Special Focus-Real Leadership-May 2011

Special Focus-Real Leadership-May 2011

“Action learning” is the hot trend in leadership training. That means your class project might seem strangely familiar.

In the1990s, following the fashion of the day, a slew of American companies renamed their training departments “corporate universities.” This was meant to show that they were serious about employee learning and development. 

LDI University, launched in the mid-’90s, belonged to Liberty Diversified International, a New Hope–based company with lines of business ranging from paper and packaging to precision machining. As the name implies, LDI University mainly ran classroom programs on topics such as customer service, change (think Who Moved My Cheese?), and leadership, says Betsy Hearn, now LDI’s director of workplace effectiveness.

LDI University “kind of went dormant” in about 2003, Hearn says. When she arrived at the company in 2007, she changed the structure and emphasis of its training function—especially its leadership development function—and rebranded the enterprise as Learn @ Liberty.

The nature of that change reflects the tone of Hearn’s job title: “Director of workplace effectiveness” is a role that once might have carried a title like training manager or director of employee development. Classroom and online programs still exist to teach some topics under the rubric of leadership or management. But for the most part, Hearn says, “We have evolved away from a focus on classroom events. We put more emphasis on [one-to-one] coaching. And now we’re more focused on business goals and how to pursue them . . . . We’re more like consultants, not so much a provider of classes.”

For instance, Hearn says, if Liberty’s top executives want the company’s managers and employees to pay more attention to customer service, her first move is not necessarily to schedule customer-service classes for everyone but to ask questions, such as: “If you want people to focus on customer service, are you stressing that in performance review meetings?”

A Sea Change

Even at the height of the national enthusiasm for corporate universities, some training experts argued that “university” was the wrong metaphor for employee-development activities that would really matter to their sponsor companies. For one thing, the argument went, a university values learning for its own sake, as an end. Whatever a corporation might profess about its devotion to employees, it pays to train them only because it values learning as a means to the end of better performance—better service, higher quality, greater market share, bigger profits.

Another problem that critics had with the university as a metaphor: Universities run classes. If, for instance, a business wants its managers to get better at leading people, a “class” that treats leadership as an academic subject may not be the best answer.       

That line of thinking now appears to have carried the day with many Twin Cities companies. The shift in emphasis that Hearn describes at Liberty is echoed by others. Several companies say that the most significant change in their approach to leadership development over the past 10 years is a new focus on training that helps leaders solve actual problems facing the company.

The desire to build instruction around current business problems shows up plainly in the kinds of leadership training that companies seek from the University of Minnesota, says Mark Kizilos, assistant dean of executive education at the university’s Carlson School of Management.

Kizilos oversees the nondegree programs that the Carlson School offers to individuals and groups—courses with titles such as “Leading Effective Change” and “Presentations: Coaching for Executives.” Roughly 500 managers attend the school’s leadership programs each year. Many are sent in groups by their companies for customized courses.

Kizilos says a sea change has occurred over the past several years in custom training. “Increasingly, companies don’t want to send people to sit in a classroom and listen,” he says. “They want people engaged in things that are tied to their work. They want people applying knowledge to a real company problem. So we’ll often have action learning teams working on actual company projects.”

“Action learning” is a term that pops up again and again when the people in charge of leadership training at local companies describe their current strategies. “Until about five years ago, our leadership development programs were mainly based around curricula and classrooms,” says Barbara Patterson, vice president of global talent management and executive development for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, whose North American headquarters remains in Minnetonka, though its global headquarters now is in Paris.

Patterson says she now relies far more on action learning, especially for midlevel managers identified as high-potential leaders. In a typical action learning scenario, she explains, a group of learners works over a period of time—sometimes coming together but mainly apart—on an actual project deemed important by top executives and calling for a high-stakes decision. Something like: Should we go into a particular new line of business? Or, what should be our next major new product?

In the end, the team presents its findings or recommendations to executives. “But the goal is not the presentation,” Patterson says. “The goal is the actual result.” The main difference between an action learning team and an ordinary project team lies in the instructional activities built into the action-learning process: group facilitators or presentations by guest experts, for instance.

Patterson says that one recent action learning project ran for a full year and included Carlson Wagonlit managers from several of the 149 countries in which the company does business. All had been identified by their bosses as high-potential leaders. (She declines to describe their project.)

Betsy Kaczmarowski, director of organizational development and diversity for Donaldson Company, Inc., of Bloomington, did something similar, but reached further down the corporate hierarchy in search of future leaders. Donaldson, which makes filtration systems for vehicles and industrial uses, has more than 12,000 employees, half of them outside the United States.

Last year, Kaczmarowski says, about 30 high-potential people from around the world were picked for a three-month action learning project. They came from different functions. Some were midlevel managers, some weren’t managers at all. “We assigned them to look at a certain market segment that we might want to go into,” Kaczmarowski says. In the end, “they were pretty excited by the possibility.”

The Real Stuff   

Even companies that don’t necessarily use the term “action learning” or assign learners to project teams now are more likely to focus their leadership development efforts on actual business problems.

