What makes a learning initiative world-class?

Published on: November 2018

Written by: Patrick Fei

I was recently asked by a client what makes a leadership development initiative ‘world-class’. This is a question we at BTS have been exploring for over 30 years. We all know behavioural change isn’t easy, and as a result, we are constantly innovating to find the most effective approach.

Reflecting on the numerous client conversations I have had throughout my career, and the projects that have generated significant impact, I identified five specific differentiators that made some learning initiatives stand out above the rest:

Leadership development needs to directly link learning to driving the strategic priorities of the company.

While most people agree with this statement in principle, it doesn’t always happen in practice. The litmus test is whether the C-suite sees the learning journey as one of the key enablers of making their strategy happen. In other words, the implementation of their business strategy may fail without this leadership initiative. For example, at one of our Fortune 500 clients, the C-suite sees our work as critical to their business and culture transformation but prior to our collaboration, none of them could name a single leadership development program in the company.

Senior executives need to be involved in the upfront design of the program to ensure it truly aligns with and accelerates their business priorities.

Senior executives also have to be present at the program as facilitators and coaches to ensure its success. Typical leadership development programs will only feature senior executives in the kick-off, a speaker slot, or a Q&A session. Willingness to support and invest time in the program is essential because it shows senior leadership understand how critical development is for their key initiatives to be successful.

The learning needs to clearly articulate how to become a successful leader in the company and help people get there.

While this may seem obvious, my experience is that many leadership development initiatives are designed around competency models. Yet most business leaders do not find those competency models to be highly relevant or practical. This is not to criticise competency models but to highlight that if business leaders do not find them to be helpful, it is unlikely that a programme designed around them will be.

Instead, we recommend clearly defining the few critical mindsets and behaviours required to achieve the business’ priorities, and identifying the essential moments, or situations, when it is most important to exhibit these mindsets and behaviours. Then, codify what the best people in the company do differently in these moments versus what average leaders do and help the entire organisation shift their behaviours in a comprehensive learning journey.

The learning journey needs to be highly contextual and experiential.

We have all been through leadership programs based on great theories and frameworks, but are disconnected from our business and cultural context. While almost all leadership development companies say that they customise, this contextualisation must go beyond surface-level label changes to reflect the real-life business and leadership challenges that the participants will face in achieving the company’s strategic priorities.

Even when this is done, the journey will not be effective unless participants are provided with an experiential process by which they can come to their own conclusions and change their underlying assumptions and mindsets. Otherwise, behavioural change back on-the-job is highly unlikely.

Participants need to be able to practice and apply their learnings back on the job in a way that makes them more effective leaders in the long-term.

In a recent client project, we helped leaders by practicing giving and receiving constructive feedback in the leadership journey and then applying that learning back on-the-job. Although feedback was highlighted as one of their six cultural values, in practice, most leaders shied away from conflict and avoided giving or asking for feedback.

By having the opportunity to come to their own conclusions and practice the new behaviour, the leaders achieved amazing results. Comments included: “This has shattered a false belief that I previously held; that people would not be as receptive to constructive feedback” and “The impact of my behaviour enabled everyone to give more feedback. I just crushed the wall of shy within the team and started to do feedback more frequently.”

Contrast this with the more common approach of action learning projects, which often do not directly apply the learnings or change the long-term effectiveness of a leader. It is true that an action learning project itself may create value for the company, but in most cases, that same value could have been created just as easily by skipping the leadership program tied to it and only doing the project.

With these approaches, not only will a leadership initiative be classified as ‘world-class’, but more importantly, it will drive the results that leaders want to see—behavioural change on the job resulting in growth of the business. As an example, one of our clients who applied all of these approaches recently won three Brandon Hall awards for their leadership development journey. We were very excited to see such strong validation from a well-known industry leader.