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Lighting Fires: Igniting Leaders With Project-Based Learning


Mon May 08 2023

Lighting Fires: Igniting Leaders With Project-Based Learning

There’s a title you won’t find on our business cards, but it’s one we embrace wholeheartedly. That role is Firestarter.

Very little in our industry is as rewarding as witnessing the first sparks of leadership in someone. And when we’re lucky, we witness it grow to a full flame as they light fires in others. Of all the tools in our leadership coaching and talent development toolbox, we’ve found project-based learning (PBL) to be the most effective in enhancing a team member’s strengths and igniting the leader within.


PBL is experiential learning at its finest. It’s a teaching method in which participants learn by actively engaging in meaningful, real-world projects. In essence, it’s storytelling brought to life. You start with a first draft, make any necessary edits, and then witness it at work in context–engaging all your participants’ skills and senses.

In addition, there’s a powerful collaboration component, pulling all resources to leverage their combined leadership skills for one common goal. The PBL approach is imbued with built-in accountability, structure, goals, and deadlines.

This allows participants to apply what they are learning in real-time and see the results immediately, empowering them to adapt faster and envision the potential effects of the lessons—on themselves, their peers, and throughout the organization.

To design a project-based learning program, begin by identifying the problem to be solved and developing projects around how to address it. After each project, you’ll want to discuss and track the impact and spotlight the leadership skills that were brought to the forefront.

Kristine Ellis, director of employee and leadership development for GuideWell/Florida Blue’s Employee and Executive Leadership Development team, and Jonathan Burman, organizational psychologist and partner for The Best Workplace, have designed and implemented remarkable PBL programs. Let’s take a closer look at how these programs function.



GuideWell’s Leadership Academy and Unleash Leadership Talent

**GuideWell is a nonprofit mutual holding company and the parent to a family of forward-thinking companies focused on transforming healthcare.

Audience: Executive leaders, senior managers, and director-level employees

Executive Sponsors: C-suite sponsorship and funding for projects that met the criteria

Program Timelines: 12 months


Synopsis: Both strategic leadership PBL programs were designed by Ellis of the Employee Leadership and Development Team and collaboratively with GuideWell Innovation to incorporate the innovation project. Participants leverage hands-on working sessions, are provided a safe space to learn and grow, and have real-time, practical team application. With the goal of developing leadership skills and competence that form the basis for future leadership success among program participants, these programs were intentionally aligned with GuideWell’s leadership beliefs.

Throughout a year-long program, participants create an experiential innovation project. Crafted around REAL strategic opportunities directly related to the business, these projects are completed in cohorts within the program, engaging groups of five to six people and yielding five to six projects. Each participant is empowered to practice the leadership skills introduced in the program during the innovation project experience, including creativity, innovation, communication, influence, collaboration, project management, business modeling, increased self-awareness, and coaching.

Outcomes: As a result of both programs, GuideWell effectively improved its employee preparedness, solidified its leadership pipeline for succession planning, enhanced team members’ leadership development, strengthened participants’ capabilities and interpersonal relationships, identified resources, and managed risk.

Masco Leadership Program in Innovation

Masco Corporation is a global leader in designing, manufacturing, and distributing branded home improvement and building products.

Audience: Masco leaders and managers with stakeholder (C-suite) support

Program Timeline: 6-12 months (depending on scope)

Overview: Programs based on project-based learning are applied in scalable dosages within customized learning programs. Masco also jointly crafts projects with organizations to reinforce learning and complete existing “in-progress” projects. This process successfully uses real-life projects as the context for building collaboration, problem-solving, and communication skills.

The Masco Leadership Program in Innovation involves the creation of a high-level framework of project options from which MLP participants can choose. Among the possibilities are customer focus, LEAN, innovation, talent, quality, and leadership development. We facilitate a leadership development group and task them with cultivating a project around the company’s four pillars that creates value through increased revenue, reduced costs, reduced risk/waste, or increased employee/customer satisfaction.

Participants have one month to develop a measurable goal, project plan, and influence map while identifying potential risks, change control processes, and resources required. They are then given a second month to socialize with stakeholders, acquire an executive sponsor, and begin execution after sign-off by their sponsor. Last, they have roughly three to four months to implement their plan before presenting their findings in a capstone to senior leadership.

Outcome: “It’s true what they say . . . the cream rises to the top, and we witnessed several effective leaders ‘ignited’ as a result of this program.”

Whether you’re a CEO, human resource professional, leadership coach, facilitator, L&D professional, learning technologist, or instructional designer, adding elements of project-based learning (PBL) to your leadership development toolbox is helpful. It’s an invaluable practice for introducing and exploring leadership skills you want your team members or clients to learn and adopt daily.

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