The Future of HR, part 4: What, if anything, did we learn?

What, if anything, did we learn?

When I worked for KPMG I was involved in a big change project called Vision 2000. One of the consultants driving the project was Don Laurie. He ended every meeting with the question; “What, if anything, did we learn?”. This was a good ritual. It forced us to reflect at the end of every meeting. Today in The Future of HR I focus on learning and development. More specifically: leadership development. What, if anything, did I learn from 30+ years experience in leadership development? And what should change, if HR wants to have a future.

Real action learning

When I worked at Philips Electronics (1982-1994) they had world class leadership development programs (the name was Management Development in those days). The Philips Corporate Staff Bureau organized programs for all levels of leadership. From the International Management Program (IMP) for early top potentials to the International Program for Senior Executives (IPSE) for people on the verge of being appointed to the most senior positions. The flagship was the Octagon. Three teams of eight people worked on a real assignment for the Board! After six months hard work they presented their recommendations. Real Action Learning. I googled on Philips & Octagon, and the program still exists:  “The ‘Octagon’ Learning Journey consists of three interactive classroom modules combined with team-based action learning projects, as well as pre-work, post-programme and inter-module support”. Philips must have spend millions on leadership development in the past decades. My question is: did all this training have any positive effect on the results of Philips? Is Frans van Houten successful (if he is) because he participated in an Octagon? (He probably did not, because most of the time the most promising people did not have the time to participate in time consuming programs as thy had real jobs where they had to perform). What, if anything, did Philips Electronics learn from 50 years Management Development?
Some of the things we have to take into account when working on leadership development in the future.

8 lessons

1. We all know most learning is happening on the job

There is a tendency to focus on easy leadership development solutions with low impact. Designing a one or two week leadership development program is relatively easy. It looks good, but the impact is generally low. It is grossly overestimated what people can learn in a couple of weeks anyway.
People learn fast in real life. Give people and teams a challenging job or assignment and they will learn a lot. Some coaching and regular reflection helps to make the learning more meaningful.
Why is this done so poorly?

2. Less focus on individuals, more focus on teams

Peter Senge defined leadership as “The capacity of a human community to shape its future”. Most leadership development activities are still focused on individuals. What is her or his potential, and how can we (!) develop this in the best possible way. The impact of individual leaders is overestimated. Teams should become the basic focus point of leadership development activities.

3. Learning has to focus on the here-and-now, not on the future

Another misconception is, that leadership development should focus on the future. First prepare somebody for an assignment/ job, than expose her or him to the reality. I am glad this is the common practice for pilots, but I assume even pilots should start flying as quick as possible. Developmental activities should focus on the here-and-now. People learn fastest if they really need something. The new leader who has to submit her/his business plan by September 1, will find a way to learn how to do it. If some kind of training/ coaching is available at that moment, that will certainly help. But training someone how to make a business plan because this might be needed in a couple of years, is probably a waste of time.

4. The paradigms of the business schools need to be broken down

Go to a business school. Mention words as ‘Strategy’, ‘Emerging Markets’, ‘Leadership’, ‘Teamwork’, ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Organic Growth’. They will throw in one professor to lead your tailored program (mostly called the [insert company name] Senior Management Program), three additional high performing professors to teach and an assistant to write the specific company case. During the one week program (opened by the Global Director HR) the 24-30 participants get high level performances in the mornings, work on the cases and the strategic assignment in the afternoon, have a fantastic dinner at a castle on the last evening and present their findings to the CEO and some other Board members on the last morning. CEO says she has heard a lot of great ideas, and all go home happy on Friday afternoon. To go back to work on Monday and hardly anything changed. Maybe engagement and network connections have gone up, but you do not need the business school for that.
Apparently it is very difficult for business schools to get out of their self imposed frameworks. But they should. They think they set the standard for leadership development. They did, but the standard is wrong and needs to be re-calibration.

5. Lets take the lessons of Kolb into account

David Kolb learned us along time ago that people learn differently. I personally learn a lot from reading (fast) and talking 1:1 to people. For me listening to someone who is presenting PowerPoints at very slow speed, in a time frame where I could have read one or two of her/ his books is a waste of time. Others do not like to read, and prefer to be talked to in an entertaining way. Although we all know it, leadership training (and other training) most often do not take this into account. One size fits all is the norm. For normal schools this is still the case as well and it is only very slowly changing.

6. Technology creates enormous opportunities

Today I get most of my information through Twitter. Several universities offer fantastic on line programs. The number on on-line learning resources is growing fast. Virtual collaboration through Skype, WebEx and other tools becomes easier and easier.
The implications for the design of effective leadership development programs will have to be big.

7. Learning should make people uncomfortable, not comfortable

Most evaluation of leadership development programs is limited to level 1 evaluations: are the participants happy about the program, the teachers, the level of the group, the food and the hotel room. If the score’s are above 4.1 on a 5 point scale, everybody is happy. If the score is 4.9, the program is a hit! Aiming for high scores on the level 1 evaluation is detrimental to the impact of the program. A developmental activity with impact should make the participants uncomfortable. It should have started them thinking. Beliefs they had for years should have been questioned. If people are uncomfortable, they do not score 4.9 on a 5-point scale.

8. Ban PowerPoint, from your training and meetings

No further explanation needed, just do it. Focus on true dialogue and story telling without pointing with your back to the audience to the three bullets on the PowerPoint slide.

All in all much food for thought. And many opportunities for step-change improvement. Your reactions are most welcome.


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