Accomplish Two for One With Action Learning

Article | ASTD Publications (Febraury 8, 2013)

by Michelle Peters

By incorporating a stretch problem into a leadership development program, you're able to solve an important business issue while building the skills of emerging leaders.

We all know that developing future leaders is essential to the long-term sustainability and advancement of an organization. However, the methods that an organization can use to execute this daunting task may not be quite so obvious.

Imagine that you are the director of learning and development and you have just been given the green light from your executive management team to develop and implement a leadership development program for emerging leaders. In addition, the executive management team has requested that this program have real business impact. Now what?
For a small to mid-sized company with limited resources, this is a real challenge. But with a bit of creativity and a lot of tenacity, such companies can in fact deliver on these objectives.

Action learning
One way to deliver on the bottom line is to build a stretch problem or project into your leadership development program. The problem or project that participants will work on should be important to the business, urgent, and not have a known solution. This will accomplish two important things: it will stretch and challenge your emerging leaders to broaden their business acumen and exposure, and it will address an important problem or project within the organization.

This is the essence of an action learning-based leadership development program. Action learning focuses on identifying a current need; asking questions to obtain feedback and determine what the appropriate next steps or actions may be; taking action on that feedback; and then reflecting back on the actions that were taken to see what worked and what needs to be refined.

Action learning focuses on two key behaviors: reflective inquiry and continuous learning. There are numerous books that can assist in facilitating action learning in your organization such as Optimizing the Power of Action Learning by Michael J. Marquardt.

Questions are a vital component of the action learning initiative. The ability to ask powerful and insightful questions and practice reflective listening are imperative for the success of the process. Not only is it important that the problem is resolved, but it is just as important that there is an equal commitment to learning. Through use of a coach, the group will reflect on its process and learning along the way to further develop effective problem solving.

Program development
To design a development program focused on action learning, start by cutting yourself some slack by building in flexibility and calling it a pilot program. During the initial rollout of a new program, you have the ability to modify as you go along.

When designing a new program you will not be able to anticipate all the things that may come up. If you go into it with a basic outline of what you want to include in your program and what the desired outcome is, you can modify the program along the way to ensure it will meet the needs of both the participants and the organization.

While rolling out the program, you also will go through an action learning process by asking questions throughout the duration of the program, taking action on the feedback that is given, and then reflecting on the outcome to determine what can be improved. How you approach the development of your program is also how the program itself works.

To begin, the participant selection process for this action-oriented learning style is critical to the success and development of the individual participants and the group. Candidates should be valued performers who have a track record of delivering results.

Select individuals with diverse experiences and job functions. The group should comprise four to eight members who have some familiarity with the issue but also provide fresh perspectives on the problem. Participants also should have the time to commit to the program and a desire for personal and professional development.

As a way of assisting the individual participants in their personal development, assessments are good tools to include in the program design. Personality assessments, situational leadership style assessments, and emotional and social intelligence assessments, as well as 360-degree feedback all are great options to consider.

They will help provide benchmarks for participants and are valuable tools for developing an individual development plan (IDP) for participants to work on throughout the duration of the program. To select the appropriate tools for your organization, try to identify those that use language and terminology similar to what is already used internally. That will ensure that the tools are relevant and meaningful.

To help participants further understand the assessments and improve handling of day-to-day leadership challenges, work through key elements within their IDPs. Individual coaching is a valuable element to enhance your program.

Ideally, an external coach should be used—someone who has no internal political influence or power. That allows participants to speak openly and honestly about the challenges they are facing with no fear of internal "exposure."

The external coach can provide an unbiased perspective and advice on navigating the internal organizational landscape, and most significantly, provides a further layer of accountability. If participants are accountable for taking measured progressive steps on their IDPs and are regularly asked what actions have been taken, what results were experienced, what lessons were learned, and what might be done next time to further improve a given outcome, this is where the proverbial "rubber meets the road" in terms of personal development.

Executive involvement
To enhance your program, these emerging leaders should have access to and interact with your C-suite leaders. These interactions should be both formal and informal. For example, perhaps you arrange some networking opportunities for participants to join your executives for dinner or an outing, which allows the emerging leaders to interact with company leaders in a more casual environment.

