Playing ‘Offence’ in Leadership Development

[Photo source unidentified.  Please advise if anyone knows.  I will add the source accordingly]

Numerous articles on the internet have been discussing the on-going trend of remote working.   I have my own milestone experience of such trend last week as I coached small groups for 4 hours on zoom.   More importantly, it turned out to be much more effective than I imagined.   Why did I find it so different, say, compared to my initial virtual group experience many years ago?   

Of course, it was the better internet connection and interface nowadays e.g. facial expression in sync with the conversation.   In addition, we got trained to be more zoom-savvy in the last few months.   On the soft aspect, we are all more willingness to work virtually e.g. to overcome occasional bad connectivity.   Further, interestingly, it helps when one knows that the others are willing to do as well.

On further reflection, the last few points are actually the ‘products’ of COVID.   It is well illustrated by the well-circulated image below:

Is COVID-19 Forcing Your Digital Transformation? forbes.com

This reminds me of the inspiring Youtube video by IMD President Jean-Francois Manzoni on the point of playing ‘offence’, but not just ‘defence’, in the time of crisis.  

In practising Leadership, it is about taking ‘Crisis as a Change Agent’ – people got ‘heat’ up which provides opportunity for one to practice leadership by putting people into the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium – see the HBR article ‘Leadership in a Permanent Crisis’.

I cannot then help wonder how about playing ‘offence’ on Leadership Development?  I would think of:

‘Crisis as a Mirror’ – Crisis demands our responses, probably more than we want.   Reflecting on our responses can reveal who we are (individually as well as collectively) e.g. our pattern of thoughts and behaviours.

‘Crisis as a Lab’ – Crisis also provides a lot of opportunities to experiment our different responses, if we are prepared to put some consciousness in the process. 

Like Manzoni said, instead of focusing on ‘defence’ only, playing ‘offence’ generates energy.   I feel excited in imagining to put together an action-learning type of intervention or to coach by following these 3 anchors 🙂

    

Why Team?

Really…. why team?   Complementary competencies….  A sense of belonging…. Cross-learning opportunities…   there are many answers to this question.   I was reminded of one important answer during the Gobi race.

The picture is my sketch of a scene in the Gobi race.  It was 3:55am of Day 3 in a middle of nowhere in the Gobi desert – It was quite a magical moment for me.   The light in the tent would be turned on at 4am to wake us up to start the last day of the Gobi race.   I somehow woke up earlier by myself…. probably around 3:30am.   Half-awake in my cozy sleeping bag, I calculated in my mind how much time it would take to finish the 28km if we maintain 4.5 min / km…… or even 5 min / km…. I also tried to change the setting on my smart watch to show pace for every km, but I failed.  I then quietly sat myself up…. thinking to pack up stuff for the day.   

To my surprise, I noticed some others were waking up as well.   Very quickly, I realized actually all were up, packing in the dark, before the ‘wake-up’ call, at the ‘daunting’ 4am!!!   I felt energized, touched, hopeful and eager for the day!!!   Of course, what happened for the rest of the day in the team loaded me with even more feeling on the notion of team.

What made ALL of us wake up so early in the morning?   Why did I feel so good about such a scene?   It is about a group of people committing strongly to do our best – much more than what each of us normally would.   On reflection, I know that such a scene would still touch me deeply even if we finished last on the day.  It is not about the result.  It is also not about winning, award, or how others people see us.   It is about committing together to stretch ourselves for a common goal.   

It could be intrinsically motivating.  I almost forget completely such power… since the sports team in university time.    

What if we could remind the executive teams of such possibility?

Other posts on Gobi:

Leadership Development in Gobi desert

Experiential learning to an extreme – a leadership development program in the form of a team walking race for 96km in 2.5 days over the Gobi desert (part of the Silk Road) Lot of memorable moments, and most importantly reflection on leadership, teamwork, learning design and my own development. Zero internet and each team sleeping together in a tent helped. Perhaps we were even mobilized by the collective unconscious of the Xuanzang 玄裝 history / myth to endure hardship and pursue wisdom…..

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

 

A reflection on a recent ‘learning miracle’….  kind of.     I conducted a day of group coaching with 5 executives in a business school program.  Around 3 weeks later, I had a follow-up individual coaching call with each of them. Charles (pseudonym)said in the call that he was amazed in witnessing how 3 other members have changed after the group coaching day.    In another call, Sandy (pseudonym) expressed repeatedly her excitement on how she became better in getting her message across by speaking less and more slowly.   She also gave detailed description on her changed behaviors were well received in her global offsite meeting.

