The important question is: What are the success factors for effectively executing corporate leadership education and development programs (including action learning)?
Action learning, or simply “learning by doing,” is a given today. Action learning revolves around teams working on real, and sometimes the most vexing, problems facing the business. Most companies and practitioners of leadership development recognize the significance and impact of action learning when executed well.
This article outlines the success factors for executing high-impact leadership development, including action learning. This list of success factors is not a list to be prioritized, but a best practice list of key levers in which all of the elements are interrelated, utilized and managed.
Commitment From Senior Executives
Senior executives own the process. They understand the use of executive education as a strategic vehicle. They play the roles of mentor, faculty, supporter and beneficiary of the executive education process. They also play a vital and essential role in making action learning work. Roger Enrico, former chairman of PepsiCo, once observed the value of leadership development: “I have two jobs. The first is to grow the business; the second is to identify and develop the people who will accomplish objective No. 1.”
Can you imagine GE’s venerable Executive Development Course (EDC) or its Business Management Course (BMC) without the commitment of its senior executives? GE and PepsiCo are just two of a number of leading companies that had sincere and active commitment from the very top of their organizations. One other note: People have an uncanny ability to sense whether their managers truly value the course learning and its application.
In high-impact leadership development, senior executives often play a role as faculty to complement the external consultants. They realize that good companies don’t just teach their managers and leaders – they learn from them. Leadership lessons are best learned from those who are trusted and well respected inside their own organizations. They have an opportunity to model leadership. Research shows that leaders learn best from other leaders. Leadership-led learning brings credibility to the development process because the audience listens firsthand to the ideas, points of view and issues facing its executive leaders.
One of my clients, a very profitable global leader in the computer services field, not only has each member of the senior leadership team involved as faculty, they are also goaled to play an active role (therefore, they are committed). In this case, about 800 worldwide senior service managers per year get to know and hear, firsthand, unfiltered, the key messages about the business (the goals, the strategies and the impact to the field). Great discussions and debate ensue about how to execute and what to consider, and how the field executives and home-office executives should and will partner with each other to ensure success of the goals and strategies. It is not uncommon for the strategies to be revised based on the realities and considerations from the people in the field. As a faculty member and a coach with a core leadership program for a professional services firm, two internal partners augment the external faculty. This leadership program is the highest-rated in the firm and is believed to have true impact on the participants’ problem-solving leadership skills and their preparation for further responsibility on client engagements. The partners bring the frame of reference and keen insights that these young associates appreciate and value.
Linked to Strategic Agenda, Key Issues and Workplace Realities
Leadership is best learned within the context in which it will be practiced. This provides the relevance – where the rubber meets the road. Almost every leadership program deemed best practice is linked to the specific business in which it operates and competes. This is a must. The content, the action-learning initiatives, the overall purpose and objectives of a leadership program must be linked to the business context. This ostensibly increases the chances of creating impact – whether the key issue is growth, executing strategies, increasing innovation and renewal, culture change or increasing productivity and performance. When a leadership-development program has the commitment from the top, is leadership-led and is relevant to the business, it can act as a powerful lever for communicating strategy, focusing behaviors and driving change.
Two examples of such relevant and strategic programs, which also focused on the future view of the business, not just the present view, are:
- A major insurance and financial services company: This program helped ensure the alignment and preparation of the leadership implications of the top 600 as the company prepared for demutualization after a long history of success as a private mutual company.
- A major petroleum and energy company: This program focused on the chairman’s key strategic initiative of renewal for the top 3,500 executives worldwide.
Executive Development Professionals Are Active Business Partners
This factor seems so obvious, yet it is not nearly as common as it should be. For example, the best human resources people I have observed are those who were good businesspeople first, and HR professionals second. The best executive development professionals are as comfortable in the boardroom as they are in the classroom. If human resource development professionals or the executive development professionals are not good businesspeople first, how can they expect to be viewed as partners to the executive team? How can they design and develop a high-impact, strategy-focused leadership-development program that is relevant to the key issues and initiatives facing the company?
Executive development professionals must speak the language of the business first, before they speak the language of HR, in order to be credible and trustworthy partners in the eyes of the executive team. Otherwise, they become staff people who merely follow instructions from above.
Speaking the language of the business is all about understanding the goals and objectives, the strategies and key strategic initiatives, the external forces shaping the industry and competitive space, the nature of the products and services their company makes and/or markets, the value their company provides the marketplace, the SWOT (strengths and weakness of their capabilities, and the competitive opportunities and threats) and so on. This is no different from financial professionals. The best corporate financial people speak the language of their company’s business, as well as their functional (financial) language. They contribute their value by utilizing their financial acumen and providing fiduciary leadership in the context of their company’s business. The best CFOs I’ve seen have been that way. CLOs or leadership-development professionals should be no different.
The best executive-development professionals that I have observed have gone about their roles as businesspeople and business partners and as a result have naturally elevated themselves as chief development officers. A chief development officer is responsible not only for the development of key individuals, but also for developing the organization (and its capabilities) to help the company achieve its goals and execute its strategies.
