My Approach to Executive Development: Creating a Learning Experience

The Best Teacher is Experience

The evidence is very clear: the best preparation for a senior role in any organization is experience. There is really no contest; classroom training, business school teaching, coaching and theoretical concepts are all left far behind. Certain kinds of experience work better than others. Challenging assignments, significant bosses and reversals of fortune – hardships – are the best teachers. Ideas and concepts have their place but they are best used in the aftermath of experience, as people try to make sense of what happened, of what worked and what didn’t. I create learning experiences that mimic the same sequence – experience, discussion and feedback, framework. The discussions help people to make sense of their own experiences and learn from those of their peers. The frameworks help them understand the “so whats”, the contexts in which certain management concepts might work and, more importantly, the contexts in which they won’t work. I use a variety of methods to compress the experiences in space and time. Challenging assignments take the form of simulations and case studies that are customized to the client organization. Significant bosses are studied via movies and videos; the impacts of hardships are both seen and felt. As these experiences are discussed with peers and experts, they are integrated using a graphic, multimedia, systems framework that constitutes a compelling vision of how the world works.

The Client Experience

The client experience is that my programs help them observe better, orientate themselves better, decide better and take action better, largely through allowing them to communicate better. They see “new” things that are usually parts of the situation they had not noticed before and because they now have more of their people paying attention. They orientate themselves better because they have the management equivalent of a compass and a map that allows navigation in parts both strange and familiar. They decide and take action better because the program creates new connections and conversations between people and ideas. These opportunities for communication come together under the umbrella of story – the creation and telling of a never-ending narrative that deals with where the organization has come from, where it is now and where it is going. This narrative is not the tale of seamless success that is often presented to outsiders – investors and analysts. These smooth confections have a role to play, but it is not here. This is the real, gritty inside story complete with confusion, misunderstandings, errors, mistakes, outright screw-ups and lucky breaks. This is an unfinished story that is authentic and believable; in short, it is human. It engages people because they feel that they can contribute a line, a page or even a chapter or two.

Creating the Experience

The process of creating a learning experience consists of five stages – discussion, exploration, design, delivery and follow-up:

Discussion: I meet with the person responsible for the learning initiative and their boss to understand the organizational context, the objectives of the initiative and how they define “victory”.

Exploration: I explore the organization at several levels using a combination of interview and structured questionnaires. I like to talk to people at as many levels as possible to get multiple perspectives and to assess the state of the organization’s current inside story.

Design: I go away and think about what experiences might serve the initiative best. I have access to and have used a vast range of cases, simulations, movies, videos and feedback instruments of many kinds. There may be pre-work required in the form of readings, case work, the completion of psychological and cultural feedback instruments etc.

Delivery: the learning experience is delivered in the time frames and in as many modules as might be required. I work with trusted, experienced colleagues who can help with the design and delivery of all or part of the experience.

Follow-up: the all important follow-up, short-term and longer-term. What worked? What didn’t? If the lessons of experience are to be taken seriously then the learning initiative must be combined with the career paths – the trajectories of participants’ assignments and the bosses they will report to.

How could the learning experience itself be improved? The feedback goes both ways because I’m still learning too.