Leader-Led Action Learning: We’re Not in Training Anymore

Posted on April 15, 2011

Leader-Led Action Learning: We’re Not in Training Anymore

Leader-Led Action Learning: We’re Not in Training Anymore

It makes sense to link global leadership development with the achievement of strategic business objectives, especially in the midst of difficult times. Leader-led action learning has the potential to transform corporate learning in a way that goes far beyond its standard applications, but this requires a shift in mindset and skills on the part of those who are driving it.

Traditional action learning typically occurs in the context of a leadership “program” that lasts for six months or a year, structured around two or three face-to-face gatherings of current or future leaders at headquarters or in a key emerging market location. During the course of the program, corporate executives are called upon to share information about the business and its future direction, tell their personal stories, and dialogue with participants. In addition, such executives are often asked to propose and sponsor action learning projects that are carried out by small teams of participants in the interim period between face-to-face meetings; later, they may respond to presentations of project results by project teams.

Leader-Led Action Learning: A New Paradigm for Global Learning Strategies

Although these constraints are natural enough in the context of a leadership development program, what if they were removed? More specifically, what if leader-led action learning were to include:

Focus on key corporate objectives for business growth & performance;

  • Selection of vital strategic projects with high levels of visibility and support;
  • Full executive sponsorship and accountability for results;
  • Integration of business and leadership development objectives;
  • Project team leaders and participants who are the best people to carry out the assigned tasks;
  • As much time and resources as are needed to accomplish the task;
  • Alignment of project outcomes with required changes in organizational systems;
  • Metrics and regular reviews that incorporate lessons learned and ensure continuous improvement?

So what does this look like in practice, and how can we ensure that real learning takes place? On-the-job action learning can occur without any formal structure at all, but learning can also be accelerated and enhanced through a structured approach that creates a project “crucible” for optimum results. The business objectives of the project are served because the leader and participants receive special visibility, guidance, coaching, and support. Leadership development is intensified because the team is working with live ammunition on a mission-critical project, and the team leader is doing, learning, and developing other project members at the same time.

For this kind of leader-led action learning, the role of the staff professional (HR, OD, Leadership Development, Diversity, etc.) is different. He or she is not a “trainer,” but a true strategic business partner, working closely with executives to identify top business priorities, select projects and team members, align related support disciplines, serve as a coach for team leaders, and plan and implement needed changes in organizational systems. The project team members are in the center of the action, with staff professionals building a supportive context.


Project Implementation: Eight Steps to Effective Action Learning for Developing Leaders

While leader-led action learning can take various forms, the following steps are generally required to make it successful.

1. Define Key Objectives
This first step involves a review with top firm executives of both key strategic objectives and goals for leadership development. Everyone who is involved with this kind of action learning must be in touch with the heartbeat of the organization. Specifically, they must be able to answer at least three questions related to the health of the business:

–  How is the firm going to grow and become more profitable?
–  How is it going to become more efficient?
–  What are its needs for global talent development?

The responses to these three questions define the business environment and the parameters for action learning, and set the stage for the selection of high priority projects.

2. Review & Align Organizational Context
A critical drawback of action learning within the context of more standard programs is that it does not do enough to challenge or alter organizational factors that reinforce the current state of affairs, thereby undermining changes proposed by project teams. Participants often lack the background or the expertise to examine related organizational systems. At minimum, it is important to align the contributions of all the different staff professionals and disciplines involved with leadership development. Furthermore, those in charge of leader-led action learning need to consider on an ongoing basis how the efforts of specific project teams can be supported through related shifts in:

–  Organizational structure
–  Recruitment & selection
–  Performance management
–  Metrics & rewards
–  Promotion
–  Mobility: short-term & long-term global assignments
–  Succession planning for top leadership roles
–  Communication networks
–  Informal corporate culture

3. Identify Projects
The dialogue with top executives regarding corporate strategy naturally leads to the identification of the types of projects that will support strategic objectives, as well as criteria for whom should be involved on the project teams. Examples of projects might include:

  • Business Growth: exploration of new markets; possible mergers or acquisitions; new products or services; global account management; evaluation of distribution channels; alternative business models
  • Efficiency: cost-cutting proposals; supply chain rationalization; IT solutions; pricing; delivery time; product or service quality
  • Talent Development: leveraging diversity; best practices for global teams; recruitment growth markets; employee engagement & retention; learning & development opportunities; knowledge transfer; generational issues

