September 24, 2023


education gives you strength

Can leadership development be taught virtually? Initial doubts give way to upsides

As the pandemic drags on, the role of remote work, remote learning and even remote socializing grows more important. But can the same benefits of an in-person experience be had online? That’s what an Omaha-based leadership development academy for tech professionals is finding out.

Since the pandemic broke out in March, industries have quickly acclimated to online operations. Employers have sought new methods of developing professional training for future company leaders despite being relegated to working from home. 

The AIM Institute’s Tech Leadership Academies are well-established leadership development programs in the Greater Omaha area, offering specialized training for tech professionals and the opportunity to grow one’s network in the IT and business communities. But when the pandemic came along, these programs had to quickly pivot to a virtual format. 

The program offers two academies of leadership development to IT professionals: the Emerging Tech Leaders Academy, for IT professionals who are considering taking on leadership positions, and the Advanced Tech Leaders Academy, which offers career coaching and development for IT professionals currently in leadership positions.

When AIM was deciding whether or not to transfer the academies to online learning this spring, students and instructors worried about the challenges that often come with digital programming, such as internet accessibility and staying engaged with the program.  

Monika Philp, director of AIM Institute’s Tech Leadership Academies, decided to address this challenge as an opportunity. 

“We had a couple of options,” Philp said, ”Do we just cancel? Do we wait for things to get back to normal? Or do we just move forward and use the technology that we have to hold the seminars virtually?”

Indeed, the transition proved to have its challenges as the online format hadn’t been used by these programs before the pandemic began, but participants and instructors alike found the online seminars to be substantive. 

Melissa Hinrichs, a leadership coach at Lightbox Coaching and Consulting  who led the Advanced Leadership Academy, said she had trouble “identifying new ways to engage an audience and finding ways to connect personally,” but that “opening up to teaching anywhere in the world at any time” proved to be fruitful for the program.

The new cohorts, which start this month, will be fully online for the foreseeable future. This has allowed for expansion of remote learning for professionals from all over the country and beyond, with three emerging leaders from the U.K. participating in this year’s cohort. 

“Because we’re casting a wider net, we’re able to get people from all over the world,” said Philp.

One of the perks of the academy is the opportunity for networking with tech leaders and other cohort members during monthly seminars. With online learning, those opportunities can often feel less organic, owing to the absence of casual one-on-one conversations that can occur at in-person seminars and events. During the pandemic, individuals are forced to find and reach out directly to other professionals in order to make a connection that could otherwise be made in person. 

Nevertheless, Laurie Lee, an EAI Team Supervisor at DTN, who participated in the Spring 2020 Advanced Tech Leaders Academy, was impressed with the professional connections she was able to make throughout the program. 

Getting to hear from—and get feedback from—top local executives is something that is so valuable,” Lee said. “ Working with so many other people is a great way to get out there and network.”

As the program neared completion, Philp and her team saw that leadership skills for remote and online work would help participants  bring new techniques into the workplace.

“Now that this is a new norm, with virtual meetings and presentations,” said Philp, “the participants really got a chance to learn about the new skills needed right now. Initially there were skeptics, but we always say that leaders go first. When these participants bring the skills they learn with us to their work, they’re leading the way for their team.”

Shelly Welch, a Business Analyst at Farm Credit Services of America, said that the program helped her understand the skills needed to manage work in this new normal and beyond. 

“Going in, you think you know how to be a leader, but I learned something with each session. I feel like it gave me tools I will actually use,” Welch said. 

As the Tech Leadership Academies adjust to the new format, they have found further opportunities for learning. Hinrichs said leadership is all about adapting to new challenges, and that the sudden move to virtual seminars taught cohort members this important lesson.

“Just as we are challenged with teaching and engaging online, so are our leaders in how they connect and engage their staff,” she said. “We are in essence mirroring the same challenges they have and are afforded the opportunity to teach through example.  I have become more open in my approach and why I teach certain ways so leaders can assess and replicate.”

Readers interested in attending the next Advanced Tech Leaders Academy cohort can apply through Friday, Sept. 25th. Please contact Monika Philp for questions, or to express interest in participating in the program in the future as a student or instructor.

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