S. economy will eventually recover, this shift toward AI-based training and coaching platforms is gaining serious momentum. Research is already suggesting that we’ll be working fewer days per week in the office than in the past and a Gartner survey of company leaders from July 2020 found that 47% will allow employees to work from home full-time after the pandemic ends and 80% plan to allow part-time remote work. AI-based leadership development can provide empowerment and support to help organizations adjust to this sea of change in our work habits in the short term and complement human coaching to create leadership development programs that are more scalable, cost-effective and produce stronger people leaders in the long term.

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Lizzie Jaeger
Lizzie Jaeger is Lead Product Manager at Cultivate. She has a strong background in product management at HR and performance management companies like Reflektive, Sipree and Zenefits. She began her career working in HR in the hospitality industry. Lizzie Jaeger is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.