True senior leader involvement at every stage is critical to a leadership development program's success.
Whenever you launch a leadership development initiative, especially for the first time, everybody knows that involvement from senior leadership is critical. Gaining a higher level of senior leader involvement can transform your program by taking it to a whole new level, but it requires an entirely different setup and approach.
An approach that makes a difference is one in which senior leaders engage the group by talking about how they execute a particular leadership competency. Senior leaders should not lecture, but rather they should demonstrate the leadership competency in action. Drawing on specific examples from their professional and personal experiences, the senior leaders should illustrate what they did, what they thought about, and what they said. They should share examples of successes and challenges.
In a nutshell, and this is the hard part, the leaders describe how they "deliver" a particular leadership competency. It is not theoretically talking about it. This difference requires a deliberate pursuit of the importance of articulating how they demonstrate a particular competency.
It is easy to fall into the trap of lecturing or talking around the idea. When you move from lecturing to demonstrating, participants experience a radically new understanding of how leaders think and work. This action provides real insight into who they are as leaders and individuals.
To set the stage and provide a concrete example of how this approach works, we are going to draw from the leadership development program we created at Boston's Northeastern University that is designed around a series of six leadership workshops. (The sidebar provides greater detail.)
The leadership development program is based on a customized set of leadership competencies that was developed based on interviews with more than 30 mid-level and senior leaders in the organization. The leadership competencies central to the program include
- getting the big picture
- teamwork and collaboration
- decision making
- effective communication (up, down, and across)
- innovation and change
- developing people (self and others).
The workshops are topic focused, and each workshop centers on one or two of the leadership competencies. Readings immerse participants in the topic, and in-class exercises reinforce and illuminate the readings.
Because this was the first time the institution had sponsored such a comprehensive leadership initiative, senior leader involvement was more important than usual and, in fact, critical to the program's success. When participants see senior leaders involved, they invest and engage in the program even more seriously.
This approach requires a completely different level of commitment and preparation. The investment is a critical part of the process; it empowers participants and senior leaders to interact in a new and exciting way.
It takes four key ingredients to make this approach successful:
- senior leader commitment
- senior leader prep
- participant prep and debrief
- internal champions.
Senior leader commitment
Securing senior leader commitment at the very start increases senior leader involvement at every stage in the process. It begins at the project approval process, which involves talking with leaders to gain their support for the program and their commitment to be engaged with it. You need to start talking to them about how critical their direct involvement in the program is. Make clear that you are asking for far more than just the normal introduction that leaders typically offer when such a program begins. Rather, you are asking them to engage with the group and be part of the workshops.
In the case of the university's program, we asked senior leaders to dedicate about an hour to the participants. Approximately 30 minutes would be devoted to their description of how they execute a particular competency, and the second half-hour would be dedicated to answering questions from the participants.
It is essential that you make clear from the start that you are inviting the leaders to speak and engage with the group in a new way. You want them to reveal what a senior leader deals with as it relates to a particular leadership competency. You are asking them to share their experiences in an open manner, and how they navigate both the mundane and complex elements of their responsibilities.
Senior leader prep
With the initial commitment attained, it is crucial to prep a leader well. In the model from which we are drawing, we invited different leaders to address a particular competency. For example, the senior vice president of administration and finance discussed the effective communication competency and the provost discussed the decision-making competency. Long before the date of a given workshop, the project champions met with each leader to accomplish two key goals.
First, project champions described the workshop agenda in some detail to help the senior leaders understand the context. This also gave the leaders an opportunity to think about how their recent activities related to the topic (the competency) for that workshop.
The second goal was to prep the senior leaders for the workshop differently, given that the presentation would not be the standard lecture format. If the seminar was on teamwork, for example, we asked them to describe what they do with teamwork—explicitly. We found it was useful to create a set of guidelines of what we were seeking. We included the competency definition and then discussed some potential examples.
We also developed framing questions to help them describe their thinking and action processes. For the topic of teamwork, we provided the following questions and guidance, which are designed to inspire the leader to draw directly on his experiences and bring the competency to life for the program participants:
- Think of a few teamwork experiences to share with participants.
- When you started with this team, what did you think about?
- What did you do?
- What did you say?
- What were some actual team issues you and your team faced? What did you do in these instances?
- Use the competency definition to spur thinking—this helps reinforce the ideas and create shared understanding.
It also is important to have the leaders be candid about some of their challenges, even failures or disappointments, and how they handled them. Participants identify with this approach. A framing question for this might be: Think of a time you faced a difficult situation. How did you decide what to do? What was the outcome?
We know how difficult it can be to describe one's strengths—when someone is great at doing something, she can become unconscious of the skill. It is like asking a great sculptor how he sculpts. Remember Michelangelo's comments: "Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop" or "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." Beautiful statements, but they're not instructive in getting an inside look. This proves that it often can be hard to describe what you do well.
As you talk through these questions with the leader, the distinction of engaging rather than lecturing becomes clearer. Finally, let the leader know that the participants will be ready and prepped. The participants will ask direct questions such as "In 2008 when the market lost significant value, how did you communicate its implications to different audiences?"
Although leaders have competing claims on their time, this first step is critical and cannot be skipped. It reinforces the new expectations.
Participant prep and debrief
To ensure a rich discussion with a senior leader who has invested time in her preparation, it is essential to prepare the participants. It's important to incorporate time in the agenda for the participants to brainstorm what questions they have for the senior leader in light of the competency she will be demonstrating.
There are many ways to brainstorm with the group, but the key is to develop a set of questions focused on getting at "how the leader does it." It's a good idea to take it one step further and determine who will ask the first and second questions. This eliminates that awkward pause after the leader says, "What questions do you have for me?" When the selected participant asks that first question, the group shows it is ready; participants look sharp and they have identified what they want to learn.
Now, with the exchange completed, the involvement piece is not over. It is critical to debrief the participants about what they learned. What are their takeaways? This helps to cement individual learning as well as generate fruitful discussions among the participants.
The three parts outlined above are essential for securing a new level of senior leader engagement. However, a final ingredient is critical: there must be internal champions.
Multiple people need to become engaged and committed to the program. This involves a multifaceted formula.
First, there must be enough commitment from the senior-most leader to get started. Next, establish a project team with credible members who can represent the program back to their constituencies and build positive anticipation about the program. After this, amp up the anticipation and buzz so that the senior-most players not only bless the program's launch, but also actively sponsor program participants and spend time preparing and delivering the type of leadership exchange outlined here.
And finally, recruit an internal champion focused on moving the program forward through whatever twists and turns present themselves during the program development and launch. Without a true internal champion moving the program forward and who really gets it, the commitment can easily slip, the lecturing versus "how you do it?" distinction can vanish, and with it the desired results.
An inside look
When this approach of engaging rather than lecturing takes place, participants gain several benefits because they see their leaders in a whole new way. It gives them a new level and unique understanding of how the leader thinks, works, and acts; they get to look inside. Many are able to apply the insights they gain from their leaders' lessons learned immediately.
This method truly gets participants thinking about their own leadership and what they can do differently as they strive to grow as leaders. And that is whole point of a leadership development program.