Can executives be self-directed learners? They can with the right program.
<![CDATA[Several weeks ago I wrote a blog titled “Blue collar workers can and should be responsible learners.” It was about negative attitudes toward blue collar workers as learners. I made the point then that these negative stereotypes are not true and that people in blue collar jobs are just as effective learners as everyone else. Since then, we have been working with many organizations on executive development programs and have encountered some odd similarities between perceptions of executives and blue collar workers as learners. The main similarity is that hardly anyone considers executives to be good learners. This is because executives are perceived as being too busy and too important to take the time to work on something at length, won’t do anything that isn’t immediately practical and usually refuse to use an online learning platform. Executives create the impression of being poor learners by making it clear that they are too pressured and their time is too valuable for frivolous activities, so everything must be quick and have immediate value. They seem to believe that there is a “twitter version” of leadership greatness that doesn’t require their time or effort. They get a lot of organizational power from being and being perceived as prima donnas, particularly when it comes to their own development. This has led people to believe that professional development just isn’t a priority for executives. Certainly, executives are and should be intolerant of most leadership training programs, because most of such programs are very feeble. Short leadership “summits,” ropes courses and sessions focused on disclosing vulnerabilities, for instance, are just of few the essentially useless elements in many of these programs. Everyone exits these experiences saying how great they were, but nothing changes. Ultimately, executives come to perceive these experiences as useless. In turn, the executive perception of too much time spent with too little impact creates a negatively reinforcing cycle between the developers of these programs and the executives they are intended to serve. The presenters of development programs expect the executives to be dissatisfied so they lower expectations for time and effort, which in turn, actually leads the executives to fail, reinforcing their notion of poor value. Of course, our experience is exactly the opposite. The first program we did with executives was designed to groom senior managers and junior executives for managing large business units. Like everyone else, we expected a lot of resistance from the executives. Surprisingly, this is not what happened. The executives were actually the most responsive to our program of any of the roles in their organizations. They loved talking about their images of greatness, doing the exercises and thinking about how to improve their capabilities. Furthermore, they all seemed to have the same neural responses as everyone else (perhaps even more of them). The majority of executives that we have had the pleasure to work with tell us that our workshops are the best leadership development programs in their careers. They’ve described the experiences as “transformative.” Why the difference in response? We clearly respect executives’ abilities as learners by making it clear that we have high expectations for their ability to be self-directed learners. We make them adapt tasks to create value; being practical is their problem not ours. We expect them to put in the time and effort to be great learners, follow-up with them relentlessly and they always put in that time and effort. The requirement to be self-directed learners seems to make a lot of sense to executives, which is one of primary reasons why I believe there is a different response to our programs. For those of you who don’t respect executive learning, take a good hard look at your own programs. Are you respecting executives as learners? Or are you just shoving more PowerPoint slides and ridiculous rope exercises at them?]]>