The magnitude of change was exceptional.

If it was just one of them making such rather drastic change, I would say I was lucky.   Perhaps Charles was just unconsciously pleasing and colluding me a less pushy coaching call.    Perhaps Sandy had been on the edge of change before the day, and the group coaching was just ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

But we had a few of them making exceptional changes.   Why?   On reflection, the magic is probably around the following factors:

Open program– To start with, majority of the participants paid considerable sum of fee (by themselves instead of being sponsored) and effort to enroll into the program.  This is very different from those programs which participants were reluctantly ‘invited’ to join because they are ‘talent’ or even because the program is ‘mandatory’.

Pre-coaching orientation– The professor has spent an afternoon with them before the group coaching orienting them into the ‘adaptive’ space.   I have to say that he has successfully got them out of the expectation to be told of technical solutions.

Psychological Safety– We spent the morning of the group coaching day on personal disclosure.   The process is well designed and I think I ran it reasonably well.   This benefited a great deal to the afternoon sense-making on their individual 360 reports.

Feedback with Concrete and Comprehensive Evidence– The afternoon process made each participant facing their respective and detailed 360 reports together.   We did it in a way that they cannot avoid the content consciously or unconsciously.  And thanks to the morning, they went through the afternoon together with good receptivity.

Peer– As Sandy pointed out, she managed to change probably because she witnessed how the others were also working through their own struggles.   This is both relieving and motivating.

My Being– I suspect my orientation was helpful as well.  Somehow I adjusted the balance between being supportive and challenging.   Putting more attention on psychological safety.

Yet, I am more amazed with another layer of reflection – they made change without any input on techniques and skills!   This reinforces my belief that the key to behavioral change is more about ‘will’ rather than ‘skill’.  This is especially the case for senior learners who have considerable working experience and been through countless ‘training courses’, reading, videos or advices from others.   They own a great deal of conscious and tacit knowledge.

In other word, when learning does not happen, it is less about they do not know how but more about they do not want to, consciously or unconsciously.   And so, why another training course with 135 slides and thick binders?

Or in a ‘so-what’ angle, whilst there is always limited resources on learning / development intervention, the emphasis should be put on enhancing the willingness to make change….  like considering the list above.

The Good Old ‘Images’

 

This post is again about the fundamentals of learning – the use of images.    I came across the above image on ‘Moneyball of Leadership” video by Charlie Kim.   Charlie used it to illustrate his speech on how poor execution can kill even brilliant strategy

When I saw this image, an intervention jumps into my mind.     Imagine yourself an intact team sitting in a room.   After some check-in, show the image with some silence.   Depending on the intended topic of reflection / conversation (without restraining other things to emerge), we can ask the following questions:

Revealing the problem

  • ‘What do you see in the picture?’
  • ‘How would you feel if you are the painter’s supervisor?’
  • ‘In what occasion at work you experienced the similar?’
  • ‘What was the impact to the work performance?’
  • ‘What possibly caused such problem?’ 

Sharing practices

  • ‘How did you / the others tackle the situation?’
  • ‘What worked?   What did not?’

Encouraging self evaluation

  • ‘What was possibly in the painter’s mind when he / she did this?   Craft a line to describe the voice in his / her head, like those in a comic book.’
  • Put all those lines on a flipchart, and then ask ‘Share with your learning partner here an occasion where one of those voices once shows up in your own heads’
  • ‘How did you feel at that time?’
  • ‘If your mind changed at that time, what triggered such change?’

With relevant set-up and questions, one single image can provoke powerful reflection and learning conversation.

The ‘Clash’ between Coaching and Training

I recently ran a rather typical management development program.   There were a few modules in a few days.   Each modules was built around a competency topic e.g. communication, change management.  In each module, the participants are supposed to learn some specific tools / models on that topic, and then pondered how to apply them.   Such design is rather conventional.

Somehow, I noticed myself becoming less excited about such approach.   On reflection, I believe I was uncomfortable to introduce tools / models to the participants without sensing the participants’ need for such knowledge.   Perhaps I can do even more to build the WHY / ‘burning platform’ first (not in the standard design)     Yet, the very act of building the ‘burning platform’ already sounds odd or even manipulative to me.

