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The Unexpected Advantage of Virtual Learning

The inclusion of senior executives in leadership development has long been the summit in program design.

If they can be included, it’s a huge win; the presence of an executive more senior than the audience signals endorsement of the content and brands the program as a visible, worthwhile effort. It means exposure to senior leaders and the ability to hear, first-hand, about strategic news. While many leaders would like to support leadership development with their presence, scheduling and travel conflicts often prohibit personal involvement. These physical visits are then replaced by important, but less satisfying, messages of support through welcome emails and videos.


As designers, we always seek the input of senior leaders so we can channel their key messages through our facilitation. This is critical to good program design but does not replace the energy of a visit from an executive.

We are finding now, however, that one of the unexpected advantages of virtual learning is that these elusive visits are no longer so unattainable, and it has been exciting to include them more freely into program design.

It is far more likely that an executive can find time in the schedule to join a web conference and participate in a program (even 15 minutes can be adequate). Here are some of our own ideas for including executives in virtual leadership development.

  1. Session Kick off: Partner with a senior executive so they understand the key learning objectives for the program. Ask them to share specific company examples to reinforce why these objectives are so critical. This is also a great opportunity for executives to share their gratitude for the participation and reinforce the importance of focus. This helps learners get engaged and understand just how important the session is about to be.
  2. Roleplayers: We have had great success including senior executives in conversation and presentation practice. Executives are briefed beforehand about their role and are then dispersed into virtual breakout rooms. We use business simulation methodology in our work, so often the executives are playing the role of a leader in the fictitious company. This is particularly powerful when you give the execs a grading rubric, and that assessment is included in simulation results. They should always be asked to offer qualitative feedback in addition to quantitative assessment, to the team.
  3. Storytellers: We often design content modules or simulation debrief discussions to be paired with actual client stories. Learners experience a simulated version of a situation, discuss it, and then hear the executive tell a comparable story from the business. This strategy helps participants see how they’d need to use leadership skills in a real scenario, and they always appreciate the “inside scoop” to real events from leaders who lived through them. This type of storytelling is also a great way to build and sustain company culture and values.
  4. Online discussion boards: We recently asked participants to generate ideas in a small group activity and then post those ideas to an online discussion board. Senior executives were then given access to the ideas, and had a simple platform for thanking the teams or commenting on each idea. The great thing about this approach is that executives are able to participate after the program, if needed.
  5. One of the most powerful ways to include executives is in the close of a program – particularly when that leader understands the experience that was just completed.They can connect the learning experience to real needs at the company and give the learners a call to action. This closing can be accomplished in just a few minutes.

How are you engaging execs in learning initiatives? Share your ideas with us at We’ll continue to share them through our blog.