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From the Vault, Leadership Development

There’s an Alternative to Leadership Development

Action learning isn’t new, but when paired with a trained coach it can be an ideal alternative to traditional — often ineffective — leadership development programs.

This From the Vault article was originally published in July 2016 on CLOmedia.com.

Organizations worldwide have to develop their leaders with less time and money, and it’s not easy. Worse, most leadership development programs turn out to be ineffective and expensive. These programs provide little focus on the social, interpersonal and strategic aspects of leadership, and what’s learned is often difficult to apply. But there’s an alternative.

Action learning with a trained coach is a cost-effective approach that enables leaders to develop capabilities while working to solve urgent organizational or social problems. Essentially, leaders are learning while working, making it easy to see how learned skills apply on the job.

Details from “Action Learning and Leadership Development,” a research study on how action learning develops leaders were published in April. [Editor’s note: The author is one of the authors of the study.] The study reviewed nearly 150 papers from more than 30 countries, representing more than 200 action learning sessions. The review identified more than 100 instances where the skills practiced in the action learning session were transferred to the workplace.

Several key themes emerged:

  1. Participants appreciate a safe environment in which to practice their chosen leadership skills. Trust is important within an action learning team. These teams naturally develop trust in a short period of time. Within a session or two participants often shift from a group to a high functioning team. A certified action learning coach can ensure that the learning environment stays safe for all participants.
  1. It’s often easy for team members to practice their leadership skills thanks to real-time feedback. At the start of each action learning session participants identify a skill they want to improve. This skill is posted for all to see. Participants are told that at the end of the session they will be asked to access how they did with their choosen skill with examples; the other participants will be asked to identify times they saw the skill demostrated. During the session the coach keeps track of when skills were demonstrated. At the end of the session the coach checks in with each participant, confirming use of the skill.
  1. Team members transfer newly practiced skills to their organizations. Everything that happens in an action learning session is transferable to the workplace. Some of the transference is organic, and some of the transference can be attributed to the certified action learning coach. During each intervention participants learn things about themselves and how to be more effective team members. Skills learned are learned while working on real organizational problems — making it easy to see how they translate back in the office. At the end of each session the coach asks each participant to identify one skill learned during the session that they can readily see transferring to their office.
  1. Leadership skills are a natural outcome of action learning. Highly agile leaders recognize that change never stops in a complex, competitive global marketplace. They set new benchmarks by questioning old assumptions and actively encourage others to do the same. The repetitive process of participating in session action learning helps leadership behaviors evolve naturally. The coach continually looks for learning opportunities that will bring the team and participants to a higher level of collaborative performance.

The experential nature of trying out leadership skills in real life situations makes it easy to transfer learned skills back to the office. Action learning sessions could become a learning laboratory for tomorrow’s leaders.

Bea Carson is the president and director of affiliate development for the World Institute for Action, and president and owner of Carson Consultants. To comment email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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