Self Directed Learning

It’s Saturday and I’m thinking about leadership development mid-afternoon. Something about that equation isn’t right.

As an internal practitioner, I’m faced with some challenges. The learning and development I help facilitate needs to be relevant, responsive, and meets people’s myriad of needs. I need to be mindful of how technology can help support learning, and in turn how various vendors are bringing this technology to market. I also need to remain mindful of how our understanding of how learning happens in humans is becoming more and more advanced.

In a recent post I wrote about leadership development not being up to par and how specifically I didn’t know what the answer was.

So let’s make some assumptions for a moment. Front line managers will always need a formal training process which guides them through a journey of self development and improving their general management skills and behaviours. Senior managers tend to be given a more developed version of that training. Directors and Executive teams tend to go for the MBA or Exec coaching approach.

I’m currently putting some thought to how to support our senior managers with their leadership development. What I’m trying to get my head round is how to decide what content, and what delivery methods will work best for them. Content is in abundance in this area, delivery methodologies are varied, and there is the added nuance that their needs will be different. They’re a skilled bunch, this is why they’re at the level they are. They’re keen to receive some development, and are open to ideas. Blank canvas anyone?

Essentially I’m toying around with how to enable an organic form of learning which still meets business needs.

I’m thinking this needs to fall into two camps. One is about the content, and the other is about the delivery choices.

Facilitated Learning

In order for this organic process to work, I’m wondering if there still needs to be some facilitation from me. Do I still need to control what this programme looks like, and remain the arbiter of the realm. I have just as much of an ego as anyone else, and what to be able to say my big brain (hold the jokes folks) came up with the bright idea.

What I’d like to do is the following. I want to hold a session where I present what content could potentially form the programme. We then have an open discussion about which parts are more relevant and require more focus, and which can be self-directed. The parts identified as needing more focus will become a workshop, or a masterclass, or a course. The other areas will be open to self-directed learning process.

I also want to be explicitly clear about what this self-directed learning actually means, and have a discussion about how that learning is captured, shared and available for scrutiny. By scrutiny I don’t mean assessment of the learning, but being able to interrogate what learning actually took place, and how they have noticed a development of their skills, knowledge or behaviour.

The Content

From the content what I’m aiming for is to have an agreed set of topics which everyone wants to receive some formal instruction on. I also want to explore how that topic is delivered. As I’ve alluded, some topics may require a masterclass session. Some may require a full day’s course or workshop. Some topics may even require a formal qualification. There are two important considerations here. The first is that it’s the people identifying what that learning looks like. I just need to present options for making the learning happen. The second is that they identify which parts of the topic require this formal instruction.

Self Directed Learning

This is the piece which I think captures this whole unknown area of ‘social learning’ and ‘content curation’ which is being banded around by many ‘expert’ L&Ders. Once we’ve discovered which content doesn’t require formal instruction, we can then open up the options for what this self directed learning needs to cover. Leading on from there, this naturally becomes an individual choice about how they receive that learning. We (royal) are well aware of the plethora media and content sites available online for a range of learning. Naturally there will also be other (non-digital) options available too – books, journals, coaching, mentoring, etc.

I think it’s important in the context of a programme of learning that even though this self directed learning may ordinarily naturally happen, what I’m trying to go for is making the informal formal. That’s a complete contradiction in terms, but it’s the only way I can think of describing what I’m thinking. The informal learning is respective to the natural learning style of the individual. We agree how they will capture that learning, share it, and make it open for scrutiny. That scrutiny could happen with anyone the person identifies as being someone who could help evaluate if the self directed learning was effective or not.

Logistics and Boundaries

There’s a natural tension here. This organic approach in its truest sense means that there should be no boundaries. Business needs, though, will demand that there is some clarity about the programme’s objectives, a time period it will be complete it, and how we evaluate the effectiveness of this approach.

As far as I’m concerned these aren’t barriers to success. They’re just natural expectations which need to be considered and managed. I’m cool with that.

Leadership development is not up to par

A while ago I posted up some thoughts on what a standard leadership course looks like in 2013. I purposefully didn’t add any commentary to it, as I wanted to see what the reaction was to it.

