Beyond Action Learning: Building Agile Leaders

By Dave Ulrich

Most CLOs 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.

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To continually deliver these outcomes, leaders at all levels of an organization need to demonstrate agility, or the capacity to learn, grow, and adapt their thinking and actions to new business requirements. CLOs are charged to develop leaders, yet we find that the following often limit the outcomes of leadership development efforts:

• Nature/Nurture

50% of how leaders behave is tied to their personal DNA (nature) and 50% can be learned (nurture), so any leader’s development is constrained by predispositions.

• Leadership learning formula (50/30/20)

About 50% of what leaders learn comes from job experience (including coaching), 30% from guest-focused training, and 20% from life experience (an update from the 70/20/10 formula), so investments in leadership improvements need to be multi-faceted.

• 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% 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.

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Many innovative leadership development initiatives exist from involving customers as participants and trainers (e.g., GE customer training) to using social media to connect participants (e.g., Accenture’s global learning platform) to using philanthropy as a development opportunity (e.g., IBM service corps) to doing explicit development projects (e.g., P&G’s leadership through experience) to tailored individual development plans that lead to internal promotions (e.g., General Mills) to targeting future leaders through talent scouts (e.g., ICICI Bank in India) to coaching (e.g., Mobily in Saudi Arabia). No one of these isolated initiatives will be a magic bullet to fill the leadership requirements for the future, but these leadership 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 to case studies of other companies to action learning to learning solutions.

Evolving from action learnings to learning solutions will be a part of investing in future leaders. The differences of the two approaches are laid out in Table 1. Having done action learning for decades and now experimenting with learning solutions, let me try to illustrate the difference of the two approaches.

In one company, we were trying to build a more disciplined approach to managing change. To help leaders manage change, a faculty team was created to codify the lessons of change from heaps of research and practice. From this synthesis, faculty created a typology of 7 key processes for successful change. Participants attended the change leadership training program to learn these disciplines of change and were then asked to apply them to a problem within their business. As participants applied these lessons of change their projects, they were engaged in action learning efforts that helped translate the ideas into action. I have participated in similar action learning workshops on innovation, globalization, customer service, cost, and quality. The starting point of these leadership investments was a business process, with a distillation of the tools to make progress and an application to a project.

Action learning has been appropriately lauded and offers a dramatic improvement over traditional learning approaches like 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 own and others’ experience and from theory and research, and continually develop ways to approach and solve ongoing business problems.

Learning solutions starts with leaders mastering how to define and scope a problem. This sounds easy, but 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 that they can address. Then they need to learn how to solve that problem by examining theory and by accessing others’ experiences into a solution that is tailored to their situation. As they then apply their insights to their problem, they are much more likely to have ownership of the solutions they craft. Instead of training being an event when they learn and act, it is an experience that teaches them how to think about and solve business problems.

For example, we often start leadership training 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 PE lags behind its competitors, investors are discounting the quality of leadership in the organization. This market discount is a real and timely problem. We then work with leaders to co-create a learning solution to this problem that might include consistent and sustainable earnings, investment in leadership development, and reporting of a leadership capital index that gives investors confidence in leaders.

When CLOs 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 requires that participants do the hard work of problem identification, make real commitments to actively solve problems in training rather than being passive listeners, and become engaged in the creation of applicable insights that will help leaders improve. Faculty play a dramatically different role. Rather than rely on teaching notes for lectures, tools, or cases, they have to facilitate learning among the participants. They are required to bring theory, research, and experience of other companies working on the problem participants identify. They ask more questions than give answers. They co-learn and they do live consulting to help participants make progress. Then, they draw conclusions about how the learning solutions process can be applied after a workshop.

Learning solutions supplements other leadership investment techniques. It will not be a panacea for help leaders lead, and in requires dramatically different commitment from leaders and skills from faculty. But, coupled with other innovative leadership investments, it may help leaders adapt to the changing business requirements.

Dimension Action Learning Learning Solutions
Starting point Theory, insight, or tools Phenomenon or problem
Begin discussion with Presenting the theory or idea Presenting the problem and asking a question
Focus Applying tools to solve a problem Understanding a problem and creating tools to solve it
Role of faculty Present theory, insights, and tools (through lecture or case), then encourage actions based on the tools Listen to problem; separate symptom from problem; co-create solution (have live mini-case studies)
Role of participant Be prepared to learn and apply tools Be prepared to define and solve a problem
Ending point Take action based on learning tools Solve problems based on creating new tools
Measures Understanding and use of tools Resolution of business problem