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Action Learning for Leadership Development

Without highly skilled leaders, organizations cannot build and execute sound business strategies, create and maintain competitive advantages, attract and retain qualified talent, or achieve and sustain peak market performance. However, research from i4cp found that while 78 percent of nearly 700 surveyed business executives affirmed that leadership development was critical to their companies, only 28 percent claimed to be highly effective at developing leaders. Enter action learning. 

ATD and i4cp collaborated on 2016 research study to pinpoint the winning ways talent development leaders are leveraging experiential learning to develop senior executives and frontline managers. Experiential learning is an umbrella term encompassing learning that occurs through action learning, on the job, using simulations and serious games, or by other means that provide experiences from which participants derive new knowledge or skills. 

A survey of learning and business leaders kicked off the early 2016 research, returning 270 responses from participants representing varied organizations. Three-quarters of those firms were commercial enterprises, with the remainder comprising government and nonprofit organizations. Six of 10 survey respondents reported workforces of 1,000 or more employees, and the same proportion identified their companies as global or multinational. Interviews with learning leaders and subject matter experts supplemented the survey findings. 

According to the study, Experiential Learning for Leaders: Action Learning, On-the-Job Learning, Serious Games, and Simulations, “action learning occurs when individuals or small groups actively work and learn in the process of developing solutions for real-world business problems.” Action learning emerged as a favored option among survey respondents to develop senior leaders. This approach can take place in live situations or virtually (through electronic means). 


The study found that nearly four in 10 respondents (38 percent) said their organizations use live action learning for leadership development. Meanwhile, only 24 percent of respondents use action learning in a virtual setting. Whether live or virtual, action learning reflected very high correlations to learning effectiveness. Further, high-performance organizations are far more likely than lower-performing ones to include either or both types of action learning in senior-leader development. 

A significant difference emerged when it came to leveraging action learning for frontline leaders, though. In fact, study participants were far more likely to ask senior leaders to work on solving actual business problems, especially in live settings (38 percent senior-level versus 22 percent frontline). The gap was only five percentage points for virtual use, with 19 percent of respondents using virtual action learning to develop frontline leaders. 

For talent development leaders who want to drive bottom-line impact, Experiential Learning for Leaders recommends structuring live, virtual, or blended action learning opportunities to accomplish both development and business goals. According to the report, “Companies that achieve the most powerful results craft dual-purpose approaches to action learning: They develop leaders by having them generate potential solutions to business challenges and then follow through by implementing those strategies to drive better enterprise performance.” 

However, ATD and i4cp warn that most organizations lose potential benefits by having only senior leaders work on actual business problems during action learning events. “Challenge frontline leaders to solve real-world business issues, too.  That approach is in such limited use that leveraging it offers opportunities for organizations to achieve advantages over their competitors, such as acceleration of leadership development and improvement in quality of succession pipelines,” advises the report. 

To learn more about how to use experiential experiences like action learning to develop leaders, check out Experiential Learning for Leaders: Action Learning, On-the-Job Learning, Serious Games, and Simulations. ATD Members can download the whitepaper for free. 

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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