Know Who to Focus On
Leadership development may not be for everyone in the company. To optimize and leverage leadership-development initiatives, I prefer three approaches:
- A strategic focus on executive or leadership development for those considered on a growth track (including the “high-potentials”): Leadership development is tied into HRD processes, such as succession planning. When I was the head of the leadership institute for Rockwell Automation, we worked diligently with the HRD organization to link the institute’s leadership program (which, by the way, was linked into the corporation’s vision and set of seven strategic initiatives at the time) with the succession planning and HR review processes. When high-potentials were tapped to attend the leadership program for their level, it was a recognition of their performance and achievement, as well as their potential. It was clear that the executive leadership expected them to attend and complete this development process.
- Targeting the level of executives and leaders who can impact or influence the key issues or initiatives the company is focusing on – similar to the two examples of the insurance and financial services company preparing for demutualization and the petroleum and energy company focusing on renewal.
- Targeting development activities to the loyal “solid citizens” of the organization. These solid citizens may not be the future VPs (as many of them place a high premium on work-life balance), but they may likely continue to be valuable contributors and knowledge professionals. It is good business to recognize these solid citizens. This is such an important segment that is beginning to receive due recognition. The June 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review included an article titled “Let’s Hear It for B Players.” This was followed by a front-page article in the Sept. 9, 2003 issue of USA Today that said “employers are learning that ‘B’ players hold the cards.” In the HBR article, authors Thomas DeLong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan suggest that “companies” long-term performance, even survival, depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players.” Build the proper development program to reinforce loyalty, performance, commitment and retention.
Action Learning With Follow-Through and Measurement
Action learning is simply learning by doing. Learning by doing involves teams working on key or pressing business issues. Pilots are not skilled by listening to lectures. Surgeons are not trained by analyzing case studies. Real work challenges are the centerpiece of an action-learning experience. Some basic necessities must be in place for action learning to have impact and success:
- Executive commitment.
- Teams have resources and support.
- Action-learning process is clearly defined and scoped out.
- Action-learning teams are motivated, committed and held accountable.
- Action learning makes an effort to use reflection to leverage knowledge and learning (similar to “After Action Reviews” used by the military).
- Commitment to follow-through.
Typically involved with the team are: the CEO or the executive(s) dealing with the issue who will act as a mentor or sponsor; outside faculty to provide relevant content, frameworks and coaching; coaches (internal or external) to help with the team process and dynamics; and sometimes researchers. One noted action-learning process used the teams as a “think tank.” For example, get the teams to work on and think through an issue the company would pay a consulting firm $1 million to resolve. Key success factors are: the team is dedicated to the issue; they have the resources; teams are held accountable; and sponsors (typically executives who own the problem/issue or opportunity) play a crucial role. Jack Welch, in his book “Jack: Straight From the Gut,” talked about how GE’s classes became so action-oriented that “they turned students into in-house consultants to top management.” One interesting action-learning process not only had these key levers in place, but also included access to researchers. (This is how consulting firms often leverage their research departments, analysts and associates on client engagements.)
Action learning certainly does not have to be on such a grand scale. There are also smaller-scale versions of action learning. These are less time-consuming. Examples are computer simulations, behavioral simulations, case studies, role-playing, action planning, etc. The key is to ensure the right business rationale is in place, i.e., the appropriate action-learning methodology achieving a realistic objective or purpose.
Finally, the missing link has always been the effective use of accountability-based follow-through processes on commitments. As they say, “people respect what you inspect.” Follow-through is a process of monitoring and controlling the execution of one’s plans. The end of the program is the starting line with follow-through. Again, achieving impact in large part comes from effective follow-through on each person’s or each team’s commitments. The efficacy of follow-through processes, which more and more companies are realizing, is a must if you want to achieve, evince and measure the impact of your development initiative.
Enhances the ‘Know-Who’
The best executive-leadership programs not only act as strategic vehicles, or as vehicles for communicating strategy, focusing behaviors and driving change, but they also enhance each executive’s “know-who” in the company. With many clients, this is often the No. 1 take-away. Think about the impact. Participants have gotten to know some of the senior executives a lot better, and they have gotten to know more of their colleagues around the world. They now know who to call or where to go for answers or help in executing their plans.
I tend to believe that the “know-who” is probably more important than the “know-what” and the “know-how.” Why? Because success in business is so much about building and sustaining relationships, whether you’re inside a large or small corporation or you work for yourself, the government, a consulting firm or a law practice. Success is all about relationships. In fact, I believe that relationships equal success. The “know-who” is an invaluable part of a successful leadership-development initiative, as well as one’s career.
In my experience, if you follow the best practices suggested, you’ll increase your chances of making an impact on the company. Be a businessperson first – a business partner who can think strategically. Ensure the proper linkages are made to the business, involve the senior leadership in the company, and set up appropriate follow-through on commitments. Developing a leadership-development program should be a strategic vehicle for the company; it should not be viewed as a nice thing to do. It is all about achieving results and having impact. The ability to gain senior-level commitment, for leaders to be actively involved in the delivery of content and action learning, is all based on you being a good businessperson, a trusted business partner, and bringing credibility to the leadership-development process. This is all common sense, and it is all about execution. The challenge is in executing that common sense. When it comes right down to it, business is simply and not simply “applied common sense.”
Michael Andrew is the head of Management Education Services (www.exec-education.com), which partners with businesses to develop and facilitate high-impact and strategic-focused leadership-development programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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