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Developing Leaders? – Burn the classroom!!

August 3, 2012
English: Signature of Mahatma Gandhi.

English: Signature of Mahatma Gandhi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can’t learn swimming in a classroom. A powerpoint presentation won’t teach you how to ride a bicycle. Getting “coached” on how to bake an apple pie won’t complete the learning.

Leadership, is a practice.

It is something you do. It is something that is experienced and felt by others. Leadership is an expression of your life-experiences and the values and beliefs you have developed as a result of those experiences.

Really think those can be developed in a classroom? Think again!

I believe organizations are wasting a lot of time, energy and money on sending batch after batch of leaders to workshops. Leadership Workshops will NOT build skill. They serve a purpose and the purpose is:

  • Building perspective
  • Building knowledge
  • Introducing a concept

So how do you do it? How do you build great leaders? 

Skill-building always has been and will be an outcome of practice and experience. Create experiences and situations that test their skills and raise the difficulty levels of the challenge from time to time.

Some ways you can do this are:

1. Job rotation: This does not mean some namby pamby name change for the role or a 1 degree change that the individual will hardly notice. A job change that challenges skills that have not yet been tested is the most appropriate way to do this.

2. Location change: Managing a team in NY is very different from managing a team in Cincinnati. As is the difference between leading people in North India versus South India, or Shanghai versus Singapore.

3. Situation change: Running a sales outfit in an area where you have leading market-share is very different from running a sales outfit in a region where you are the slacker

4. People Challenge: Get them to lead a team of youngsters. Freshers. Folks who’re older than them. Mixed groups. Cross-functional teams. Each one will develop new skills

Regional Leadership Forum

Regional Leadership Forum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5. Context change: Manage a start-up business/project. Lead a turnaround situation. Lead a high growth, rapid ramp-up situation. New territory expansion. New product category.

6. Business change: Manage a not-for-profit

Through each assignment, monitor how the individuals are handling people, decisions, analytics, relationships, intuition, growth, resolution. Elicit in partnership with them, the values and beliefs that seem to be driving their choices and behaviours. Develop high levels of self-awareness, reflection, critical thinking and insight. These are long-term differentiators of great leaders.

Don’t molly-coddle. Allow failures. Ensure that challenges are real and steep. Dealing with failures will build both, Resilience (ability to learn and bounce-back) and Humility.

Appoint mentors/coaches who will hand-hold them through the transitions, so that you enable a support structure that fosters success (instead of a sink or swim). The benefits of Transition Coaching are manifold and derisk leadership transitions for organizations.

Not only will the above process develop leaders, it will also bring a new pair of eyes to a lot of roles and throw up things that will benefit the organization as whole. It will raise the levels of engagement and challenge at work thereby increasing retention. Of course, it will derisk the leadership pipeline and succession significantly.

Don’t delay. Pick a cohort. Even if it is just 4 people. Get the sign off from the CEO, and put this into action. At least 2 of the 4 will make it for sure.

Read the IBM interview down below and discover how IBM is reaping multiple value from following a similar process.

Doing by learning by @jobsworth

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2012 8:17 pm

    Like top sports people, the best leaders are those born with a unique talent. There are many companies out there who make a lot of money pretending they can train just about anyone into becoming a top leader, and that is unfair. But like top athletes, a top talent for leading has to be nurtured and trained.
    I think is an excellent article by mister Siingh; he is hitting the nail on the head.

  2. August 5, 2012 10:33 am

    While I agree with you on the methods you say should be used to develop leaders, it really won’t work to keep “throwing” people into challenging situations. Not unless you are prepared to spend a whole of time and money than you need to.

    Identification of the development need is very important and then you can decide what method you would like to use to develop them.

  3. rachna permalink
    August 4, 2012 10:34 am

    This is very true. I have experienced that unless the team members are not thrown in challenging situations they do not value all the classroom knowledge you give them. No closed room session can replace a real time and hands on experience. I have seen that the best leaders or coaches are those who have lead different team and varied functions in their tenure. I wish all organizations are brave to do this!

  4. August 3, 2012 3:10 pm

    Very relevant post Gurprriet, especially when every one seems to be in a hurry to get there… as of yesterday. I would imagine that those who sanction budgets for ‘develop leaders in a classroom’ kind of training initiatives are experienced and mature enough themselves to see this contradiction, and yet have such expectations.


    – Is it because they have a budget to exhaust?
    – Is it because they lack awreness on better oprions available?
    – Is it so that the external entity can be blamed if results don’t meet expectations?
    – or any other reason?

    … I wonder !

  5. August 3, 2012 1:59 pm

    In one of the companies I worked in, I had an interesting boss whose work profile involved a lot of travel. He insisted that the sales people took turns at “managing the office and playing boss” while he was away. We did that by rotation.Yes, we did very well.

    Much of training has to be by “doing”; The real world is a very different place from the classroom and “thinking on their feet” is a very definite skill to develop.

    Very good post, Gurprriet, Have a great weekend!

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