Organizations increasingly view leadership development as a strategic lever. The rapid pace and global nature of today’s business environment is putting more responsibility on leaders down the organizational ladder, leading to higher expectations even earlier in their careers.

Yet, senior executives don’t have confidence that their leadership bench is ready to step up to more demanding roles. According to a 2013 survey by Harvard Business Publishing, only 32 percent of the more than 800 respondents believed that their organizations have the right leadership talent and skills to achieve their organizations’ strategic goals.

Overcoming this leadership gap is of primary importance to organizations.

Organizations need stronger leaders at all levels

The most significant goals for leadership development, according to the Harvard Business Publishing survey, are to drive business transformation (43 percent) and to build more general management capability at all levels (24 percent). Organizations need a stronger cadre of leaders throughout the organization to drive business performance.

Midlevel managers are the driving force

In the same survey, the results reinforced that managers need to develop more strategic capabilities earlier in their careers. For example, 80 percent of respondents named change management as a priority for middle managers, 76 percent chose talent management, and 65 percent selected innovation as the top priority.

Organizational flattening, outsourcing, and new business models have made mid-level managers the driving force behind most corporate initiatives. They serve as both the operational engine and the glue that holds far-flung teams together. They need to know more than how to manage operations; they need to develop true leadership skills.

Developing a leadership mindset

To evolve as leaders, managers have to internalize the idea that leadership is fundamentally different than managing tasks. Research from numerous experts, including Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback, authors of Being the Boss, shows that knowledge and skills training is simply not enough. Helping managers make that mindset shift is equally important. While the process of shifting a person’s mindset can take years, many organizations are implementing sophisticated blended-learning solutions to accelerate the process.

New design extends eLearning

With the right approach, eLearning offers a means to reach this large and important group—in a meaningful and lasting way. The most successful development for midlevel leaders extends traditional eLearning, blending experiential on-the-job learning, coaching, and feedback with formal training. And the best approach keeps the learning as close as possible to a manager’s day-to-day work. eLearning can provide the formal training along with a connection point for the other elements. It can act as the guide to help busy managers apply what they’ve learned over time, and really grow into their new leadership mindsets.

An initiative in Farmers Insurance service operations unit sought to increase engagement and prepare middle managers to quickly adapt to higher roles. Steve Mulder, director of University of Farmers at Farmers Insurance, describes the program’s goals and design: “We needed to equip our leaders to transition to fully integrated people leaders who can manage themselves, their broad network, and their teams. We needed to do it in a way that is effective, engaging, and efficient, utilizing technology to connect. And we needed an approach that treats leadership development as a journey, not an event.”

When done right, technology-enabled development can have a huge upside for busy middle managers who don’t have time for a lengthy in-person classroom program.

A large electronics company has transformed their program to take advantage of virtual learning. In the past, their training program consisted of a two-week residence program with action-learning business projects. While the action-learning element continues, the organization’s redesigned program keeps the action-learning projects, but begins with three months of virtual education, followed by a one-week residency, and then another three months of virtual reinforcement. This organization is extending the global reach of its young-leader development program and enabling its employees to experience learn­ing in a self-paced, technology-enabled, and collaborative environment.

Carefully combining eLearning elements with other learning approaches can be an ideal approach to engaging and developing mid-level leaders, accelerating the growth of this large portion of an organization’s leadership pipeline, and engaging these challenged managers throughout the process of becoming great leaders.