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When is Leadership Development “Transformational”? (Part II)

Posted on October 31, 2017 by: Chris Fagan

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOS global

My last post on this topic described our approach to creating transformational learning environments (Transformational Leadership Development? What Makes it So?). I introduced the idea that when leaders want the organization to transform, they are actually seeking its people to transform. I discussed some key elements including the need to engage each individual to explore his or her unique motivations and identity, to support them in becoming more aligned to the organizational strategy, and to become change leaders themselves.

But the organizational environment equally matters. Just as fish can only swim in oxygenated water, individual change leaders also need an environment where they can breathe, grow and thrive. Few would debate this point, but leaders who emerge from transformational learning experiences will often run into a wall of people who completely miss the importance of workplaces as places of learning, in addition to places of business.

A client of ours recently shared one of his ideas with a colleague: “I told this leader that after meeting individually with my staff, I ask them if they felt I met their needs and that this discussion was worthwhile. This leader thought that this was really silly. This made me feel like this leader was uncomfortable talking about these topics.”

When we consider just how much our modern-day global environments asks of us – to do more with less, meet ever-higher expectations, adapt to new technologies, incubate relevant innovations and assimilate new generational and cultural perspectives into the workforce (phew) — it becomes obvious that none of this is possible without people who can learn, unlearn, and learn again — over and over. What people are essentially doing in these scenarios is a heroic stretch of their cognition, social skills and emotional capacity.

Organizations benefit enormously when their hallways and offices become places of curiosity and exploration, where they are encouraged and rewarded to continue to reinvent themselves and to respond to the evolving demands of their jobs. Leaders must believe at their core that people can and should be learning every day. Reflecting on their experiences, what they’ve learned and how they feel about what they’ve learned, is a practice that leaders can instill regularly, as it is commonly a missing part of the learning integration process.

Is your organization a place with a multitude of ways to learn, unlearn and learn again? Or is taking time to reflect on learning perceived as “silly”, like our client’s colleague said? What can organizations do to be better learning organizations?

Consider that in some organizations:

  • Employees keep a career profile that they maintain themselves, which contains record of their skills training.
  • Employees are the de facto teachers to each other by blogging their insights or writing white papers on company-sponsored internal websites.
  • Companies give badges and certificates are issued to acknowledge achievement are issued for skills that are not tested in exams but that firms nevertheless value.
  • Companies provide extensive support for mentoring and coaching exists to support the idea of learning from others.

And that:

  • AT&T, a telecoms and media firm with about 300,000 employees, gives “nanodegrees” – short courses designed for constant learning.
  • Google employees have one day a week for any personal project they want to pursue. They are accountable for presenting their work to their manager for potential continuation and integration into the organization.
  • In-person executive development programs have become “live concerts” or premium experiences that cannot be replicated online and build critical thinking skills, social skills, and emotional capacity so lacking in more traditional programs.

Forward thinking employers put learning as a skill in its own right:

  • Sanjay Rajagopalan, SVP & Head of Design and Research at Infosys, (until September 2017) emphasizes “learning velocity” – the process of going from a question to a new idea in a matter of days or weeks. (See notes ii)
  • Manpower, a human-resources provider, is currently running trials on an app that evaluates individuals on their “learnability”.
  • Google’s recruitment focuses on finding “learning animals.”
  • Microsoft has leveraged the work of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, to develop performance review criteria that include an appraisal of how employees have learned and applied knowledge from others.

Individuals can have powerful learning experiences in transformational leadership programs. But individual development must be accelerated by a climate that values learning. Indeed, there is no organizational transformation without, well, organizational learning.

(i) Study was done using jobs advertised from online sources
(ii) Design Thinking and the Enterprise. (2015, Volume 1). Infosys Insights, pp. 24


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