You often hear people talk about how there is no substitution for face-to-face interactions to foster human connections and foment emotionally intelligent leadership skills. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, you might have even heard this person wax poetic about the powers of in-person training sessions. But when the pandemic forced my team to reevaluate Bridgestone Americas’ in-person leadership development program, called EDGE, we had to determine how to emulate the most essential in-person aspects by leveraging virtual technology to teach real people skills. The results were so effective that our pivot model became our most powerful model.

Giving our Leaders an EDGE

We developed the EDGE program two years ago as one element of Nashville-based Bridgestone Americas’ Inside Track enterprise core curriculum. Since 2018, we have trained over 700 teammates through the EDGE program, a three-day in-person leadership development program supplemented by self-directed distance learning components and punctuated by team calls at defined intervals. The program aims to help leaders understand their unique personality, leadership style, and priorities; learn to connect, communicate with, and engage diverse teammates; delegate by setting clear expectations with support and accountability, and develop performance and talent through specific impactful feedback. EDGE teaches frontline managers within our manufacturing facilities, who came in contact with a minimum of 60 direct reports daily, how to nurture their relationships with more thoughtful interactions.

Virtual learning has encouraged everyone to bring their full selves to work, and has helped people become more empathetic, honest, human, and connected

After the first year, the EDGE program was so successful that the program was rolled out—and up— to manufacturing leadership, and eventually corporate managers and executives. Being in-person was pivotal. The hands-on community-building activities that took place in small groups were often highly revelatory because the intimate setting made it easy to self-reflect, self-reveal, and—ultimately— self-correct. In terms of technology, the training didn’t call for many bells and whistles. We used Webex and email. It was back to basics both in terms of message and technology, but the pandemic necessitated a shift to an online learning model that meant we’d have to get creative.

A New EDGE, Breaking the Ice and Escaping the Room Online

There were two parts of our program we knew we couldn’t lose—breaking the ice and breaking out of the room. To break the ice, on Day 1 of our in-person class, participants took the opportunity to pin their name to the place on a giant map where they most wanted to visit. This simple moment consistently catalyzed connection (once you know someone’s dream destination, it’s hard to regard them as a stranger). With the help of our partner, Evergreen Leadership, we tailored an entirely original, virtual, interactive map using Adobe Connect with a zoom feature. Through Adobe Connect, Evergreen was also able to help us create different types of classrooms that facilitated breakout sessions and small group huddles. With whiteboards, interactive polls, and other technological elements, we were able to salvage the simplest and most powerful parts of our in-person sessions and supplement the virtual experience with interactivity that brought our virtual learners closer together even as they were farther apart.

Another key experience we replicated with a tailored technological solution was our escape room. To practice providing constructive feedback in a real-time, high stakes scenario, on day two we usually have people get into groups of three to five people and try to escape a room. Although Nashville-based The Escape Game had not yet piloted a virtual model of their game, they worked to personalize an interactive version for us quickly. Not only did it help us retain an essential part of our training, but it provided them with the basis for a new business model that helped them pivot in the pandemic age. In addition to these customized solutions, we have leveraged commonly utilized technologies in new ways to enhance our distance learning experience. With Microsoft Teams, for instance, we are able to offer more collaboration, consolidate our resources, and engage in video chats seamlessly.

The pandemic forced us to look at our EDGE leadership development program differently, to practice what we preach—communicating with people in a manner that is most suited to their learning style. Our leaders needed to learn at home. When it is safe to do so, we will likely begin incorporating in-person classes again to accommodate our learners who appreciate that modality, but our curriculum is now more nimble, more accessible, and more impactful than ever. We have the capacity to reach thousands of more leaders than before, without geographic constraints.

Going virtual taught us that once we opened the conversation up screen-to-screen rather than face-to-face, we could affect positive change person-to-person. Perhaps most importantly, going virtual forced us to fully embrace ourselves and our colleagues. Our home lives bleed into the frame of our work lives when our dog barks, our child stumbles in to ask a homework question, or the alarm goes off in the kitchen while a partner cooks dinner. Virtual learning has encouraged everyone to bring their full selves to work, and that has helped people become more empathetic, more honest, more human, and (dare I say) more connected.