How to Develop Leaders with On-the-Job Learning

November 8, 2021


Leadership development is big business. In fact, organizations are reported to spend upwards of $50 billion on it every year.

The problem, however, is that despite this, leadership remains one of the biggest issues for CEOs.

Which means that it remains one of the biggest issues for HR professionals, particularly those in the L&D space.

The question is why?

Why are leadership development programs failing to be effective? And why, given the sheer investment in it, are companies still struggling to develop excellent leaders?

While there may be a whole host of reasons, it often comes down to the lack of reinforcement that is necessary for individuals to retain information.

In other words, the learnings from traditional leadership development courses just don’t stick.

Don’t just take our word for it though; according to Learning Solutions Magazine, employees that attend these training courses forget 70% of what they get taught within 24 hours.  

That’s a huge amount of wasted time and expense.

So, what’s the solution?

On-the-job learning.

Unlike traditional classroom-based learning, on-the-job learning not only sticks, but it’s also more cost-effective and scalable.  

Throughout this article, we’ll cover exactly what on-the-job learning is, the benefits of using it, and how you can implement it as part of your leadership development initiatives.

What is on-the-job learning?

On-the-job learning, by definition, is the learning of a new skill or process within an employee’s normal work environment.

It is a method of learning that enables employees to gain knowledge, practice and apply their learnings all in the flow of work. 

It is quite simply learning by doing.

It’s also worth noting that on-the-job learning is also known as contextual learning. This means applying new knowledge and skills to real life situations. The real life situation for a leader is getting the best from their team.  

So, why is it important for leadership development?

In short, because of the 70-20-10 model of learning, where 70% of learning comes from on-the-job experiences and challenges, 20% comes from other people, and only 10% comes from courses and formal training.

Organization’s that aren’t enabling their leaders to learn on-the-job won’t be able to effectively develop both their existing leaders and their leaders of the future.

Leadership development: On-the-job vs formal classroom-based training

When we think about traditional leadership development approaches, we often think of classroom-based courses.

Now before we talk about why they don’t always work, it is important to point out why they do work.

There is still huge value in investing in face-to-face human contact and creating powerful learning experiences. 

When developed well, these face to face contacts can help frame expected change, develop the motivation to learn, build empathy and improve alignment. 

On-the-job coaching reinforces this and ensures that learning is embedded into practice. 

So instead of looking at on-the-job training as an all-out replacement, it’s worth keeping in mind that the best approach to leadership development is to use a combination of both.

That said, it can’t be ignored that when used alone, classroom-based training has severe limitations:

Traditional leadership development approaches aren’t scalable

With a significant increase in the number of remote and hybrid workforces post-Covid, not to mention geographically dispersed teams, trying to offer face to face leadership training to everyone in your organization just isn’t feasible. 

In fact, not only is it not scalable, but it’s also not cost-effective. 

Employees struggle to dedicate the time to it

Busy managers often struggle to find the time to spend on developing their leadership skills. The problem is that without adequate training, they may not be equipped to effectively coach their teams.

On-the-job training enables employees to be continually learning, without distracting from busy schedules.

Learning doesn’t stick (without reinforcement)

The fact that as much as 70% of information is lost within a day is a major disadvantage to using classroom-based coaching alone. 

Plus, when you consider that companies spend an average of $1,286 on training for each employee every year, that’s a huge amount of wasted money. 

It often focuses on individuals, not teams

High-performing teams drive high-performing businesses, so if your leadership development program isn’t training managers to coach teams, the team’s overall performance will suffer. 

The best on-the-job learning solutions will be designed for leaders and their teams. More specifically, they’ll be designed to help managers develop the skills and habits to lead effective teams.

Benefits of on-the-job learning

Learning is contextually relevant 

On-the-job learning, sometimes referred to as contextual learning, is successful because it enables employees to access the resources  – whether that be content, guidance, tools or techniques - at the precise moments they need them.

This means that managers can be upskilled in the flow of work, developing both their knowledge and coaching skills as part of their day-to-day interactions with their team.

More effective than traditional leadership training

Not only is this method of leadership training tailored to the employee and therefore more relevant, but research suggests that it also improves information retention.

In other words, learning is far more likely to stick than with traditional classroom-based coaching.


Because when skills aren’t reinforced, they are very quickly forgotten.

Supports a culture of continuous learning

Leadership development doesn’t happen in a day, nor does it happen on a single course.

For managers to develop the right habits and the right leadership qualities, they must be continually learning and continually putting their newly acquired knowledge into practice.

To do this, they must adopt a growth mindset, which means that as an organization you must instil a culture of coaching and continuous learning.

Improves team performance

While enabling on-the-job learning is a great way to develop leaders, it’s also fundamental for improving team performance.

In fact, by training managers as coaches, you give them the tools and knowledge to improve the performance of their teams.

More specifically, you ensure they’re developing the right skills to leverage the strengths of each team member, while also ensuring that they’re developing the right habits and routines for effective teamwork.

Employees who learn at work are more engaged and motivated

Research conducted by Josh Bersin found that employees who have the ability (and support) to develop their skills through self-directed learning at work are 47% less likely to be stressed, and 39% more likely to feel productive than those who don’t. 

This tells us that by enabling self-directed learning through on-the-job coaching, you actually stand to create a more engaged, motivated and productive workforce.

Helps develop your leadership pipeline

The third-biggest concern of CEO’s is developing the leadership pipeline.

This means that you need to be investing in the next generation of leaders. Millenials, born between 1981 and 1996, make up a significant part of your workforce and are this next generation of leaders. 

The big problem is that many organizations aren’t equipped to develop them properly. At least not in the way they want. 


Because when it comes to professional development, this generation want regular feedback, yet only 19% actually receive it on a regular basis

The best way to ensure that the managers of today (and tomorrow) are equipped with the skills and knowledge to effectively lead their teams is by developing a strong capability to manage teams. Leaders that can coach a team to success. Team members that have strong role models as team leaders and learn the disciplines of teamwork. 

More accessible and therefore scalable

Being able to deliver this level of support with classroom-based training just isn’t scalable.

And that’s before you consider the shift to remote and hybrid ways of working, with more and more teams geographically dispersed. 

On-the-job learning, or contextual learning, is not only more cost-effective, but it can also be used by employees, regardless of where they are in the world.

How to develop leaders on the job

We’ve covered what on-the-job learning is and the benefits to using it, but how does it work? And how do you actually implement it? 

Create a coaching culture

You need to create a culture in your organization where everyone’s mindsets and behaviors are quite simply coach-like. 

A few ways you can start to create a coaching culture include:

  • Encouraging a growth mindset where leaders and team members believe in the possibility of development and change.
  • Encourage a safe environment where people speak up and openly discuss how they feel. 
  • Making coaching and feedback an everyday part of continuous performance discussions
  • Supporting  managers in having coaching conversations with individuals and teams

We’ve covered each of these and more here.

Use technology as an enabler for continuous learning

Technology is uniquely placed to support on the job learning in a number of important ways: 

  • It can provide useful resources that people can access when they need
  • It is available 24-7 
  • It is scalable 

But to be really useful, it’s critical that technology is integrated effectively into the way leaders really work. 

Saberr works by delivering users with contextually relevant learning content, smart tips, routines and exercises, exactly when they need it, and in the flow of work. 

It ensures that managers have immediate access to relevant interactive team exercises, meeting templates and courses that will help them improve the conversations they’re having with their teams. 

Saberr’s digital coaching tool, integrates behavioural science and machine learning to develop the habits and routines that are proven to improve teamwork. 

Interested in learning more? Schedule a chat with us at a time that suits you best.

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