Executive Development & Action Learning


Recently I recommended action learning as a means of addressing executive leadership issues. The firm had struggled with missing the mark on vital improvement goals in the prior two years. They involved outside coaches to work with individual key executives, but it just wasn’t moving the needle on systemic change. 

Don’t get me wrong, individual coaching is almost always necessary and helpful in overcoming such stubborn problems - individual leaders often to adjust their "game." But often it is not sufficient when the change must affect underlying patterns of behavior – attitude, motivation, and practices – that are grounded in culture.

Here’s the way I presented my rationale for using action learning:  

What, Why, and How?

When striving to achieve challenging levels of performance, which are reliant upon systemic change in how work gets done, adaptive learning and development is needed. It’s a demand-driven sort of learning based on compelling business reasons for change, which sparks “in-order-to” motives and accountabilities.

Fortunately, human beings and our mind-body system are well-suited to this task. But it’s not always easy. It requires that we change our current ways of thinking, relating, and acting. That can imply risk. Some (often many) will have an aversion to risk as well as feelings of ambivalence. Thus, we must create conditions that: 1) make goals clear; 2) contain the risk; and 3) provide “scaffolding” for change.

Action learning is just this kind of supporting structure. It reframes the business challenge as one that calls for adaptive learning – “We need to figure this out, our role, goals, strategies, and practices!” The “we” is a core group of leaders tasked with solving the problem, creating practices, and making it work. 

The sponsors of this initiative are a small group of executives who speak for management. Their call to action takes the form of a “charter” – what must be accomplished by when, and organizational capacities that must be built in the process (patterns of leadership, collaboration, skilled action, and timely execution).

The role of the action learning team is to design an effective solution and to create and demonstrate the capacity to execute. The role of sponsors is governance, oversight, and thoughtful acts of leadership to keep the team motivated and accountable for progress and results.

The Critical Features

  1. Structure: The roles, goals, relationships, and procedures of the team must be made explicit. They are defined based upon what a new version of what “good” looks like. Accountabilities for action and results are explicitly defined, at the outset and along the way. Team cohesion is critical, so there will be a bit of forming-storming-norming-performing that shapes it’s approach to execution. There’ll be difficult conversations, which the team is expected to work through without delay.

  2. Kick-off: There is value in assembling the team and sponsors to jointly review the charter, discuss questions, and set expectations for governance and oversight. This is where management presents the business imperative and briefly describes the needs for change and improvement. They set a positive tone: “We expect to see fresh thinking, effective use of specialized skills, managerial rigor, a collaborative mindset, and an all-in commitment to the goals of the project.

  3. Oversight: The team must self-manage their actions and review progress with their sponsors. Strategy must be based on data-drive analysis, impact must be measured, and sustainable performance must be grounded in changed attitudes, motivation, and behavioral practices. The team must learn how to learn from feedback and candidly evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Sponsors must decide what they need to see and how frequently to feel informed, provide feedback, and to intervene as needed.

  4. Coaching: The team will need help with getting started and periodic support to facilitate a discussion of progress on task-oriented actions and outcomes, as well as the dynamics of interaction that enable performance. It helps surface obstacles or issues that slow or block productive patterns of communication and collaboration. And it helps identify alignment issues on roles, goals, plans, and priorities. This could be an external or internal resource, or a collaborative use of both.

The Pay-Offs

There are several compelling reasons to use action learning to achieve performance improvement:

  1. It Accelerates Change: Systemic change and improvement is usually dependent upon a smart integration of innovative thinking from several areas of expertise. Getting the right people around the table, forming an interdisciplinary team approach, and sustaining a focused effort at problem-solving, learning, and optimizing a solution strategy generates better results sooner.

  2. It Builds Capacity: Essential job skills, roles, and procedures for execution become clearer, and that informs criteria for hiring, training, and development of staff. And enabling norms of collaboration and interdisciplinary teamwork (culture) evolve, which promote efficient and effective business operations – practices that may be applicable to other parts of the business.

  3. It Hones Leadership: The structure and practice of action learning hones and aligns leadership skills at all levels. The factors that define a challenge and its solution become highly visible and explicit to all. Both the “hard” functional-managerial elements and the behaviorally-based elements of performance (leadership & collaboration) are seen, exercised, leveraged, and honed.

  4. It Incubates Talent: By involving people from multiple disciplines and levels in solutioning and strategizing execution, you give emerging leaders a chance to “show their stuff.” It’s especially the case insofar as the work involves both “hard” and “soft” variables of performance, and insofar as it focuses on critical business issues from multiple levels of management.