About 10 years ago, I was pitching a leadership programme to a global head of HR at a tech company when she leant forward, with a mixture of amusement and malice, and said loudly “I hate to be the one to tell you this but leadership programmes don’t work.”
I think I looked a little shell-shocked. She was a charismatic figure who liked to mildly intimidate consultants. She looked me up and down and went on to explain that “one size fits all” leadership programmes usually ignored the different context and situation that the leaders found themselves in. “It’s easy to create a great learning experience but incredibly hard to change mindset, attitude and behaviour. So that’s why they are a waste of money. They have a great time in the coffee breaks but nothing changes. Our job is the best learning experience and it’s cheaper.”
I felt puzzled after that meeting. Apart from wondering why she had asked me to pitch, I was also curious about what she had said. Everyone knows what good leadership looks like but it’s not so clear what stops us leading. We get into habits, habits that are hard to change. After all, the brain doesn’t like change, so we experience a lot of resistance. So how do you design a leadership programme that takes all that into account?
The art and science of behaviour change is fascinating and has a long history. Plato said that human behaviour flows from desire, emotion and knowledge. So workshops may fill you full of knowledge but I believe you will never achieve your full leadership potential unless you understand your emotions and understand why you want to lead. I wonder how Donald Trump would answer those questions!
Whilst reading up on the subject, It’s soon became clear that emotions are central to all behaviour and all behaviour change. I encountered some extraordinary thinkers like Bill Torbert, Robert Kegan, Marshal Rosenberg, Daniel Goleman and Reg Revans. They had shown that people could change if they built more self-awareness around their “drivers,” barriers and the legacy they wanted to create. But it was the dynamic nature of group learning that really struck me. The secret ingredient is to create a “container” where people trust each other, can be vulnerable and try new things.
So when the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute approached us for a potential leadership programme, I had this foremost in my mind and decided to put it into practice. We partnered with the very experienced and capable L&D team to design a five-day programme with the focus not just on leadership topics but on making it stick through psychometrics, action learning sets and experiential learning.
For the psychometrics we used the Lumina Spark, one of the best profiling tools on the market. It’s scientifically robust but the focus is a large floor mat split into four colours representing our innate human preferences. The delegates loved it. They could see their own preferences and how they differ to their teams. They learnt the power of being flexible but in the context of the colours, “what does it feel like to stand in the red and lead.” People got a visceral reason for wanting to flex, to adapt their natural inclination, i.e. change their behaviour.
Every time we met we worked on real problems the group were experiencing. It lent the workshop much more credibility. They learnt to work together and look for patterns. We had ground rules and people started to trust each other and take risks by asking difficult questions.
Finally, we placed Action Learning Sets (the idea that people can come together and learn from helping each other work through their challenges) at the core of the programme. For Action Learning Sets to be effective the group must see what’s in it for them. They have to take responsibility for making them work. Our first cohort realised they are wonderful life-changing resources and they can also be fun, short and outcome focused.
With the follow up executive coaching I found we were able to really focus on what holds the delegates back from being leaders and we worked together to try “easy wins” and get them to see the bigger benefits of a change of behaviour.
Having seen the first cohort go through the programme, I think they have a far better understanding of their emotions, lots of knowledge and most of all a desire to lead to help others. They also have each other. I see a refreshing new self-awareness and attitude. I see change.
So for our leaderships programmes we have
P-Psychometric testing and flexing
E-Emotional intelligence and embodied leadership
So we practice Talking APE.
So 10 years down the line I now have an answer for that Head of HR. Leadership programmes do work!