Experience great

From guru-centric development to practicing great leadership at your company


Published on: December 2022

Written by: Jessica Skon, Susan Burnett

A CEO leading a massive business transformation realizes that her leaders will make or break the company’s success. She engages her CLO to build the leadership training program to support the transformation and requests, “Please promise me that this will not be another soft, squishy class. This program must further our vision and help our leaders lead in both the core business and the new business.” A marketing leader goes to a five-day external program at a prestigious university. She comes back to work and reflects that “out of the five days, I got about a day and half of great speakers, new insights and some good ideas to try out.” When you check in with her a month later, she is manically multi-tasking on her day-to day challenges and admits she hasn’t been able to apply any of her learning to what matters in her job. Elsewhere, a sales manager goes to management training and returns to tell his manager, “I learned how to read a P&L statement, but I have no clue how that knowledge alone will help my team hit our monthly numbers.”

Sound familiar?
What we’ve been observing

We have observed three core issues that have caused most leadership development initiatives to fall short, failing to deliver business results:

  1. Sage on stage
    While there is no doubt that leadership thought leaders (Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, to name a few) have had a tremendous impact on the business world and their work has pushed leaders and companies to think differently, the industry is flooded by books, frameworks, tools and points of view. The easiest way for the gurus (or any training firm) to scale their business is by writing a book; curate the content into a classroom experience, then license the content and tools (aggregating “butts in seats”). The result? Most training firms are biased, due to their own business model, to preach, “leadership is universal.” It bolsters their profitability while forcing the leader to apply their content as appropriate.
  2. Content-centric vs. business centric
    Howard Schultz, Founder and CEO of Starbucks, states in his book Onward, “Every organization has a memory, a history of achievements, mistakes, even unintended consequences that contribute to an ongoing dialogue—a tapestry of interpretations that infers and often directs the organization’s future.” [1] Leadership development programs often fail to address each company’s unique history, culture, market position, business model, strategies and culture, and they do not include your current reality and pressing challenges.
  3. Failure to appreciate mindset
    Most companies and leaders will concede that becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. A recent McKinsey Company article notes, “Identifying some of the ‘below the surface’ thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs is usually a precondition of behavior change” – a precondition that companies need to get right. [2] Many leadership training programs fail to address the underlying mindsets driving behavior – the deep-seated, root causes of why leaders do what they do.

An approach to the future: Have your leaders experience “great”

There are three beliefs at the core of designing leadership development experiences that truly move the mean:

  1. Leadership is contextual: experience “great” leadership at your company
    At the core of “Experience Great” is a belief that leadership is relentlessly contextual. How an engineering manager should lead a 12-to- 18 month “waterfall” product development process is different from how an engineering manager should lead a six-week “agile” product release. The C-suite of a major oil company about to lose its license to operate in an emerging market has different critical requirements than the C-suite of a retail company shifting from wholesale distribution to a flagship retail strategy. Moving from an on-premise software world to software as a service requires new knowledge, skills and experience.

    We know that people need to see, experience, and try out new ideas, skills, and mindsets before they believe in and master them. However, these powerful experiences aren’t whitewater rafting or climbing a ropes course. They are a close approximation of real-life—an experience that allows leaders to perform in their role or a different, bigger role in their company. By using our Execution Challenges and Choices™ methodology, we capture, codify and democratize the capabilities, actions and mindset of your “great” leaders, scaling “great” across the organization.

    Much the way a pilot first learns how to perform a complex landing on water in a flight simulator, a high potential executive can learn how to effectively enter an emerging Asian market by practicing first in a business simulation. In the simulation, the risk associated with trial and error is removed. Like the pilot, the business leader can crash in her first few attempts without having any real-life adverse impact.

    Another advantage of the business leadership simulator is the condensed timeframe; we can close the time gap between action and consequence. In real life, it may take months or years to see the impact of your decisions. In the simulator, the consequence of decisions is immediate and, as a result, we can accelerate time to insight and capability. Highly customized to the company’s business, simulations have the potential to condense and accelerate years of business experience and speed time to high performance.

  2. Designed practice builds skills more effectively
    By now, “practice makes perfect” is a widely embraced and cited adage—Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery” echoes across business. [3] Geoff Colvin in his book Talent Is Overrated cites the importance of “deliberate practice,” which is not just about a lot of practice, but about expert practice that is consistent and deliberate. As (retired) Air Force General Lance W. Lord contends, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” How often in your leadership development programs do you require “deliberate practice” that comes with expert feedback, course correction, more assessment and more targeted practice? It’s intense and iterative. And it’s mostly missing from leadership development designs as people search for the best guest speaker on a topic.

    Exceptional leadership development programs—like perfect practice—must replicate real-world experience and design a practice that will lead to mastery. Leadership development programs must move beyond high-level, abstract discussions and engage leaders in the actual capabilities and behaviors most needed to be successful in their career.

    Peter Bregman, business advisor and author, writes, “You can’t just learn about communication, you have to do it, in the heat of the moment, when the pressure is on, and your emotions are high.” [4] While it seems obvious, ask yourself, How many of our leadership development programs include multiple cycles of performance and the individual feedback and the expert coaching required to achieve “great”? We still see too many of our clients in the “spray and pray” mode, hoping exposure to new models and new insights will lead to improvement back on the job.