You also may ask participants to provide updates on the progress they are making on their stretch project in a more formal setting such as in a meeting with the C-Suite. That allows the executives to see how the participants present and conduct themselves in a higher pressure, professional setting.

You can encourage participants and executive management to reach out to one another individually throughout the program and talk about any topic of their choice whether it is a business, personal, or leadership matter. This access and exposure plays a significant role in developing trust and rapport among these groups. When promotion opportunities arise, participants are more familiar to upper management, which opens doors and allows for smoother transitions.

Leadership components
Some leadership content also will be included in your program. These modules should be based on the emerging needs of the group, as well as the three arenas of leadership: crucial conversations, team leadership, and organizational change.

The content should reinforce your corporate culture and values, but be generic enough to provide a solid leadership foundation. Consider including elements that help participants grow in effective one-on-one communication and pivotal conversations; content that assists with developing high-performing teams, where the individual has direct influence; and elements that stretch the individuals outside of their spheres of direct influence to help them become strategic leaders and extend that influence across the organization.

If your budget allows, have some level of outside curriculum facilitation. That is a benefit since it adds a level of credibility and substance to the program and also provides an unbiased perspective.

Program completion
The program described here is not a quick-hitting three-day program where participants then go back to their day job and leave skills behind. The power of the program lies in the duration, which ideally is 12 months. That gives substantial time to practice and experiment with the principles that are provided to participants, and also gives enough time for the individuals to address items in their IDPs and make substantive progress.

A good final project for the program is the group giving a presentation to executive management and the problem owner on what was either implemented or determined to be the optimal solution to the initial problem or project with which the group was tasked.

The final presentation will reinforce the key elements of the program; cover what people learned individually about their leadership and communication styles from the assessments and what they have taken away from the experiences from coaching; and give the group access to executive management and the curriculum.

Most important, the final presentation will address what participants learned from the action learning process and how they might implement it throughout their immediate sphere of influence as another method of problem solving. The added bonus is that all of this occurs while the participants are in a professional and pressured presentation setting with exposure to the executive management team.

The pay-off
Why should an organization implement such a robust program and what might it hope to get in return? Return-on-investment can be difficult to measure when it comes to leadership and personal development, but some areas that will have measurable impact include

  • getting a key project or corporate initiative completed
  • increasing effective internal communication across the organization because people have gotten to know one another and have developed trust and respect for each other at multiple levels throughout your organization
  • increasing employee engagement of these emerging leaders because they are overtly aware that by being selected for such a program they are viewed in high regard
  • emphasizing development and reinforcing the leadership attributes that are critical for your company to further develop and strengthen the company's internal leadership bench.

The duration of the program reinforces these leadership skills and behaviors over a long period of time, which helps create habits and innate practices. A program with these basic elements will help create a culture of agile leaders who have skills and an established network to leverage in difficult situations. It will help foster an environment of leaders who are not merely technically savvy, but also emotionally intelligent.

Program Development at Southland Industries
From the onset of my initial interview with Southland Industries, I was made aware of the company's urgent need for a leadership development program. Developing an effective leadership development program with limited resources is truly a daunting task, but I went straight to work after I was hired.

Our HR team mapped out a basic framework for a program. We knew we wanted it to include some key elements such as assessments, access to the executive team, coaching, and a stretch project—but that was all we had. The next big piece of the puzzle was how to pull this all together into an effective and meaningful program.

We decided that action learning was a good framework for problem solving and leadership development, and an effective way to tackle the stretch problem while reinforcing the importance of learning and leadership. Next, we identified an external facilitator who could help us with general leadership curriculum and facilitate the action learning process. We also worked directly with our executive management team to identify the participants and the stretch problem.

Once the participants were identified, we rolled out the assessments and conducted a kick-off meeting—we were off and running. We met approximately every six weeks for 10 months and concluded our program with a presentation given by the participants to the executive management team.

Since it was a pilot program, we were continually seeking feedback along the way so that we could course-correct ourselves to the needs of the participants. That first year we made several significant changes to the program.

The biggest contributing factor of success for that first year was when our CEO at the time said, "Go and modify." He understood that if we waited to have all the answers to every possible issue that might arise, the project would never get off the ground. He enabled us to move forward without requiring all of the unforeseeable answers ahead of time. As we tried to develop agile leaders for our organization, we became agile facilitators and trainers as well.