I’m actually not so concerned with the content side of things. What I’m concerned about is the development mindset we think we must put our leaders through.

Here’s the thing. We want our leaders to succeed. So we say to them they need to go on a course and in most cases it will be an external provider. Typically a course is 3-5 days long, and will provide the necessary skills. They may go back for a one or two day follow up. It’s done. You’ve been invested in. You’re now better. If you’re lucky it’ll be accredited or certified in some way and you’ll get a badge. We all love a badge.

There are plenty of very good and very useful different ways of looking at leadership development, and leadership needs. There is no way of knowing which of them is better than the others, and, indeed, if they are complementary, if they are in conflict, or if they are just rubbish. There are also a good many provider of leadership development who all have very interesting angles on takes on the topic, and again, there’s no way of knowing who is better, and why you should select one over the other.

The other day David Goddin asked a really good question on Twitter about the explicit outcomes we link to leadership development. I argued that this never happens, and all we can manage are expectations.

If we develop an internal programme, we have more flexibility about the content, the delivery mechanisms, and even the facilitators. If you’re really lucky it’ll be accredited or certified, because we all love a badge.

So what about those outcomes then? How do we make them explicitly linked to leadership development?

The problem is, there are too many factors which could change or improve performance to hinge it on a development programme. My issue sits more with the fact that we as L&D think a course or programme or other intervention is the solution at all.

I’m currently mulling over whether 360 is actually valuable in terms of leadership development. It serves to increase self awareness about how you impact others, and there is plenty of research that provides clear indication of leadership competencies, but what do we do if someone is able to move their scroes on the 360, but they still are poor leaders?

What questions do we start to ask? Were the objectives SMART? Were the expectations made clear? Was the development and support provided not helpful? Is the person just not capable?

And what of coaching as an intervention? Surely if we are looking to improve performance, coaching is the best solution? Although, I get the impression these days that coaching is a replacement for a form of counselling as opposed to actual performance improvement. Do we therefore need to build a coaching culture and upskill managers to do this? What if they are trained in these skills but still aren’t capable or able to improve the performance of their teams? Was this a failed intervention?

And then there’s all this stuff about social leadership. Leaders need to be active on social network channels in order to better connect with and engage with people at work. If they don’t then we get all suspicious and cynical about their motives. Not every leader should be on these channels – especially if they’re not naturally a people person.

Which brings me back to wondering what is the right approach for leadership development? Currently, I’m guilty of this same thinking. I’m about to embark on a programme of activity to train 180 managers in management skills. They’re going to be sheep dipped the poor lot. This isn’t my intention, and I don’t think it’s innovative, but it will do the job, and in all likelihood will achieve desired expectations.

Let’s push this boat out.

Leadership development, I believe, cannot be measured with hard explicit outcomes. You can set clear expectations. But it is too much of a hop, skip and a jump to claim that revenue increased by x% because the Chief Information Officer went through leadership development.

What I also believe is that leadership development is currently not challenging enough or robust enough to deal with the challenges facing businesses and organisations across the work landscape.

I believe that for leaders to have successful development, we need to completely re-think the purpose of the development, and therefore the delivery mechanisms. Coaching, training, facilitation, self-driven learning, mentoring, psychometrics, e-learning, and a whole host of other methodologies are at the disposal of any dedicated learner. What I don’t know is what we’re missing.

This is a call to all L&Ders concerned with leadership development. Here’s what I’m telling you – what you’re doing isn’t good enough. Here’s the challenge – I don’t know what good enough looks like.

Standard Leadership Course in 2013

A Modular Approach.

360 feedback as a starter for discussion and focus for leadership development.

Pre-reading / work before each module.

Kick off talk / facilitated discussion by CEO or equivalent.

Elearning as core part of programme to support and impart new information.

A project to be completed as part of the programme.

Use of social networks to connect people through the programme and beyond.

It might be accredited / certified by a college / university.

Typically lasts 8 months.

Involves Action Learning sets.

Coaching offered to all people.

Final presentation at the end to senior management team.

Evaluation is based on performance which was never clearly measured in the first place so is now measured on ROE.

Follow up session three – six months later through surgery type sessions.