Dawn Baker, director of learning and development for Medica, the Minnetonka-based health insurance company, says that a current emphasis in leadership training is on “finding innovative ways to meet the needs of our members.” Specifically, she adds, customer-service leaders are studying ways to reduce the number and length of phone calls that members don’t want to make to Medica and that Medica doesn’t want to get—”calls that are irritating to the members and to us.”

Like other insurers, for instance, Medica sends out an explanation of benefits, or EOB, that Baker describes as “a big, confusing piece of paper.” People don’t understand it, so they make irritated calls to the company. She says that one thrust of leaders’ learning efforts right now is, “How can we make these types of communications less confusing?”

At Lawson Software in St. Paul, Chief Executive Officer Harry Debes sees such a direct connection between leadership training and business results that he is personally conducting a series of two-day courses aimed at all 500 Lawson mangers at the middle level or higher, both in the United States and abroad. Debes taught the first of an anticipated 15 or 16 classes in March 2010. By the end of December, 250 managers had been through the program.

The program covers eight “commitments” under the heading Leadership @ Lawson—principles such as “establish trust,” and “be an owner, not just an advisor.” But at its heart is a hard-nosed message that the performance bar is rising at Lawson, and that every manger will be accountable for clearing it.

Since Debes became CEO in 2005, Lawson’s operating margin has risen from 3 percent to 18 percent. But the goal is a margin in the mid-20s. “We’re building a performance culture,” Debes says. “It’s built on the concept of taking personal responsibility for results. Don’t blame circumstances and don’t blame other people. Just honor your commitments, whatever those are.”

Kristin Trecker, Lawson’s senior vice president of human resources, says that the sessions put managers on notice that “we no longer accept the status quo.” Phrases such as “Sorry, I missed my number” are no longer tolerated, she says. “Or, ‘I don’t have time to develop my people because I’m too busy with operational results.’ No, you can’t choose which part of your job you’ll do.”


John Wayne’s Ghost

The tension between the need to get operational results (hit the numbers) and the need to engage with and develop one’s followers is at the heart of the leadership challenge. The issue has been recognized and hashed over since at least 1957, when researchers Robert Blake and Jane Mouton developed their famous Managerial Grid, which plotted “concern for production” against “concern for people.”

The idea that people will perform at a higher level if they are engaged as collaborators and teammates, rather than just bossed around, has become so firmly established by research and experience that nobody even argues about it anymore—at least, not out loud. Since the 1980s, consultants, professors, and trainers have been telling managers that the day of the command-and-control, John Wayne-style leader, who barks orders and takes no guff, is past. As Medica’s Baker puts it, “We want to see more coaching and empowering, and less ‘I, the boss, tell you what to do.’”

But leadership training still wrestles with the same old balancing act. Getting the task versus people equation right consistently is very hard to do, says Liberty’s Hearn: “Leaders tend to swing from one side to the other. They either beat people up or they bail and accept excuses all the time. Then they can’t get the work done.”

If John Wayne’s ghost is still hanging around after suffering three decades of abuse, it’s because “the tension between driving for results and how you get those results is very fundamental,” says the Carlson School’s Kizilos. “The nature of organizations puts people squarely into the need to manage that tension . . . . How can you keep doing more with less? Well, finally you figure out that you’ve got to delegate and empower and get others engaged. But people have to learn that for themselves.”

Donaldson’s Kaczmarowski says it is getting easier to promote a more collaborative approach to leadership as older workers are replaced by younger ones with different expectations. “The literature 15 years ago talked about team-based leadership styles, but I didn’t see it in practice,” she says. “It’s alive and well now. The younger generation has grown up expecting to be mentored, for instance. They’re energized by that.”


What Gets Measured, Gets Done

Training schemes that ask leaders to tackle real-world problems have a side benefit: It is easy to tell whether the training made a difference if there is a real-world result to look at.

Kizilos says that some of the action learning teams in the Carlson School’s custom programs have come up with recommendations that made or saved their companies millions of dollars. Even if the question a team is charged to answer is, “Should we launch a product in this market?” and the team’s answer is no, Kizilos says, “you can work out a dollar value one way or the other.”

Training tied to real-world issues also tends to be tied to real-world reinforcement mechanisms such as performance evaluation systems and compensation plans. That makes a difference if companies really want to change the way leaders behave on the job. When there are serious consequences for failing to do things the way the training program specified, managers are more likely to jump on the bandwagon.

Lawson Software’s Trecker says the company “always expected managers to do things like hold coaching sessions with their people, but it didn’t always happen.” Now new metrics are built into the formal evaluation system for leaders. “We ask questions like what’s your turnover rate, how engaged are your employees based on [periodic climate surveys], and how many people have you promoted from within?” she says. “Those are different metrics than in the past.”

If a lot of managers still pay far more attention to the “task” side of the equation than to the “people” side, it may be because companies have been more willing to preach “concern for people” than to reward it. Patterson says that over the past year, Carlson Wagonlit had revamped its global performance evaluation system for leaders to put more stress on factors such as their employees’ engagement in their jobs and the degree to which leaders collaborate with other teams, regions, and functions. 

“We’ll never move things from jargon to reality if we tell leaders, ‘We want you to build engaged teams,’ but we only measure them on [hitting their numbers],” Patterson says. “It’s important for leaders to know they’ll be assessed not just on the ‘what’ but on the ‘how.’”

Related Stories