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A Recipe for Building Leaders

If you were making a pizza for dinner, but left off the sauce and cheese, you’d serve a bland lump of dough for family and friends. The same thing happens when you provide a leadership development program without the essential ingredients: Time, variety, and a personal touch.

 

Consider this scenario: A 300-employee Virginia-based data analysis company that served the transportation industry for more than two decades hit a speed bump in 2005. Its legacy computer system groaned under the weight of decades of patched code and costly outages were having a toll on customer service. Although the systems were rocky the employee-base was rock-solid. Most employees were incredibly loyal to the company with the average length of service topping more than 15 years. But the new corporate leaders brought in to upgrade technology platforms had misgivings about the managerial abilities of this legacy staff.

 

The challenge was that the management team capable of leading the organization’s old timers through a massive change? Leaders feared the new team wasn’t up to the challenge, so they hired me to help upgrade management skills. Immediately, I saw a group of eager individuals who had learned how to be managers primarily by trial and error. But they were willing to learn and – most importantly – they were dedicated to helping the company succeed.

 

Over the next three years, I worked closely with this slightly green management team to create a leadership development program designed to enable them to manage others through technological and organizational change.

 

• We dished out the program over a six-month period, providing half-day sessions to leaders once every six week.

• The extra time enabled me to develop programs based on each leader’s learning style.

• In between sessions, I had plenty of time to meet with each team member, which enabled me to develop a personal trust-based relationship with them where I could act as their confidante.

By the end of the project, leaders had a new perspective on what needed to be done to ramp up the company to meet new standards, and upgrade some of their outdated skills and perspectives.

 

I continue to put these ingredients to work to upgrade leadership skills to help the managers effectively empower the employees to cope with changes that are ahead. So make sure time is on your side. The traditional model for leadership development is to present employees with information about how to manage better. The information may be supplemented with interactive discussions and exercises, but is essentially a quick and dirty download of information that spans a few hours to a few days.

 

 

The problem with this one-time approach is that it does not build in time to think about how to use the new information back on the job. True learning only occurs when new information is tested for effectiveness and determined valid. People need time to absorb and apply new information.

 

That’s why I led a series of half-day workshops, once a month for six months, and got these results:

• The participants had the opportunity to take in the new leadership advice, and then apply their new skills over the course of a month.

• Since we met six times over six-months, the multiple sessions allowed them to explore their new skills and experience various business cycles and organizational changes.

• The managers were also able to bring back real examples of their successes and failures, and as a group we were able to talk through their experiences. In the end, everyone benefited from these candid conversations.

 

And do realize variety is the spice of life. Whenever I walk into a group leadership training session, I know there are at least six different types of learners sitting before me. Each takes in information and processes it differently. How can I reach everyone, in only a half day?

 

Although it can be tricky to teach to a variety of learning styles, as the facilitator I know I need to have a clear understanding of the individual learning styles represented in the group. So I pass out a questionnaire before the session begins so I’m prepared to teach each of them so they learn best.

 

Another great solution: Be a Confidante. I try this every time I walk into a new situation because I face the same dilemma: Within just a few hours I need to gain the trust of leaders so that they are engaged, interested, and open to learning. The truth is that I’m a stranger.

 

So I hold private, one-on-one coaching sessions in between the monthly classroom workshops so that the participants had time to ask more personal questions and have someone to confide in. In these sessions, I did not use formal coaching methods. Instead, I simply asked the managers to talk about what they would have / could have done differently in a variety of situations, which helped them consider whether their management behavior was effective.

 

Once they felt they had mastered a variety of situations using the principles from the program, I asked them to share that with the other participants at the next session.

 

Consider these results:

• One manager realized that her primary method of handling conflict with her boss was avoidance. After learning about the different conflict modes she was unaccustomed to use, she began dealing with disagreement with her boss and others much more effectively.

• A project manager used the leading change model to help a change resistant client adjust to an internal reorganization. He shared with the class that his biggest problem dealing with change was not with his project team – but with a resistant client. Once he identified the root of the issue, he was able to use one of the models he learned in the program to coach that client through necessary changes.

• Another manager expressed that she felt under-stimulated in her current role and was looking for more opportunities within and outside the company. We discussed various career options, but focused mostly on the positive and negative aspects of her current and past positions. When her boss approached her a few weeks later about a promotional opportunity, she was ready to seize it because she had spent the necessary time to decide what she valued most in her work.

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