Leaders as teachers is the winning strategy that great companies have used to manage volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) confronting their leaders.
Thriving in this VUCA world means adapting as new business contexts emerge. For leaders, it means:
- creating an environment of openness that values discovery, diverse perspectives, and experimentation
- detecting weak signals that foretell shifts in customer loyalty, or opportunities enabled by new technology
- conducting iterative dialogues that put new ideas into the context of the company's work, and translate new information into differentiating capabilities
- unpacking business challenges to reveal the learning gaps for individuals, teams, and the organization's practices, processes, and systems
- strengthening thoughtful decision making in the organization.
There you have the basis of the role description for today's leader-teachers. They enable adaptive organizations.
Learning happens every day
Our mental models featuring leader-teachers at the head of a classroom parceling out kernels of wisdom are outdated. Today's leader-teacher recognizes that opportunities to enable individual, team, and organizational learning happen many times a day, every day. Today's leader-teachers conduct meaningful team dialogues to consider how multiple possible futures are likely to unfold. They host web training side-by-side with faculty from leading business schools to add context to the new ideas being presented in formal learning programs. They resist giving teams answers and opinions on everyday decisions, opting instead to encourage essential critical thinking.
Today's leader-teachers fill what Natalie Merchant, writing in The New How, calls the "air sandwich," a condition that is created when there are weak connections between the strategy conceived at the top of an organization and the execution activities taking place at lower levels.
Leader-teachers working in partnership with learning and development teams can close the gap in the air sandwich by strengthening organizational alignment, building trust in leaders' decision-making abilities, and supporting individual and organizational growth.
The new leaders-as-teachers approach
In our book, Leaders as Teachers Action Guide, several universal concepts emerged for implementing successful leaders-as-teachers (LAT) approaches:
Leveraging organizational energy. LAT approaches leverage organizational energy sources around critical business initiatives, business growth areas, or leaders who "get it."
Unique. The sizes, shapes, and scopes of LAT approaches are unique to the specific culture and business needs of organizations.
Partnership. Successful LAT implementations have one or more senior leaders who champion the process and begin the momentum-building process. The L&D/leadership development functions develop leaders' teaching and coaching skills and maintain a robust pipeline of leader-teachers.
Case studies in the Leaders as Teachers Action Guide from Merck, Boeing, Banner Health, HP, and BD illustrate the activities associated with the "new" role of leader-teachers, and how their L&D teams support them.
Merck: Putting new ideas into context
Merck blends external expertise (from academic faculty or other experts) with internal perspectives from Merck leaders sharing real-world experiences. Sharon Moshayof, former talent development leader for global markets, says that to teach basic business acumen, Merck pairs its chief financial officer or a regional finance leader with an outside expert on finance. One of the key success factors is having this internal-external collaboration team meet before they teach to share models and frameworks, and become familiar with each other's message.
"One reinforces external best practice and models, and the other says, 'And here's how this plays out in Merck, and here's how you might want to think about it when you engage with business issues,'" Moshayof explains.
Moshayof says she can't think of a single leadership development program that doesn't incorporate a LAT approach. "It gives you that role modeling, that very pragmatic personal experience, and again, where you blend it with best practice from outside in terms of a Harvard or a Wharton-level teaching faculty, I think then you've really got the best of both worlds."
Moshayof encourages leaders to think about how they learn. "It's got to be memorable. Tell your story."
Beyond storytelling, leaders also are encouraged to model what they're teaching. Taking risks and developing an entrepreneurial mindset required sharing examples of learning from failure.
Leaders walked a fine line. "How do you show up as, on the one hand, knowledgeable, but at the same time vulnerable and surviving mistakes?"
She said they performed superbly. "Humility shown by leaders was incredibly powerful. We were able to send some really, really great messages."
Boeing: Creating an environment of openness
John Messman, Boeing's director of leadership development, and Brian Parker, a senior member of Boeing's leadership development team, describe how the leaders-teaching-leaders concept became deeply embedded in the Boeing culture.
Messman says the concept was the idea of Boeing chairman, president, and CEO Jim McNerney. "Leaders teaching leaders is how we grow the capability and competencies of our organization, and part of leadership is about us developing ourselves," explains Messman.
Leaders teaching leaders is not telling participants what to do. Instead, it's about:
- engaging, growing, and stretching your people
- taking risks and letting discussions flow freely while staying focused on inspiring performance and leveraging the best of Boeing
- building the next leaders of the Boeing Company.
"Each of our VPs teach two leadership classes a year at minimum," says Parker. "This is a part of each leader's annual performance assessment. Some senior leaders teach up to 10 times a year or more. Each VP picks the topic and time, based on their interest and schedule."
The unique part of Boeing's program is the three key tenets of their leaders-teaching-leaders methodology:
- dialogue, not monologue
- ask challenging questions
- tell compelling stories.
These three tenets yield learning programs in which "participants hear from Boeing leaders who share their own compelling stories in a listen-and-learn interactive forum, and how their leadership experience links to Boeing's overall goals and strategies," notes Messman.
