Most chief learning officers recognize that leaders make a difference in organization results. Leaders boost employee productivity, create organization capabilities, increase customer loyalty, build investor confidence and ensure community reputation. To continually deliver these outcomes, leaders at all levels need to demonstrate agility — the capacity to learn, develop and adapt their thinking and actions to new business requirements.
CLOs are charged to develop leaders, yet we find the following often limits leadership development outcomes:
- Nature/nurture: About 50 percent of how leaders behave is tied to their personal DNA — nature — and about 50 percent can be learned — nurture — so any leader’s development is constrained by predispositions.
- Leadership learning formula (50-30-20): About 50 percent of what leaders learn comes from job experience — including coaching; 30 percent from guest-focused training; and 20 percent from life experience — an update from the 70-20-10 formula — so investments in leadership improvements need to be multifaceted.
- Limits of leadership experiences:Many companies lack the breadth of leadership experiences that will help leaders fully develop, so leaders learn to lead primarily from those who led them which limits their ability to adapt to new situations.
- Leadership sustainability: About 20 percent of what leaders learn in training actually gets applied back on the job.
In light of the greater need for adaptive leaders and of the limits and challenges inherent in leadership development, CLOs must continually find new ways to upgrade leaders to respond to changing business conditions.
Many innovative leadership development initiatives exist: involving customers as participants and trainers the way General Electric does in its customer training, using social media to connect participants like Accenture’s global learning platform does, using philanthropy as a development opportunity as is the case with the IBM Corporate Service Corps, doing explicit development projects as does Procter & Gamble Co.’s leadership through experience, tailored individual development plans that lead to internal promotions as General Mills Inc. does, targeting future leaders through talent scouts the way ICICI Bank in India does, and coaching as is the case with Mobily in Saudi Arabia.
None of these isolated initiatives will be a magic bullet to fill the leadership requirements for the future, but these leadership development innovations should be encouraged.
Behind many of these leader development innovations is an evolving awareness of how CLOs can best build future leaders. This evolution pivots from traditional classroom presentations by faculty or trainers to facilitated groups, case studies of other companies, action learning and learning solutions (Figure 1).
The evolution from action learning engagements to learning solutions increases the likelihood that leaders will master and use new skill. Learning solutions will be a part of investing in future leaders. Consider the following examples illustrating the difference between action learning and learning solutions.
Let’s say there is a fast-growing organization. Learning leaders are trying to build a more disciplined approach to managing change. To help leaders manage change, a faculty team is created to codify lessons on change from heaps of research and practice. From this synthesis, faculty members create a typology of seven key processes that are important to enable successful change.
Participants attend a change leadership development program to learn these disciplines of change and are then asked to apply the disciplines to a problem within their business. As participants apply these lessons of change, they are engaged in action learning efforts to help translate their ideas into action. Action learning workshops can work for a number of relevant topics such as innovation, globalization, customer service, cost and quality. The starting point for these leadership investments likely should be a business process, with a distillation of the tools to make progress and application to a project.
Action learning has been appropriately lauded and offers a dramatic improvement over traditional learning approaches such as lectures, case studies, readings, demonstrations or discussion groups. But in a rapidly changing business context, leaders need to learn how to learn. They need to carve out their business challenges into discrete but connected problems, separate symptoms from problems, create insights from both their and others’ experiences as well as theory and research, and continually develop ways to approach and solve ongoing business problems.
Learning solutions start with leaders being developed, defining what it means to master a skill or task and scoping out a current business problem or challenge in need of leadership attention. This sounds easy, but it is not. In the midst of many competing and complex demands on leaders, they need to distill the challenges they face, and then recognize the underlying symptoms they can address. They need to learn how to solve that problem by examining theory and by accessing others’ experiences, and inputting all relevant pieces into a solution that is tailored to their particular business situation. As they apply their insights to the problem, they are much more likely to have ownership of the solutions they craft. Instead of learning being an event when leaders learn and act, it becomes an experience that teaches them how to think about and solve business problems.
One application of this idea is to start a learning program by asking the participants to write down the biggest challenge they currently face on the job. These challenges then become the case studies used in a learning experience. Rather than using prewritten and formatted case studies, let the faculty and participants discuss fresh, live cases that pull directly from participants’ challenges. This requires that faculty come less with prescribed answers and more with co-creation facilitation skills. Further, participants likely will leave less impressed with faculty and more impressed with their enhanced ability to respond to their work challenges.
Another example of learning solutions is to start leadership development by reporting how investors perceive a firm’s leaders by comparing a firm’s price-earnings ratio to its competitors over a decade. When a firm’s P/E lags its competitors, investors are discounting the quality of leadership in the organization. This market discount is a real and timely problem. Then, learning leaders can work with leaders to help create a learning solution to this problem that might include consistent and sustainable earnings, investment in leadership development and reporting on a leadership capital index that gives investors’ confidence in leaders.
When chief learning officers master a learning solutions approach, they are less interested in leadership competencies, skills or even authenticity and more aware of, and committed to, how investors, customers and employees perceive and access those skills. Learning solutions require that participants do the hard work of problem identification, make real commitments to actively solve problems during development rather than be passive listeners, and become engaged in creation of applicable insights that will help them improve as leaders.
Faculty play a dramatically different role. Rather than rely on teaching notes for lectures, tools or cases, they have to facilitate learning among participants. They are required to bring theory, research and experiences from other companies working on the problem that participants identify. They ask more questions than they give answers. They co-learn, and they do live consulting to help participants make progress. Then, they draw conclusions about how the learning solution’s progress can be applied after a workshop.
Learning solutions supplements other leadership investment techniques. They will not be a panacea to help leaders lead, and they require a dramatically different commitment from leaders and skills fromfaculty. Coupled with other innovative leadership investments, they might help leaders adapt to the changing business requirements.