Thursday, October 23, 2008

What if Leaders Were Allowed to Design and Deliver Their Own Leadership Training Programs?

Here are a few questions for leaders and leadership development practitioners to ponder:

What if leaders were allowed to design and deliver their own leadership training programs? Would there be anarchy? Would the Dow Jones plummet?

What if there was no training department, human resources, leadership training providers, or seasoned and expert leadership development practitioners (yikes!) and they were left to their own devices?

Could they do it? Would they do it? Would they be allowed to do it? And if the answer to those three questions was yes, how effective would it be?

One of the things I hope my readers like about Great Leadership is that most of what I write about is grounded in a practical reality. Just as Scott Adams used to get his best Dilbert ideas from working in a cubicle, I get a lot of my ideas from my own day job.

I had a humbling experience this week. I took a back seat support role and watched three executives design and deliver one of the best leadership training programs I’ve ever experienced.

It was their idea. For the most part, they designed it. They taught 90% of it. The participants loved it, having just left with pages of action items that will produce immediate and long term revenue and employee motivation.

Best of all, they pulled it off in 30 days with no costs other than travel.

There was no sophisticated needs assessment, competency modeling, job analysis, learning objectives, lesson plans, or thick participant binders. Absent were all of the overly hyped latest and greatest learning technologies, online collaboration, wikkis, blogs, learning management systems, and other bells and whistles that are supposed to transform the way we learn.

No action learning, break-outs, role plays, case studies, simulations, or any of the other leadership training tools we’ve grown to love.

There were no professors, consultants, trainers, coaches, facilitators, PhDs, or other learning experts. Just a few “amateur”, but well meaning executives.

How did they do it? It was really pretty simple:

1. The most important thing they did was to decide that they wanted to do it and commit to it. They each had a few recently promoted managers, and thought it would be a good idea to gather them together for two days to help them be successful. It never fails to amaze me what savvy successful leaders can accomplish when they decide something’s important.

2. We sent out a simple survey, asking the new managers what they wanted to learn and had them hold the days and make travel plans.

3. We worked with the three executives to design a high level, two day agenda, helping them decide which topics they wanted to cover.

4. The executives took the new managers to dinner the night before the program, then spent the next two days sharing their collective wisdom, advice, tools, war stories, and authentic commitment and passion to helping these new managers be successful. It was messy; they jumped around, didn’t follow the outline, and frequently strayed off topic. Worst of all, their flip chart skills were horrible.

5. The new managers eagerly listened, took notes, asked questions, and reflected on what they learned.

6. They all committed to stay connected as a cohort, and agreed to review their action plans with the executives at regular intervals.

That’s it. The managers loved the attention, took away pages of concrete solutions and new ideas, and left feeling sky high. One of them asked at the end: “What was the name of this program, anyway?” We had to make one up on the spot, along with a catchy acronym.

So here’s my message to senior leaders: You don’t have to leave leadership development up to the training or HR departments. You can do it, with a lot of commitment and perhaps little bit of help. Instead of bemoaning the lack of training budget and formal programs, take matters into your own hands and do it yourselves. You have a proven track record of success – why not share what you know with others and watch your business grow?

And for my practitioner colleagues: If you hear about one of these rouge training programs, reach out and offer your expertise to enhance and support it. Don’t kill the initiative, reward it.
At another company, I watched a leadership development “expert” ridicule and put a stop to one of these misguided efforts. The “right” solution would cost $350,000. And of course, nothing happened.
Keep an open mind – don’t insist on perfection as we define it. You might even learn something.

By the way, the learning methods I've poked fun at really do enhance learning. We use them all (except for the thick binders), and I'm proud of what I consider to be world class leadership development programs.

The key is to combine the best of both – a partnership between enthusiastic and successful leaders who want to teach and the learning & development experts who can help them do it.


Anonymous said...

Great post!

I have a friend who's a middle manager in a large international company that does this type of thing every year for his team.

Organizing a custom program helps him clarify his thinking on the issues that he wants to address better than an cookie cutter program could. It also secures better buy in from participants and brings the members of the team closer together before, during and most importantly after. Everybody looks forward to next year's program too.

Always enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing.

Eclecticity said...

Great post Dan!

You set me up at first to say to myself, uh oh, watch out!

Thanks! E.

Dan McCarthy said...

Peter -
Thanks! It must be good if the team looks forward to it every year. Good for him.

Dan McCarthy said...

E -
Glad you liked it!

CherryPie said...

A very interesting post, trying new ideas is always a good thing to do.

Vasilij said...

Really nice story.

As I have read elsewhere today - lowtech beats hightech.

Too bad most of the time managers are too busy "managing". :P

Anonymous said...

Stellar post, Dan. The great academy companies seem to make top executive involvement in leadership development programs a routine part of the way the programs are run. I've always thought it made sense to have your senior and specialist people teach up and coming managers in your own program. If you want to gain insights from Michael Porter, you can send someone to a Harvard program and create discussion circles for when that person comes back. On the other hand, having your own people do training yields many benefits. They get to know up and coming people and vice versa. The training becomes a carrier of culture, not just a skills session. No outside trainer can come with the kind of relevant war stories that your own people share naturally.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, Wally. As long as the expertise is in house, it works just fine.

Jon Pappas said...

So--what was their two day agenda?

What they did sounds a little similar to a leadership program where the participants had an executive sponsor and kick-off the program. Then participants had to choose one executive interview about that executive's lessons of leadership. Then participants do a bottom-line, measurable practicum. Participants vote on the best practicum and that person gets to present their practicum to the entire executive team.

Jeff said...

Absolutley great post. An intiative that is built by the participants will always be more successful. It is theirs. Consultants can't create commitment.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jon -
The agenda was built around helping them understand their new roles, including key results areas and competencies. It was also designed to set them up for successful first year results.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jeff -
Thanks. People believe what they create.

G Neil said...

"Instead of bemoaning the lack of training budget and formal programs, take matters into your own hands and do it yourselves." How great would it be if everyone stopped complaining and just got to work at what they wanted?

Using executives under your own roof to train the next set of leaders can help your business grow while eliminating the need for costly outside training and travel expenses.

Dan McCarthy said...

It's great to hear from Training Time! Thanks for stopping by.