The approach described in this article builds off the “co-op” idea started at Northeastern University. Having senior leaders engage with a group on their experiential learning is a perfect fit.
In a recent case using this approach, we had a series of six leadership workshops. These were attended by 20 people—the same for each workshop—so it was a cohort. The workshops were built around critical leadership competencies that the university had identified. There was commitment from the beginning—the senior leadership was involved in selecting the competencies.
Because it was a new leadership program, the internal champion role was essential and critical. The vice president of HR and one of her lieutenants were the internal champions. They garnered the support of the senior leadership team. They worked with senior leadership to agree on who would be the speaker for the six competencies in each of the different workshops.
Each speaker was thoroughly briefed on the program. The real key was to prep them and go over the essential point that we want the leaders to talk about how they execute the competency—give that inside look. Everyone working on the project used this common language to reinforce what we were seeking. We created a set of guidelines to describe the unique role we wanted the senior leaders to play.
Then, per the approach, we involved the participants. When the program launched, we went over the senior leader involvement and how it was different. We covered the participants’ roles, including the preparation and debriefing around the senior leaders’ sections. For each workshop, there would be a prep section to go through the questions they wanted to ask. By the third workshop, the participants thoroughly had the hang of it and so did the senior leaders. It had created a buzz.
There were several cases of particular angles a group wanted to cover. For example, they might have inquired about something they knew about a leader, how he made a tough decision, or how he describes his leadership style. The key part here was that we could tell the senior leader this at the start of his section. It made it real-time and customized.
Then, we always conducted a solid debrief right after the senior leaders were done. The debrief covered what the participants learned. The participants described that they never knew exactly how a leader thought about executing a given competency. One said, “They really have become 3D from 2D for me.” In rating the program once it was completed, the senior leader involvement was one of the highest rated elements of the program. Alumni of the program still talk about their engagement with the senior leaders.