The concept of experiential development for leaders is hardly new anymore. Even before COVID-19 shattered the world of work, all 40 organisations Talupp interviewed for the book Accelerated Leadership Development agreed that experiential development was key to turning top talent into successful leaders.
In light of this then, it is surprising that many organisations still do not know how to implement experiential development effectively or comprehend the urgency of this for their emerging leaders post-pandemic.
The fact is that modern-day leaders require almost superhuman qualities. While managing change, innovation, communication, collaboration, delivering results and strategic vision have been at the forefront of leadership for many years, COVID-19 has acted as a lightning rod, effectively ‘supercharging’ the traditional qualities needed to be a mindful, effective, future-ready leader. In particular:
1 Managing change has become agility.
Leaders with supercharged qualities must be acutely responsive to ever-changing business models and resourcing challenges, whilst knowing how to make best of their people. They must be able to hold several often-conflicting ideas in their minds, recognising that there are no black and white solutions to any problem.
2 Innovation has become rapid prototyping.
Nurturing entrepreneurial spirit within many large organisations has traditionally been akin to wading through treacle. These days the organisational rulebook has been thrown out of the window, so leaders must find collective solutions to make innovation happen. Future-ready leadership is highly practical - drawing the best people together, gathering a range of ideas and testing concepts with an agile mindset.
3 Communication has become emotional intelligence.
Getting people on board and sharing vision are still crucial, however successful leadership is now also about personal conversations, driven by concern for emotional and mental wellbeing, engagement and retention. Leaders must not only look carefully at themselves in the mirror, but also understand the complex challenges faced by others, connecting with them at a deep personal level.
4 Collaboration has become harnessing diversity.
The ability to quickly assemble divergent groups of people from across the organisation, drawing on diverse talents to gain new perspectives and come up with best possible solutions is crucial for future-ready leaders.
5 Strategic vision has become seeing what is ahead.
This involves scanning 360 to understand what’s happening, drawing on complex, conflicting data to analyse trends, competition and what is still unknown.
6 Delivering results has become focus.
Amidst change and disruption leaders with supercharged qualities must be able to focus on a small number of deliverables that produce results, shutting out distractions to focus on deep work.
While theory gained from MBA or leadership development programmes is a good starting point to develop these supercharged qualities, for leaders to make this knowledge their own much more needs to be done. This is where experiential learning comes into play.
Kolb’s learning cycle has been around for quite a while but its insights into how we learn are still highly relevant. Building on a bedrock of knowledge leaders gain, they must throw themselves into unfamiliar situation to understand exactly what experience feels like. After that, they must step back to observe and think critically about what has worked or not worked. The final important stage is active experimentation – applying this to new situations and continuing to innovate.
A note of caution for organisations. It is all too easy for developing leaders to absorb new content and try different ways of doing thing, but fall down when it comes to thinking, reflection and future application, amidst the pressures of every-day delivery. They must continuously be nudged down this path.
While not everyone learns in the same way, there are key experiences at every level which can turn top talent into future-ready leaders with supercharged qualities:
At a junior level early stretch assignments are significant accelerator. Being willing to learn from others and step into the unknown means junior leaders will feel ready to take on almost any role, no matter what the world throws in their way.
At junior to mid-level, people management (learning to develop through others), operational delivery (understanding what the organisation needs to deliver), operating in a different environment and having global remit are essential.
At a mid to senior level, start-up, change management, breadth, special projects, turnaround and restructure are key experiences.
Even at the most senior level, experiential development must never stop. It is the greatest career accelerator and only way to build supercharged leadership qualities needed for organisations to thrive, in a business world where success is hard-won and nothing is ever certain.