Fuel to the fire: accelerating Leader’s learning.

How did you learn to be a leader? Whenever I ask this question of senior managers I am met with a slightly surprised look. Although research suggests strongly that reflection is a key part of effective learning and leadership development, it appears that many have not thought deeply about how they learned, as distinct from what they have learned.

After a short pause, the answers I hear frequently include learning by trial and error, having good mentors and coaching which is in line with earlier research indicating that most of leaders’ learning comes from experience.

A recent survey by Deloitte suggests that for Millenials, developing their leadership abilities and having the opportunity to practice leadership plays a significant role in their loyalty and engagement with their current employer. So figuring out how the most effective ways to learn how to lead seems to be a worthwhile investment for organizations today.

Learning Agility

Learning to be a leader requires learning agility.

Without learning agility, you have experiences, but you don’t convert these into adaptive behaviors that you can use in future similar situations.

Behaviors of an effective learner include reflection, deep processing, practice, goal-setting, feedback-seeking, regulating self and effort, and meta-cognition.

Practice and Coaching

Leaders need to identify practice fields where they can try-out and refine their new leadership skills and behaviors. The concept of deliberate practice is adopted from research into world-class performance in specific domains. Deliberate practice works for skills and behaviors that are acquired gradually and developed through repeated practice and stretch goals that demand higher performance over time.

“Deliberate practice presents performers with tasks that are initially outside their current realm of reliable performance, yet can be mastered within hours of practice by concentrating on critical aspects and by gradually refining performance through repetitions after feedback.[…] Hence, the requirement for concentration sets deliberate practice apart from both mindless, routine performance and playful engagement.” (1)

Research by Dr Phil Allcock in the area of behavioral decision making helps explain how deliberate practice can enable behavior change in leaders and puts forward a coaching process that helps practitioners to implement this.

According to Dr Allcock sustained change required is only possible if individuals choose to engage with and manage “moments of truth” in a way that brings that change to life. A moment of truth for a leader is a situation that they have identified in their day-to-day working life where they have the opportunity to apply a new leadership skill or behaviour, and they have deemed that to do so is more important, acceptable and possible than their typical behaviour. Judgments about importance, acceptability and possibility are uniquely personal, informed by an individual’s history and personality (their identity).

Supporting leaders to utilise these moments of truth as practice fields for new skills and behaviors can be done through a four stage coaching process:

  1. Context
  2. Outcome
  3. Moments of Truth
  4. Embedding

Context is the environment from which the need for change emerges. It comprises both hard and soft elements. A generic case for change, no matter how logical, is not sufficient here. Exploring the context must bring an individual to the realization that proposed changes are vitally important to them. The individual therefore needs to understand their own identity and, consequently, their unique version of what’s important, acceptable and possible in their real world.

Once the case for change has been acknowledged, it is vital that an individual is able to get real clarity about what the required change looks and sounds like in their “real world”. This segment of the process is about aligning what’s important to the organisation with what’s important to the individual. It also must ensure that those outcomes are set with what is acceptable to and possible for the individual in mind.

Moments of truth are answers to the question; “where will you be and who will you be with when you have the opportunity to deliver those outcomes?”. Once identified, work at this stage focuses on increasing the likelihood that an individual will scan for, engage with and skilfully manage those moments of truth in their “real world”. This will involve building on what’s important, or useful, and acceptable to and possible for the individual concerned.

Work done at the previous stage will create the potential for behavioural change. Because we’re looking for sustained change, the individuals need to build confidence that this new behaviour is actually as useful, acceptable and possible in their “real world” as it first seemed.

Continued coaching support is needed to reinforce positive and re-engineer negative experiences, and create new responses to new moments of truth.

So, tell us – how are you learning to be a better Leader?

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1) The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance, K. Anders Ericsson in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.