The End of Classroom-based Leadership Learning?

The Holy Grail of my work is to encourage and observe a sustainable, behavioural shift in people. It’s a very difficult daily pursuit and is influenced by so many seen and unseen variables. I am a firm believer that without a solid grasp of the human mind and its functions, many leaders are operating with faulty GPS software to navigate their daily effectiveness. It’s just so important for us all to understand as much as we can about psychology. Equally, if we want to effectively guide someone else to make a shift in behaviour, it seems obvious that a deep understanding of human beings is essential.

In a recent blog, I shared my misgivings about the way many leadership development programmes are conducted. I lamented the generic flavour to classroom-based learning programmes, the lack of useful outcomes measurement and the limited grounding in psychological understanding and teaching.

Don’t get me wrong, there is value in filling a room with an organisations’ top talent and getting them to share their best practices, challenges and eventually build a thriving network, but that still doesn’t enlist or compel a noticeable change in behaviour.

In most cases, especially in South Africa, there is more box-ticking and unit-standard alignment taking place than deep, psychological insight being offered. Therefore, delivering a series of modules and generic lectures, even over a 1 or 2-year time span, is unlikely to produce measurable outcomes of lasting behavioural change.  When the pressure is on, most people will revert to the tried and tested safe ground of their habits, rather than experiment in new ways of thinking and behaving.

It’s time for an evolution in how we train people in leadership skills. Fortunately, the rise of remarkably impactful online training means almost all functional and technical training can be self-directed by individuals whenever they feel the need to grow their skills. However, when it comes to learning about leading and delivering results through others, the support required extends beyond computer-based learning. As a reminder of what I’ve outlined previously, my preferred ideas for the evolution of leadership development are to:

  1. Separate leadership development from management skills training more deliberately, by clarifying where the gaps are most acute. What needs the most focus of support in a person’s development?
  2. Create ‘in-context’ learning rather than ‘in-room’ learning – enhance the support for on-the-job application, and more precisely, find ways to impart learning while people are working day to day.
  3. Link success to observable behavioural shifts in individuals and their teams. This requires clear articulation of desired behavioural indicators.
  4. Focus development on the specific phase of the leader’s stage of life – define that stage and meet the needs and desires that it emphasises for each person.
  5. Provide daily support that is practical and achievable, focused on shifting one behaviour at a time, preferably using personalised, change-tracking technology.
  6. Provide change support through a coaching ecosystem of multiple experts including peers and organisational leaders.
  7. Regularly measure the progression of observed behavioural changes from the perspectives of the leader’s peers, followers, clients, suppliers and any other relevant stakeholders.
  8. Offer explicit psychological insight and support to develop deeper levels of self-awareness.
  9. Create emergent topics of learning based on the contextual challenges that present as time evolves.
  10. Stream learning groups according to similar challenges and stage of development.

As a way of operationalising these thoughts, let us focus on just one key solution that may address many of these evolutions in development programmes – A Coach-Driven Development Program.

I believe a structured, personalised, coach-led programme can deliver shifts in behaviour with greater impact than most classroom-based learning. I however also observe too little structure and alignment when multiple coaching engagement are progressing in the same environment and with people across the same level. Thus, the successful execution of such a development initiative relies on the following key components:

  1. Accurately Assess technical and leadership skill gaps and use this to ensure that the delegate is correctly matched with both a coach and a mentor who is a technical expert.
  2. Conduct a full 360-degree behavioural assessment (my preference is always Heartstyles) of the delegate’s behaviours in context.
  3. Ensure all delegates understand their personality preferences before the development process begins. This awareness is like a gateway drug to further interest in self-awareness.
  4. Define a clear and limited number of behavioural changes that a delegate desires and that those around them wish to see shift. Keep reminding the delegate that this is their development plan.
  5. Build a support team of a coach and mentor and a library of content that is available in an agreeable rhythm, on-demand. This team are the primary drivers of learning in a one-on-one relationship, and just in time.
  6. Leverage regular coach and mentor supervision sessions to extract common themes and institutional intelligence and insights.
  7. Deploy a technology-driven system to track and monitor the progress of behavioural shifts.
  8. Define projects for delegates to collaborate on together that fulfill on the organisation’s vision and mission. Observe and collate information about the manner in which delegates engage and show up with others. Feed that back into the coach, mentor and delegates triad.
  9. Regularly observe coachees in their environment; in meetings, presentations and challenging projects etc.
  10. Complete a second 360-degree behavioural assessment to compare to the benchmark conducted at the start of the programme.

I believe classroom learning is dying and a coach lead program may be the next evolution.

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