The Power of Learning Journeys for Leadership Development

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Published on: February 2017

Written by: Rommin Adl

I recently read an HBR article discussing why the traditional approach to leadership development doesn’t always work.

It stated that instead of traditional methods, the best way to identify, grow and retain leaders to meet today’s demands is to “Let them innovate, let them improvise and let them actually lead.”

Over the past 30 years, as we’ve partnered with clients facing a vast range of challenges, we’ve seen the truth behind this – that people learn best by actually doing. That’s why business simulations are such a powerful tool: they allow people to do and lead within a risk-free environment, and condense years of on-the-job learning experience into a few days, or even hours.

We also know that learning is not just a “one and done” situation – it is a continuous experience. In many cases, a learning journey, which blends a variety of learning methodologies and tools over time, is the most powerful means of shifting mindsets, building capabilities and driving sustained, effective results.What a learning journey looks like depends entirely on the context of your organization. What challenges are you addressing? What results are you driving for? What does great leadership look like for your organization?

Learning Journey Program

To bring this to life, imagine the following approach to a blended learning journey for aligning and developing leaders – in this scenario, within a financial services firm: Financial technology has “transformed the way money is managed. It affects almost every financial activity, from banking to payments to wealth management. Startups are re-imagining financial services processes, while incumbent financial services firms are following suit with new products of their own.”

For a leading financial services company, this disruption has led to a massive technology transformation. With tens of thousands of employees in the current technology and operations group, the company will be making massive reductions to headcount over the next five years as a result of automation, robotics and other technology advances.

This personnel reduction and increased use of technology is both a massive shift for the business as well as a huge change in the scope of responsibility that the remaining leaders are being asked to take on moving forward. As such, the CEO of the business unit recognizes the need to align 175 senior leaders in the unit to the strategy and the future direction of the business, and give them the capabilities that they need to effectively execute moving forward.

To achieve these goals, BTS would build an innovative design for this initiative: a six-month blended experience, incorporating in-person events, individual and cohort-based coaching sessions, virtual assessments and more. Throughout the journey, data would be captured and analyzed to provide top leadership with information about the participants’ progress – and skill gaps – on both an individual and cohort level, thus setting up future development initiatives for optimal success.

The journey would begin with a two-day live conference event for the 175 person target audience, incorporating leader-led presentations about the strategy. The event would not just be talking heads and PowerPoint slides, but rather would leverage the BTS Pulse digital event technology to increase engagement and create a two-way, interactive dialogue that captures the participants’ ideas and suggestions. Participants also would use the technology to experience a moments-based leadership simulation that develops critical communications, innovation and change leadership capabilities, among other skills.

After the event, participants would return to the job to apply their new learnings. On the job, each participant would continue their journey with four one-on-one performance coaching sessions, in addition to a series of peer coaching sessions shared with four to five colleagues. They also would use 60-90 minute virtual Practice with an Expert sessions to develop specific skill areas in short learning bursts, and then practice those skills with a live virtual coach. Throughout the journey, participants would access online, self-paced modules that contain “go-do activities” to reinforce and encourage application of the innovation leadership and other skills learned during the program.

As a capstone, six months after the journey has begun, every participant would go through a live, virtual assessment conducted via the BTS Pulse platform. In three to four hours, these virtual assessments allow live assessors to evaluate each leader’s learnings from the overall journey and identify any remaining skill gaps. The individual and cohort assessment data would then lead to and govern the design of future learning interventions that would continue to ensure the leaders are capable of implementing the strategy.

As you can see, this journey design leverages a range of tools and learning methodologies to create a holistic, impactful solution. It’s not just a standalone event – each step of the journey ties into the one before, and the data gathered throughout can be used well into the future in order to shape the next initiative .

Great journeys or experiences like this can take many forms. In addition to live classroom and virtual experiences, there is an ecosystem of activities, such as performance coaching, peer coaching, practice with an expert, go-dos, self-paced learning modules, and more, that truly engage leaders and ensure that the learnings are being reinforced, built upon, practiced and implemented back on the job. We find that these types of experience rarely look the same for every client. There are many factors that determine which configuration and progression will make the most sense. There is one common theme that we have found throughout these highly contextual experiences, however – that the participant feedback is outstanding and the business impact is profound.

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