On-the-Job Learning: Improving Leadership Programs with Digital Coaching

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, knowledge transfer—what your managers are being taught in these traditional leadership development courses just isn't sticking.

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?

Reinforcement through on-the-job learning. 

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 program.

On the job learning

What is on-the-job learning?

On-the-job learning (also known as contextual learning) is, by definition, 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—applying new knowledge and skills to real world situations. 

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 put the skills, competencies and knowledge they learn into practice, and continue learning 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—alone and without reinforcement, that is—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 learning (or digital 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, such as the fact that:

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 might not be 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 learning enables employees to be continually developing, 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.

Need help managing your managers? Have a read of this

Benefits of on-the-job learning

So, what are the benefits of designing a leadership development program that enables on-the-job learning?

Learning is contextually relevant 

On-the-job learning, often 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.

With the right tool, you can even make use of nudges to ensure that your managers are actively developing the habits and routines needed to lead successful teams. Things like providing constructive feedback, or following up on a team meeting—simple things that are crucial for team development.

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 coaching entirely bespoke to the employee—delivering the exact resources and information they need, exactly when they need it—but it also improves retention of the information they absorb in more formal coaching sessions.

In other words, learning is far more likely to stick when it's reinforced.

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 also adopt a growth mindset, which means that as an organization you must instil a culture of coaching and continuous performance enablement.

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—factoring in both team composition and team dynamics—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 that CEO's typically have 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. And then evaluating their performance.

More accessible and therefore scalable

Being able to deliver this level of support with classroom-based training alone 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 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's digital platform works by delivering users with contextually relevant learning content, smart tips, routines and exercises, exactly when they need it, and in the flow of their day-to-day work. 

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


Through a combination of behavioural science and machine learning.

But that's not all we do.

At Saberr, we develop bespoke leadership programs underpinned by effective leadership development frameworks, using not only digital coaching, but also experiential coaching. Our world-class coaches help both managers and the teams they lead to adopt the right mindsets and acquire the right skillsets, while our technology uses nudges to reinforce this learning and prompt your managers into developing the habits and routines needed to lead high performing teams.

Then, we help HR track just how successful they are at adopting these habits.

Interested in learning more? Learn more about our leadership programs here, or schedule a chat with us at a time that suits you best.

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