On further reflection, from the organisational perspective, it is actually unavoidable and understandable for the central learning function to make participants learn about stuff which the latter did not necessarily see the need to do so.   After all, what the employer wants may NOT be the same as what individual employees want.

I think my discomfort is out of my growing ‘coaching mind-set’.   I have been spending more and more time on executive coaching and group coaching in the last 2-3 years.   (There are many different understandings on what ‘coaching’ is.   Mine is more around helping the coachee finding own solutions)     I thus would find it odd in a training setting to bombard the participants with unsolicited content.

I guess there is no absolute right or wrong.   Basically, if I continue to do such off-the-shelf standardized training program, I need to do better to establish the ‘burning platform’, both inside and outside the workshop.   (By ‘outside the workshop’, I mean influencing the clients on things like how to design and roll out the workshop in relation to imminent and related business challenge, how to select and orient the participants and their managers)

The Good Old ‘Training Activity’

I came across recently a clip about an experiential learning activity around the topic ‘understanding the others’.  It makes me re-examine my own view on experiential learning.

First, I really felt moved when I watched the video.   When I imagined to be one of the kids there and followed one instruction after another, I pictured myself among the kids in the front.   I believed that I would have a big ‘aha’ as I turned and looks face to face to those at the back.  I would particularly be shocked when the host said ‘…everything I said has nothing to do with what you have done…’   The resulting visual impact was huge.  In addition, when the front kids were really running, the feeling of excitement and mixed feeling about those at the back would probably enhance learning transfer a great deal.   It is such a well-designed activity – simple and to the point.

Yet, I still have my usual doubt on such activity which is designed and run with an intended (or even imposed) conclusion.   In particular:

  • In a way, the activity was like a ‘set-up’ e.g. to embarrass those kids in the front. In the video, they all seemed to follow the instructions with enjoyment.   But I cannot help imagine some would guess mid-way what the activity was about already, and became resentful.   In short, the host was not exploring together with them but in a way tricking them into some specific experience / sensation.
  • This would impact not just this activity but also the remaining event. The participants may trust the host less.
  • The experience would be quite ‘dark’ for those at the back. I believe those some containment afterward is needed.

On the whole, I think it is probably less a concern for teenagers than experienced executives.   The latter is likely to be more sceptical about things and others.

Dancing with the Surprise

Less than 12 hours before starting a 2-day Leadership Development workshop, the client told me that they need to take the first 1 hour away from the workshop.  The new country head as the sponsor will introduce an ‘Action Project’ to the participants.  The first thought came to my mind was that it may not be a good idea because:

  • The ‘Action Project’ means demanding work for the participants in the coming few months. Introducing it in the beginning would probably take away the participants’ attention from the workshop
  • The country head is new to most in the room. We have little idea how his speech and his project will be in the line with workshop
  • Last but not the least, the participants did not know in advance that they need to work on an ‘Action Project’ at all!

Yet, on second thought, I found myself curious to let go.  I chose to experiment with this unpredictability.   After all, my client could not do much about it at that time.   I was very much in the state of ‘Be prepared and prepared not to use what you prepare’ in my previous blog post.

At the end, it turned out to be an enhanced learning experience for the participants.   Basically, I leveraged the participants’ strong attention towards the project to land the learning for the workshop content.   For example, a piece of workshop content is about the notion that people have different behavioural preferences.    I challenged the participants to apply the learning to prepare for the Q&A session with the sponsor on day 2.   The driving questions are ‘What behavioural preference did XXX demonstrated and why?   How would you engage him better tomorrow given your preference?’   I also facilitated them to talk about the possible dynamics within their respective project team using the behavioural preference language.

The underlying learning philosophy is very much the ‘Action Reflection Learning’ (ARL) I mentioned before.   Learning retention is higher for ‘Just-in-time’ rather than ‘Just-in-case’ learning.    See ‘ARL approach’, ‘Learning Sustainability’ and ‘Action Learning in Action’ .

The more important reflection is that I can let go better.   It is driven by my rising inclination to work with ‘what is in the room’ rather than ‘what I prepare’ or even ‘what is on the PPT’.   The fact that I have spent majority of my time on executive coaching certainly contributes to this inclination.

I am curious how else I could be different in the future….  Let the learning continues.