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How Leaders Learn

Last year we at Executive Development Associates conducted a survey of trends in executive development with 100 chief learning officers and heads of leadership-development departments from top companies around the world. We asked them what learning methods they would use the most over the next two to three years. In other words, how will their leaders learn? And by inference, what do they think are the most effective ways for leaders to learn?

Last year we at Executive Development Associates conducted a survey of trends in executive development with 100 chief learning officers and heads of leadership-development departments from top companies around the world. We asked them what learning methods they would use the most over the next two to three years. In other words, how will their leaders learn? And by inference, what do they think are the most effective ways for leaders to learn? Here are the top ten answers (the number next to each indicates the percentage of respondents who indicated that learning method would be highly emphasized):

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  1. Use of our own senior executives as faculty – 75%
  2. Action Learning (working in teams on current business problems/opportunities) – 73%
  3. Use of outsides speakers or outside experts as faculty – 66%
  4. Use of external executive coaches – 56%
  5. Use of internal executive/leadership development staff or experts as faculty – 52%
  6. Case studies – 40%
  7. Web-based/online learning – 36%
  8. Computerized business simulations – 34%
  9. Internal coaches – 32%
  10. Benchmarking other organizations – 27%

While more traditional learning methods such as the use of outside faculty experts and outside speakers continue to be widely employed (No. 3 on the list), three learning methods widely regarded as especially effective dominate the list-the use of senior executives as faculty, Action Learning, and executive coaches.

The use of senior executives as faculty (leader-led learning) is the most popular method for developing leaders–the first time in the 21-year history of our Trends Survey that this method has topped the list. Three-quarters of the companies say they will be using their top executives to actually teach in their programs, not just show up for the kick-off or closing ceremonies. Closely following this method is Action Learning (working in teams on current problems or opportunities; both to address real business challenges and to develop the participants simultaneously).

The other significant finding is the high ranking of executive coaching–the first time this sometimes controversial learning method has cracked the top five. It appears that after recent years of both hype and sniping on the benefits of executive coaching, it has gained favor, even though some believe its popularity has peaked. Nevertheless, with executives increasingly under the gun to move quickly and make complex decisions, it makes sense that companies would want a coach to walk managers through challenging situations with a potentially big payoff from the performance improvement that can be gained.

So that was last year’s survey. Times change, &*$@# happens! We did a pulse
update survey very recently to find out what the latest thinking is out there by the experts on the firing line. Again, 100 companies responded when we asked those responsible for learning and leadership development to tell us if these three powerful learning methods had increased in importance, stayed the same, or decreased in importance. Here’s what we learned:

Leader-Led (using our own executives to teach)
43% – Increased
52% – Stayed the same
5% – Decreased

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Action Learning
41% – Increased
55% – Stayed the same
4% – Decreased

Executive Coaching
51% – Increased
38% – Stayed the same
9% – Decreased

Clearly, these learning methods are not going away anytime soon. And the folks who thought that coaching was a fad that would quietly fade away may have to rethink their position (interesting to note it is the one that has both
increased and decreased the most).

Appropriately, there seems to be a low tolerance for theoretical learning and a high attraction to learning that is action-oriented and embedded in real work. If you are not taking advantage of these methods in your leadership development
efforts, you might want to take a closer look. In future columns, we’ll
examine each of these learning methods in depth.

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