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Boosting Learning Agility Develops Leaders And Drives Transformation

In my leadership coaching and organizational development practice, I have worked with many leaders for whom interdependent and collaborative work does not come naturally. In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, Marshall Goldsmith highlights how an overused strength becomes a weakness, especially in changing times. The problem for leaders with a “top down” approach to leadership excellence is they may be unwilling and/or unable to let go of the habits that have worked for them in the past. That is, they are unable to recognize that constantly shifting circumstances require new approaches because the old ways no longer work.

Given the VUCA business environment, leadership skills are subject to continual obsolescence, displacement and the need for adaptation and renewal. Changing our behavior requires learning agility — our ability to openly learn, unlearn, adapt and apply ourselves to constantly changing and novel conditions. This means that successful leadership in a VUCA world belongs to the most agile learners. So how do we develop and prepare business leaders to successfully lead in today’s constantly shifting business environment?

How Learning Agility Can Drive Transformation: A Client Illustration

A CEO coaching client came to me seeking assistance. The organization was about to embark on a significant company-wide transformation and the CEO was worried that her executive leadership team was not all pulling in the same direction. She said, “We are a team in name only; I don’t think we are well positioned to collaboratively lead the transformation.”

The CEO was correct in her assessment. After attending three team meetings, it was clear to me they had serious issues regarding both their individual and collective readiness to lead the transformation. The team members operated in silos within impermeable hierarchical boundaries. They didn’t work collaboratively, nor did they recognize that working interdependently was integral to leading a successful transformation.

Predictably, turf wars prevailed. The leadership team operated as a pseudo-team (paywall) of individual leaders. This is the weakest of all group types in terms of organizational performance because there is no mutual accountability requirement – which is vital for transformational success. This was a case of ingrained go-it-alone individualism along with highly demanding workloads conspiring against collaborative teamwork at the most senior level.

In my work, I have seen numerous teams operate as pseudo-teams, particularly at the corporate leadership level. I explained to the CEO that her pseudo-team could become a real team by collaborating on the real work of the transformation, committing equally to co-leading the transformation and developing a working approach for which they hold themselves mutually responsible and accountable.

Individual Transformation: Learning About Self And Others

Since turf wars were already ensuing, I chose to begin by boosting their learning agility at the individual level. I did this by providing one-on-one coaching with each team member, working in the following three areas:

• Self-perception

• Perception of self by others

• Power dynamics

Based on the 360-degree feedback and individual coaching conversations, the leaders’ learning agility improved by having them give and receive feedback and see and accept how others view them. Developing these new skills was difficult for these go-it-alone executives: They were far outside their comfort zone when faced with the new awareness that others almost never saw them as they saw themselves. It was a richly sobering learning experience for the leaders, one that provided the basis to begin to trust each other more to act, reflect and learn together as a real team.

Team Transformation: Learning By Doing

The individual coaching work was about “Who I am and how I am.” The team level work addressed “Who we are and what we will do together.” At this stage, my role shifted to include team coaching, focusing on increasing the shared leadership capacity of the team to lead the transformation.

The key to transformation is a learn-and-iterate-as-you-go process. My goal was to turn this pseudo-team into a collaborative and interdependent team — a joint venture generating movement toward a common goal. This meant working on mission-critical challenges and opportunities as identified by the transformation agenda. The team learned to work across former silo boundaries, and develop horizontal accountability for transformational sponsorship while developing new and better ways of working together. In other words, working on the transformation itself became both the learning context and content for their team’s leadership development. Working directly on real issues allowed them to exercise their learning agility muscle — a muscle that they would then be asking the whole organization to develop.

Guiding Principles For Team Transformation

The leadership team collectively developed the following uniting principles to guide their transformation:

• Organizational transformation belongs to the whole enterprise with all leaders fully owning it.

• The senior leadership team must start by getting their own house in order — practice, prototype, fail fast, support and learn together before going public.

• Being customer-driven gives us a common focus. Work as interdependent collaborators.

• Feeling discomfort when outside our comfort zone means that something important is about to happen. Be open to blind spots, learning, adapting and changing.

Rigidly hierarchical organizations are yesterday’s news. Yet we continue to be mesmerized by celebrity and rock star status, while living in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent. The current demands on leadership are overwhelming. Additionally, transformation is not a one-time event — it is continual and no one leader can do it all. As the CEO and her leadership team learned, being a transformational leader is a commitment to jointly partnering with others to serve the constant transformational needs of the organization.

Alexandra Salamis

As President of Integral Leadership Design, I work with leaders to transform themselves and their organizations.

Previously published in Forbes.com

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