Participants are encouraged to question and challenge those leaders, absorbing the experience and taking it back to their own organizations where they become the teacher. In the end, this creates a continuous learning environment where everyone is both a learner and a teacher at all levels.
That's the key to opening Boeing's culture and building the atmosphere where everyone can succeed.
BD: Addressing weak signals in the marketplace
Deb Wijnberg, worldwide leadership development and learning leader at BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company), says her team turned to technology and a blended approach to assuage the ever-increasing thirst for knowledge and interaction with company leaders, given their smaller budget.
One highlight of their technology-enabled approach is a series of 90-minute leader-led webinars on topics identified by a needs assessment survey of midcareer, high-potential talent around the globe. The series features lectures on topics likely to affect BD's strategy and future performance, including:
- organic innovation, and moving promising projects through the company's innovation funnel
- impact of the new Affordable Care Act on the markets the company serves
- underlying economics of healthcare and the concepts of outcomes-based medicine.
Whether 90-minute sessions are facilitated by company leaders or outside experts, leader-teachers, known as mentoring advisors, support each session to situate the content in BD's specific context.
Leader-teachers also conduct profiling assessments, a methodology used to analyze a business opportunity or performance issue from multiple perspectives: competitors, customers, and product mix. To conduct assessments, leaders must learn to acquire the information from the analysis, and filter and teach it to other leaders to support the development of recommendations and eventual implementation of those recommendations.
HP: Addressing learning gaps in people and teams
"One of our leadership competencies is 'people developer.' So there is an expectation that you are going to develop your people. Now that takes a variety of forms," explains Mark Bocianski, senior vice president of global talent and organization development.
HP leaders support tiered leadership development programs through varied teaching, coaching, and mentoring roles. "I think about mentoring and sponsorship, and coaching as a continuum. We have informal mechanisms, we have more formal mechanisms, and we have highly customized mechanisms," he says.
For example, one leadership development program targets a group of 25 high-potential women. Twenty-five senior leaders each sponsor one program participant as a protégé. HP CEO Meg Whitman serves as the program's executive sponsor.
Sponsors become deeply familiar with protégés' capabilities and their work products throughout the 18-month relationship, and can meaningfully advocate protégés to other senior leaders.
"The expectation from a measurement perspective is that we're actually going to see opportunities present themselves to these 25 women that will represent a career move up of one level. And so we're going to be tracking to see what kind of roles they end up taking as a direct result of the sponsor playing an active part in that process," Bocianski says.
Banner Health: Strengthening leadership capabilities
Banner Health senior leaders perceived that newer and midlevel leaders lacked executive presence, good communication skills, and experience with leading effective meetings. Jerry Lewis, program director of talent optimization, and Michael Abrams, senior director of talent optimization, established a LAT certification process that would teach a set of standard competencies for facilitators.
This idea of raising the bar on the quality of leader-teacher facilitation had dramatic effects. Leadership effectiveness data are available on each department, so there is real evidence of the change in leader effectiveness before and after training.
A former in-person leadership symposium that was costly and only available to a limited number of people moved to an online format, making access to great training available to everyone.
Once leaders are certified, they get a list of opportunities that go beyond the learning team. For example, the service excellence team requests that LAT certification leaders facilitate their customer service training. The learning team has become an exporter of leader-teachers.
Teach your leader-teachers
Leaders have served as teachers, coaches, and mentors for centuries. Elders taught survival skills, customs, and traditions to the young. From these teachers, leaders emerged and continued the cycle of teaching, learning, surviving, and thriving.
L&D teams must develop leaders' teaching skills, an essential capability for organizations to survive in a VUCA world. Their jobs are being complicated by many factors—advancements in neuroscience shaping approaches to how we learn, new technologies affecting the ways we make learning available, and competitive pressures continuously pointing us in new directions to what we must learn.
Why Invest to Make Leaders Teachers?
In a 2013 leaders-as-teachers study among members of The Conference Board, about 90 percent of respondents reported using a LAT approach for in-house leadership training programs, 30 percent used LAT for technical or business function training, and 15 percent were planning to update or expand their LAT programs.
The study further revealed these additional benefits of a LAT approach:
- LAT contributes in a significant way to the development of employees and emerging leaders (70 percent of survey respondents).
- LAT programs strengthen organizational culture and communications (60 percent of survey respondents).
- Leader-teacher activities develop and strengthen the leader’s own leadership skills (50 percent of survey respondents).
- The LAT approach has been key to driving business results and strategic alignment (40 percent of survey respondents).
- The LAT concept has enabled improvements in succession planning and career development programs (40 percent of survey respondents).
Getting these benefits is not a given—it takes hard work and strategic leadership on the part of learning and development professionals. John Leikhim, former vice president and manager at Procter & Gamble put it this way:
“The training experts can take the leader’s subject matter and their expertise, and shape it into material that the leader can deliver with confidence. Particularly with today’s generation, and people learning from different media, the training experts help shape it so others can learn from it.”