Leadership practice and development versus leadership development programs – is there a difference?

By Galina Barrett, UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship recipient and current student of the University of Sydney Business School MBA program

Galina BarrettOne weekend per month for four months Cohort 6 of 48 students meets for Leadership Practice and Development (LP&D); it’s the first course completed by each student who comes through the University of Sydney Business School MBA program. LP&D is a behaviourally-lead leadership development program. In other words, the course is not designed so that participants meet a cognitive threshold of understanding on what comprises ‘leadership’ but rather as the name suggests – leadership practice and development.

Designed by Associate Professor Mike Jenner specifically for the University of Sydney Business School, the uniqueness and value of the course rests on three fundamentals – understanding mindset, engaging best-practice behaviours and the giving and receiving of feedback from peers, coaches and Faculty. Little time (I estimate less than 15 percent) is spent imparting knowledge so that the bulk of the course is spent practicing, coaching and developing skills. If, as Jenner writes in the Course Outline, ‘effectiveness as a leader is assessed by the behaviours that you consistently manifest across time, not by the theoretical concepts in your head’ then spending the majority of time practicing behaviour, getting data on it and repeating the behaviour underscores this point. The behaviours are not randomly selected but rather, they are curated from empirically tested leadership theories. Thus the course is about building consistent, effective leadership through practice which goes to the core of concerns raised about why leadership-development programs fail.

Pierre Gurdjian, Director of McKinsey’s Brussels office (along with two other McKinsey consultants – Thomas Halbeisen and Kevin Lane of Zurich) point out the ‘struggle’ to develop stronger and more capable leaders, saving time and money and boosting morale. In their research they conclude that leadership programs suffer from four common mistakes: (1) Overlooking context; (2) Decoupling reflection from real work; (3) Underestimating mind-sets; and (4) Failing to measure results. What is brilliant about the Business School’s LP&D course is that it implicitly addresses these concerns.

In relation to context, Gurdjian et al. observed that ‘when a company cuts through the noise to identify a small number of leadership capabilities essential for success in business – such as high-quality decision-making or stronger coaching skills – it achieves far better outcomes.’ They place emphasis on the specificity of skills to meet context. To that end LP&D aims to equip participants with a set of critical proficiencies – mitochondrial business skills – that can be used to set appropriate expectations, design and manage teams for superior performance, build engagement with others and prepare for and navigate difficult conversations across all areas of the business environment. This is not a one size fits all approach, instead the course focuses the individual on being the best leader in the micro-moments that shape, deliver on and deliver through context by leveraging coaches that work alongside Faculty and students to cultivate skills. In this way, the course integrally delivers a tailored “from-to” path of individual development.

The authors state that adults typically retain ‘10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus two-thirds when they learn by doing’ and this is where the Business School and Jenner “teach” leadership differently. As students, we don’t sit passively whilst lectured, we are hands-on building skills – for the majority of the time we are on our feet or seated in groups of three around the room solving problems with a coach listening and watching the way in which we communicate and providing real-time feedback.

Subsequently, the course uses built-in reflection time that involves capturing in writing Insights, Goals and Actions (IGAs) to encourage students to reflect on what Gurdjian refers to as the ‘below the surface thoughts, feelings, assumptions and beliefs’ that are blocking (or aiding) behavioural change. IGAs are shared during this time with one frequent question, ‘And, how will you implement this on Monday?’ The loop is closed when a month later participants return to class and in the very first moment are asked how they applied the skills in their workplace. This builds skill in operationalizing insights and goals into granular action plans – with quantifiable outcomes. Participants thus become self-sufficient at setting goals and measuring results. Implementing solution-focused coaching in this way means that the development process is accelerated.

IGAs also serve a second purpose; they feed into a growth mindset. As the authors state ‘becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behaviour’. LP&D with an environment of psychological safety allows participants to engage in new behaviours without negative consequences and thus they are stimulated to repeat these positive new behaviours. IGAs serve as an enabler of self-recognition of the point of choice about behaviour; and once triggered, the positive reinforcement loop of IGAs further develops a growth mindset.

Earlier in my career I attended leadership development programs and each taught snippets about leadership and about the importance of self-reflection but ultimately what they failed to do is frame leadership as something that one practices and provide a space to gain behavioural competency necessary to support my evolution toward effectiveness in leadership practice. Where other programs, conferences, seminars, lectures and courses are aimed at leadership development (but delivering something more akin to leadership awareness training), the Business School has put its resources into a one-of-a-kind, industry relevant and valuable course thereby demonstrating that the Faculty is not interested in rubber stamping people-as-leaders but moreover, developing leaders into best-practice people capable of performing the leadership that an uncertain, changing, global business environment demands. With this in mind, and as Jenner puts it, we are all striving to be ‘better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.’

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