  3. Mindset rules
    We have seen the power of mindset, and we believe that it drives the actions and results in every company. At no other time is the power of past experiences and formed beliefs more powerful than when the most senior leaders of a company are faced with a new future state that will require them and the entire company to make major changes. For a smaller company, it could be the pivot from one core customer segment to a new one, or it could be the shift from one core product to a second one. For a larger company, it’s often the realization that the core business is slowing down and new revenue streams—whether a new market, new business or new product—will be required for long-term growth ambitions. In this point of a company’s evolution, the senior leaders and the employees they lead are forced to do two things in parallel: run the core business while also making the new one successful. Doing both well is hard, often demanding different business models, assumptions about how to win in the market, different speeds of execution and different metrics for success. Over-rotating toward the new business too quickly can be damaging to the culture and the company; not rotating enough will slow the new business’ success. At the root of the difficulties is mindset. Senior leaders’ beliefs were formed by what made them successful to date, and it’s many of those same beliefs that will stop them from being able to embrace the new and lead both businesses successfully.

    In order for leaders to change, they have to have new experiences that start to shift their mindset and build confidence around the beliefs and behaviors that will drive future success. What we know works is to create an experience, or series of experiences, where leaders can practice running the company from today into the future, and confront market, business model, strategy and metric shifts. During this leadership development experience, new insights happen, wide perspectives build, empathy for all functions form, and new beliefs are shaped around what is changing in the market and how they need to lead differently. This mindset shift and alignment is what’s needed to do the nearly impossible task of changing deeply rooted beliefs formed from past success.

    To ignore mindset is to fail at leadership development. In the McKinsey article “Why Leadership Development Fails,” they warn, “Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. But although most companies recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mindsets, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root cause of why leaders act the way they do.”

Experience “great”: Leading engineering and construction company global middle managers and project managers program

Translating “great” principles into action, a leading Engineering and Construction Company recognized that the difference between a high performing project manager and an average project manager led to a profitable multi-billion dollar project or a nonprofitable project.

Instead of sending their project managers to an executive education program at a university or teaching them one siloed subject after the other—whether financial acumen, coaching or customer-centricity—the company captured what their best project managers and midlevel managers do during the most pivotal and daily moments in a multi-year, multibillion dollar capital project. Then they applied that playbook and designed an immersive simulation experience.

Engaged in a customized simulation, project managers practiced leading a project and were confronted by the most pivotal and common real-world challenges: setting shared objectives with their team; managing customer, supplier and safety incidents; leading team performance during a crisis; raw material commodity price increases; project overrun; designing stretch assignments; performance coaching; and onboarding new team members.

The results included alignment to new “great” expectations, clarity on what high performance meant in the most common and pivotal challenges faced on the job, and project managers achieving “great” faster than the generation before.

Experience “great”: A leading technology company top 500 leaders

Enterprise Simulation Methodology

A leading technology company found themselves at a critical juncture. They had made it to $2B in revenue through a very successful innovation with coupled services, and realized that they had years of growth ahead by running “business as usual.” However, at some point, perhaps five-to-seven years into the future, if they didn’t diversify and provide their customers with a broader suite of technology and services, they would reach market saturation and growth would stall.

A new CEO was appointed, acquisitions were made, and the company crafted a broader vision. Products now had to evolve from point solutions to suites of offerings, go-to-market strategies had to evolve, and sales conversations with customers needed to change.

During the path to $2B, the senior leaders and members of the executive team operated very successfully in siloed businesses and functions, pushing decision-making low into the organization. Clear metrics for success and healthy competition between silos propelled the company forward. Moving forward, in order to broaden customers’ understanding of the company (from a technology partner to a trusted advisor) and grow from $2B to $6B, a lot needed to change.

For the CEO and Head of Talent, the immediate challenge became, “What is the most efficient way to equip the executive team and the top 500 leaders to pivot the company and lead the next phase of growth?” They considered all-company memos, global roadshows with the executive team, offsite working sessions with the C-suite, new metrics and accountability. Ultimately, they did all, but even still, they needed to ignite understanding and passion among senior leaders to bring the energy critical to lead the change, resist the temptation of fear, and build the cross-company relationships key to success.

Creating a two-day simulation experience, the C-suite engaged all 500 leaders, enabled them to assume the role of the CEO, and allowed them to practice running the entire company for three years into the future. Inundated with customer, technology, and competitive trends, the leaders felt shareholder value creation pressures as well as employee engagement and culture realities. As the teams wrestled with the tensions and tradeoffs in evolving the company and running the core and new businesses at the same time, the leaders matured—they matured in their understanding of why the company had to change and what it meant for them.

And by strengthening their command of both business models, they were better positioned to lead teams with authenticity, passion and empathy, while finding the right speed and timing of their team’s evolution to best support the company’s goals.

The Impact?

Six months later, the question on the all-company employee survey, “I understand and believe in the company’s vision and my role in making it happen,” moved from the lowest scoring metric to one of the highest. At the time, the COO said, “When I was told a simulation would be the key alignment vehicle for our top 500 leaders I was skeptical. The custom business simulation accurately modeled our business challenges and anticipated our future evolution. The experience allowed our top 500 leaders to not just see the new strategy, but to practice making our strategy and vision a reality. The experience got leaders from different organizations with disparate points of view to work together and understand the real trade-offs and friction points, and provided the ‘big picture’ view we needed.” The company later achieved its growth target with the mix of “old” and “new” revenue it was looking to balance.


[1] Schultz, Howard, Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, New York: Rodale Books, 2011.

[2] Pierre Gurdjian, Thomas Halbeisen, and Kevin Lane, “Why Leadership-Development Programs Fail”, McKinsey & Company, January 2014.

[3] Gladwell, Malcolm, Outliers: The Story of Success, New York: Little Brown and Company Hachette Book Group, 2008.

[4] Kedges, Kristi, “If You Think Leadership Development is a Waste of Time, You May Be Right”, Forbes, 23 September 2014.

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