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Andy Beaulieu

Action-Based Leadership Development: Design Tips for a Successful Program

by Andy Beaulieu

Successful leaders achieve competence through job-related challenges – a stretch assignment, rescue situation, or greenfield build – more so than classroom training, executive education, or any other developmental source. The challenge for learning programmers, however, is to generate enough of these opportunities to meet demand. One approach – action learning – has emerged as a reliable and effective alternative. Typically, an iteration of the program involves teams assigned to executive sponsors with a "challenge project" to be completed. Although program parameters may vary, presented below are some "best practices" which should help your program succeed. Because an action learning program stresses application over the presentation of new "learning content," it can complement existing curricula without major program surgery.

Prepare the broader organization for "innovation."

The teams are going to need to innovate: solve problems, develop new ideas, run quick validation tests, and implement solutions. If your organization is used to layers of review, careful consideration, damage control, risk avoidance, and similar norms, you had better work with leadership ahead of time to explain the new paradigm being employed in this program. Otherwise your teams will hit a wall and come to a grinding halt.

Select meaningful, compelling projects to challenge the teams.

Identifying good projects is critical, so don't leave it to chance or the last minute. When you meet with executives to discuss the program, ask them for project ideas. Their strategic plan could be a great source, both for new opportunities and issues. Also ask about survey results, including customer and associate satisfaction. Process improvement projects are also good candidates, but can become routine if overused. Whatever you do, shoot for a mix of projects over time and within each iteration of the program.

Require bottom-line business results from all projects.

The biggest error that action learning program administrators make is to allow projects to deliver anything but bottom-line business results. Any staff group can pull together some research and cook up impressive-looking PowerPoint slides with recommendations. Where's the learning in that? Instead, work with your sponsors to define an outcome that involves developing and implementing a solution that carries a desired bottom-line result. That result can entail costs saved, the acquisition of new customers, the introduction of a new product, or any other economic benefit. It must entail, at the very least, a test or trial that proves its value to the organization. Consider making one of your financial analysts available to review any claims of economic benefit.

Rightsize the projects to minimize risk.

Although the implementation requirement might seem to demand a longer project cycle, fourteen weeks, plus or minus, is about the right amount of time. Any shorter and the activity collapses into one long rush, any longer and you increase the risk of projects floating off into neverland. Often a larger project can be "scoped down" to the right size: only one region, just on one production line or shift, just for a certain demographic. Since the projects must include implementation in order to achieve bottom-line results, a narrower scope is often better.

Hold the project sponsors accountable for both developmental and business results.

Sponsors have two objectives – project success and participant development – and must maintain a focus on both. A sponsor who leaves development up to each participant has failed just as sharply as one who lets a team "off the hook" for a project that does not deliver results. Be sure your sponsors understand the role and are serious about fulfilling it.

Make the projects a substantial part-time commitment.

Some organizations conduct a form of compressed action learning with full-time projects lasting only two weeks. But a more typical approach is to scope the projects at about 25% of participants' time over a longer program duration. This forces participants to balance the program with their regular job, but also to need to plan ahead and delegate (a key skill for leaders anyway, right?). It also allows time for the developmental aspects of the experience to kick in.

Leave out the content delivery.

The premise of action learning is to integrate and apply the lessons of other programs to the challenge at hand. You can make this point most definitively by avoiding the temptation to "throw in" a lesson or two "just in case." At this point, let participants marshal all their resources. If no one knows how to create a project plan, they can get help when needed from a self-study course, a coach, or even that binder from an old class someone once took.

Don't "launch and leave."

After launching a round of teams, many action learning programs simply expect those teams to report to their sponsors and wrap up whenever possible. The risk with this approach is that many of the projects stretch out, lose momentum, or get "deprioritized" in favor of other crises. To prevent this, launch and end the teams together. In between, conduct a "mid-program workshop" to check progress on all fronts, project and development. This also helps non-collocated teams to re-energize after weeks of virtual meetings.

Make sure the development component doesn't take a back seat.

Asking, "What did you learn?" at the end of the program does not equate to learning. Participants undertaking any challenge will always incur "accidental learning"; your goal is for them to achieve targeted learning. Each participant should identify and pursue a specific, personal development objective that can be addressed via a task or role on the project team. These development objectives should come from – or at least be blessed by – the participants' managers. Feedback and coaching should be focused on behaviors and results associated with the objective. At the final presentation to executives, each participant should have a couple minutes to describe how they used the program to prepare themselves for a step up in responsibility in their next role.

Involve program alumni.

Involve past participants in the launch or mid-program workshops as a lunchtime panel to discuss their experiences and answer questions. These alumni can also serve as mentors to those in the program, guiding them on the project or development challenges they are facing.

Make this a laboratory for coaching and feedback.

Program participants should expect feedback at all times from all possible sources: their project teammates, their manager, their normal work peers who are seeing less of them these days, program facilitators, their sponsor, etc. Do some work around feedback when you launch the teams so they realize how integral it is going to be. At the midpoint, conduct a "team member evaluation" in which everyone assesses the contributions of their teammates. Just as the project is compressed in time, so should be the pace and intensity of feedback.

Inject executives strategically throughout the program.

Each team should have a different executive sponsor. At the end of the program, the teams should present their final results to an executive panel which includes all your sponsors plus their peers and the next level up. At the mid-term workshop, invite a top-level executive (think EVP or above) to talk about leadership at your organization. Get a blurb about your teams' results injected into your CEO's next communiqué.

Don't let involvement be a checkbox for participants.

Learning never ends, and neither should your best strategy for developing your leaders. Each time someone participates in the program the experience will be different: different teammates, different development objectives, and different roles. The program should be ongoing – at least twice per year – and participants should expect to be invited in more than once.

Collect program information.

Each action learning team is going to produce binders of documentation on the project. But you'll want some key information for later use for the program and its participants. Consider creating a simple database and asking all teams to help you populate it by updating their original charter with final, actual information. In addition, ask them to comment on the project's highlights and key challenges. Provide this information to later teams; they may learn something from what's been documented, or seek out an "alumni" for some coaching on a similar situation. Another nice touch is a short "caselette" that can be included in a newsletter and retained in the same database.

In addition to – and maybe separate from – a project record, consider documenting the development objectives and strategies of each participant. This data may not be widely circulated, but you might review this record to learn some ways past participants approached similar development needs. Under the right circumstances, a dialogue or coaching relationship could be generated.

Don't hesitate to publicize your success.

If you implement these guidelines, you will receive some very significant, even moving comments from participants. Don't hesitate to use this feedback to promote the program internally or help "sell" it to other business units.

Copyright © Andy Beaulieu

About the Author
Andy Beaulieu

Andy Beaulieu is the Principal behind Results for a Change and acts as a Senior Associate for Business Performance Pty Ltd. He has over 20 years experience consulting to management, helping groups form and succeed, developing leaders, managing change initiatives and reengineering business processes. Andy's Action Learning Leadership Development program has achieved outstanding results for his clients. He is also the author of Succession Planner, a comprehensive leadership succession planning tool. Andy may be contacted at andy@businessperform.com.

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