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Leadership is Contextual – So Let’s Develop Our Leaders in the Moments They Experience

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Published on: October 2017

Written by: David Bernal, Fredrik Schuller

By David Bernal, Senior Director at BTS, and Fredrik Schuller, Senior Vice President at BTS

Most companies typically define how employees succeed on the job in terms of a checklist of knowledge, skills, capabilities, or competencies, all presented in a profile. History has shown that such profiles are quite useful for organizations to leverage as the basis for selection, promotion, training, and other talent activities. They are undoubtedly good tools for the organization to use as a basis for curriculum development and making the right talent decisions as well.

But let’s get real. Employees don’t walk around with a series of knowledge, skills, capabilities, or competencies locked and loaded in their head ready to use at the right place and right time. We just don’t think that way. Instead, our world is organized around the moments that happen in front of us.

Think about when you talk about your job to family and friends. How do you describe it? Do you describe it in terms of what capabilities or competencies you used on the job that day? Nope. You talk about the moments you experienced. That’s our reality. That’s how we interpret the world around us. Our day-to-day life is organized in and around moments, and people naturally recognize and categorize the moments that are happening right in front of them.

 

Moments Matter

 

While we experience thousands of moments every day on the job, not all moments are created equal. Some are more important than others relative to success on the job. There are the routine moments, when reading and responding to emails, or the dull moments, when filling out your expense reports after a business trip, or the important moments, when you are updating your manager about the status of a project. And then there are the ones that really count. The highly critical ones. The situations that unfold in front of you where it’s essential that you get it right – these are the pivotal moments.

Pivotal moments on the job are the ones when the outcome significantly impacts the business results or engagement of employees. Like when a decision needs to be made even though all options seem like a bad choice. Or when difficult feedback needs to be delivered to a direct report in the moment so that learning occurs. Or when a direct report is struggling to solve a problem in front of their manager. These are the moments when employees need to respond in a way that leads to the best result. However, most people fail to recognize which moments are the most critical for them to react to and get right. That’s where they need help. That’s because it’s not always clear which moments have the biggest consequences.

Beyond knowing which moments are the most important, it’s also not always clear how to best respond in those pivotal moments. People may think that they know, but they are often reacting in a way that isn’t optimal. Take for example a direct report who is struggling to resolve a problem. Jumping in and solving the problem for the direct report might not be the best decision. It seems most helpful to resolve the issue for that employee in the short term because it solves the problem, right? Sure. But the long-term consequences are less favorable. It grooms the direct report to become dependent on you to save the day every time they have a problem. Plus the individual doesn’t have the opportunity to learn and develop as they work through the problem because you solved the issue for them. So what might seem like the best way to respond may actually not be. In other moments, the best response could be completely unknown to the employee so they react by, more or less, winging it in the moment.

Given these realities, we have found “Great Playbooks” are an ideal tool for talent development and resonate well with employees because they reflect how people experience the world – in moments. When developing a Great Playbook, the first step starts with identifying which moments are the most pivotal, and which ones are not. Once the most pivotal moments are articulated, the second step includes codifying the mindset, intentions, and behaviors necessary in these moments to produce the outcome desired. These defined situations illustrate what great talent actually think and do in each pivotal moment. Also captured are what the not-yet-great talent do in those same moments. This helps head off those who think they know better from taking seemingly right yet misguided actions. Once employees learn what moments are actually most critical, they begin to automatically recognize the situation unfolding in front of them and engage in the great behaviors as they learned from the playbook.

Great Playbooks can be used in a variety of ways – from influencing the curriculum of learning and onboarding leadership development programs to providing material for coaching and assessment tools – all geared towards spreading learnings so that skills can be applied directly to the job. Companies have found that facilitating this powerful learning experience for their people has incredible results – the employees rapidly master navigating pivotal moments.

In one case, a leading financial services organization needed help preparing their most senior leaders for the future in the digital age. The organization partnered with BTS to create a program to help them make the transformation from a financial institution into a high-tech organization, moving from big multi-year, multi-million dollar investment decisions to making smaller bets, learning quickly and adjusting. They needed to learn how to make faster decisions and not only accept failure, but also use it as an opportunity to learn and pivot. They wanted to become agile – the opposite from how they had been operating in the past. Decisions used to be made from 80 page documents that had been vetted for 6 months, and now they were using 2-pagers with experiments and hypotheses. This was a massive mindset shift for the senior leaders at the organization and would fundamentally change what it means to be a leader at the company. Therefore, a Great Playbook was developed to show these leaders how they needed to change their thinking and behavior in those pivotal moments to make the transformation.

After building a Great Playbook, we worked with our client to construct real life scenarios that leveraged those transformational moments. By bringing these moments to life in a safe environment, leaders were given the chance to work through each moment, practice, and learn how their mindset and behaviors must shift to enable the organization to make a culture change. Emotional discomfort with the new ways of leading also surfaced as a result of this practice, and we helped the leaders work through their long-held beliefs and habits that initially led to their executive positions, but were now obsolete. The success of the program was unprecedented for the organization as it illustrated how leaders needed to think and act differently in their new world. A large part of this success was the guidance and learning acceleration provided by the playbook, which clearly defined the changes that needed to be made to allow the company to thrive in the marketplace of the future – in a way a new competency model or capability profile could never have achieved alone.

Great Playbooks honor the leader as the user, and make the situation personal and contextual to them. The playbooks aid organizations in rapidly developing their talent and getting them to optimum performance quickly because they focus on what really matters – the moments that people will remember. We define our world as it is experienced – why not let employees shape their own development by relating it to the moments that really matter.

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