4. Select Project Leaders
Project team leaders are the ones who put the “leader-led” into action learning by developing future leaders through the course of the project itself. It is, therefore, crucial to select the right people and provide them with the support they will need both to accomplish their vital tasks and to cultivate a new generation of leaders along the way. Given that the next generation of leaders is likely to be far more diverse than its predecessors, it is desirable for team leaders to have a strategic global perspective and prior experience with a multicultural workforce. Here are some suggested criteria for team leader selection:

– “High Potential” designation
–  Strong performance ratings for leadership capabilities & achieving business results
–  Functional or subject matter expertise
–  Prior global working experience
–  Completion of successful cross-border assignments
–  Positioning within internal company networks
–  High peer and 360 degree feedback ratings
–  Representation of various forms of diversity, including national, ethnic, gender, generational, thought

5. Orient the Project Team
Ensuring that the project team has a structured orientation can help it to start off in the right direction. It is generally useful for the executive sponsor and the team leader to provide a comprehensive overview of the project and its significance for the company. The orientation should also include clear definition of roles and responsibilities, team objectives, milestones, timelines, deliverables, and metrics, as well as relationship-building among team members that allows them to begin to establish mutual trust.

It is advisable for each team leader to have a professional coach to provide support and guidance, both for carrying out tasks and for developing the capabilities of team members. The coach can be introduced during the orientation process, along with global leadership development objectives that will be interwoven with the project tasks.

6. Project Implementation
As the project unfolds, regular contacts between the team leader and a support network that includes the executive sponsor, coach, and other team leaders can help to ensure rapid progress. Executive sponsors sometimes assign a liaison person from their organization who is more regularly available to the team leader. A coach helps the leader to consider various approaches to achieving team objectives and to select the best course of action; coaching also examines how the team leader can develop his or her own capabilities as well as those of team members in the course of their project work. When multiple projects are running simultaneously, team leaders themselves can share challenges and solutions, finding ways to support each other.

7. Application of Project Metrics
Appropriate metrics naturally vary according to the type of project, but they should combine qualitative and quantitative elements. More standard measurements include project completion on time and under budget, and revenues generated from new business opportunities. It is also useful to look at career advancement results for participating leaders and team members, pre- and post-project assessments of individual competencies with a tool such as Aperian Global’s GlobeSmart Leadership AssessmentSM, and measurements of team performance.

8. Project Review & Scaling
Leader-led action learning benefits from a continuous feedback loop that extends beyond the boundaries of a common leadership program. The staff functions responsible for setting up and supporting projects should, of course, evaluate metrics and share feedback from team leaders, participants, sponsors, and other stakeholders. Team leaders, support staff, and coaches can meet to gather lessons learned and plan follow-on steps. Pilot projects that have borne fruit — say the trial of a new product concept — may be scaled to larger numbers of teams in different regions. Some projects can move from a planning phase into an implementation phase if their initial investigations have produced positive results. Again, the structure of any next steps is best determined according to the demands of the business itself, and not by leadership program schedules or deadlines.


Traditional global leadership development programs perform important functions and will play a valuable role for a long time to come. The face-to-face connections and network-building that take place between high potential leaders from around the world are well worth the investment. Participants often remark that thanks to their new network they are now able to solve problems in a day that would have taken months to address previously. Leader-led action learning is likely to continue to be a major ingredient of these programs.

Yet leader-led action learning need not be confined to a leadership program context. It can be carried out in other formats that may offer greater flexibility and business focus. Alternative forms of action learning of the kind outlined here provide significant advantages, especially during tough economic times, by bringing exactly the right people and the required level of resources together to advance strategic objectives. By integrating high-profile projects with on-the-job learning opportunities, action learning projects provide an intensive developmental experience for team leaders and participants with minimal added expense, and are readily scalable across the organization to achieve major impacts. If truly optimized, such projects can become a normal part of a company’s business cycle — a key component within an integrated and holistic system that employees value and to which they strive to contribute. This is a different and more complex venue than a formal program or training event, but it may be just what hard-pressed CEOs are seeking.

Developing a strong team able to lead in a quickly changing global landscape starts with the right talent development strategy. Aperian Global has worked with global organizations to develop successful talent development strategies for their leaders and high potentials and offers ongoing individualized coaching and support. Have a look at our Leadership Development solutions or contact us today to find out how we can help your organization grow a leadership pipeline to enable global success.

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