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Leadership & Learning: Time for a rethink?

What is the one thing that almost all leaders will tell you that they don't have enough of?


In my experience, it is time. Shifting pressures to deliver results faster, more flexibly and with fewer resources has led to a culture of being busy that is now so entrenched in most organizations that it seems to be used to judge a persons worth. However, when you explore leadership, and the role of a leader in complex, changing situations, it seems to me that this constant activity can be counterproductive. Leading through change - and modern leadership is always about change, innovation and influence - requires sustained learning. It is almost impossible to drive change without being open to learning at individual, team, community and organisational levels. And what do we know about learning? It needs time.


Neuroscience is now giving us the data and evidence that supports what those of us using experiential learning have known for many years. Key findings show that in order to learn deeply, we need to create the conditions in which we can process experiences effectively. These include focused attention, structured and considered reflection, spaced or staged learning to allow time for the brain to assimilate new concepts, find personal meaning in them and then test them in practice. We also know that building learning relationships is vital: taking time to identify others who can support learning and challenge long established thinking.


Leaders need to make time for thinking and learning and prioritise this time above other doing. At the Association of Project Managers annual conference in April, Dr. Geoff Cox and I talked to the assembled project managers and leaders about the need to design a learning process into any project plan. We emphasized the need for regular review and reflection, not just of task progress but of learning in many areas - skills, behaviors, attitudes and relationships as well as technical knowledge or expertise. Extending the leaders strategic thinking to include thinking about learning strategies is a powerful tool in organisational development.

This focus on learning should be adopted by leaders as part of their leadership role. Leaders have a responsibility to demonstrate their own commitment to continuous learning. They should build structured reflection time into their regular routines. They should offer people, and take for themselves, uninterrupted thinking time. They should coach and be coached. They should integrate reviews of performance (their own and their teams) into everyday working and should make reflection, exchange of feedback and development planning things to be enjoyed and valued rather than a scheduled chore - done only when formal systems require it and disliked by most of those involved.


Many organisations have recognized the value of including coaching and mentoring skills within their leadership development offering, alongside work to develop their leaders confidence in having difficult conversations, handling inter-personal conflict, engaging their teams through active questioning and listening and facilitating shared decision making and problem solving.


So, how do busy leaders, who may nod their heads and agree in principle with all of these ideas, actually make the time to do these things? Done regularly, repeatedly and openly the time commitment may be less than perceived. A 10-minute coaching conversation with an employee who asks for advice may reap far more benefits than simply providing a solution to the question. A policy of taking 15 minutes to reflect upon a meeting or conversation with a customer using a simple debriefing model can ensure that new insights are clarified and a policy of active reflection becomes normal and critical incidents become real life case studies to learn from. Encouraging followers to explore their emotional responses to a situation as well as their intellectual ones can build resilience for the future.


These vital leadership skills do take time to develop. But they aren as difficult as many leaders fear and the time invested in developing them should produce rewards in multiple areas: motivation, engagement, innovation, productivity and performance management.

RSVP Design has a range of powerful tools and resources to help leaders to build their learning and coaching skills. You might consider a fully developed one-day workshop, for internal company delivery, that includes all the materials to develop simple, effective coaching skills for leaders and managers (Developing Others through Coaching). Or explore something like the Feedback Game to practice giving feedback and reflecting on strengths (and weaknesses).

The use of Images and metaphors can be a really effective way of reviewing and reflecting for both individuals and groups and there are many different types of image decks, including those with carefully formulated questions and techniques to help you to trigger important coaching or feedback conversations. Finally consider any future project as a journey into the (almost?) unknown - use Voyage Mapping as a tool for reflection and task review or for use in 1:1 coaching, action planning or career development.


Don hesitate to contact us if you are interested in any of the ideas or products referred to here. We will make sure it is a great use of your valuable time!


Ann Alder

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