How to be a learning organization that provides meaningful leadership development for the future of work


Some years ago I asked a friend who was responsible for some of the most successful TV adverts in South Africa – she was the advertising agency’s account manager for a fast food brand – what made the adverts so successful. “That’s easy” she said, “the client leaves me (and my team) alone to do what we do best – deliver on the brand and in so doing, make award winning adverts”. She went on to explain that the norm was for the client to constantly interfere with the creative design and process, thinking that they (the client) knew best when it came to what worked and didn’t work.

It doesn’t make sense to pay an advertising agency a premium price to only then interfere with them doing their job. But that it seems, is what invariably happens. Of course in most cases, as my friend explained, the advertising agency has to compromise on the creative and artistic integrity in order to keep the client happy. “We know green works best, but they will insist on blue” she said and so it goes, to the point where the end product is dull, unimaginative and simply a waste of money. We have all seen those adverts and wondered how on earth they could make it to the small screen, especially knowing something of the costs involved. They become the type of adverts that ensure that the coffee or tea break is taken and are the type of adverts best forgotten.

This particular brand that my friend referred too would turn over the entire creative process to the experts and trust them to deliver an end product that exceeded expectations. That they usually did is borne out by the many rewards won and the best test of all – the public stir the adverts always seemed to generate. They were always memorable adverts that got people talking.

As I thought about this somewhat obvious but neglected point – leave it to those who know best, it occurred to me that precisely the same thing happens in leadership development/education. I know this to be the case as I have repeatedly experienced it first-hand.

Let me explain.

A company approaches a well-respected business school to craft a leadership development process for the company. Instead of then trusting the educators to design and deliver a process that exceeds expectations, those inside the company constantly interfere with the architecture and design of the process until the educators spend more time managing the client than doing their job. The programme is one of appeasement and invariably the costs outweigh the outcome. There is a lot of activity but little change. There is a lot of programme but little real learning. The programme binding looks impressive but turn the pages and there is little substance.

The biggest outcome of all this is ‘safe programmes’ – programmes designed to keep the participants happy and comfortable. It seems the higher up the organisational tree that the programme is aimed at – the greater the spin to keep it safe and comfortable.

The problem is that real learning happens at the edge of comfort. Real learning is invariably found in the zone of discomfort and we know this to be true when we look at life itself. It would be nice if it weren’t the case, but that isn’t how life seems to work. Too many leadership development programmes play it too safe and the air-conditioned, five-star comforts have reduced learning to listen to talking heads punctuated by sorties to decimate the considerable buffet tables that lie in wait outside the room. There is a lot of information being transferred but little real game-changing learning taking place. The measure of this is how little leadership behaviour changes once the programme is over.

Many organisational cultures that are in desperate need of overhaul and refurbishment seem stuck in spite of the multiple training that is taking place. Leadership development seems to be an investment in maintaining the status quo rather than in moving the organisation forward. There are always the tell-tale signs, the most obvious one being the cautiously asked question, “has my boss heard this”. A deeper-rooted sign that leadership development is not taken seriously is the lack of pre and post interest shown by the “boss” in those who attend the course. I usually ask participants what was done by way of preparation before they arrived on the session; if they have received a call or mail from their boss while they have been in the session and then challenge them to let me know if they are taken to lunch on their return (by their boss) and asked what they learnt, what could or should change and other ‘learning’ questions. The answers and responses I get make for depressing reporting. There is a serious dislocation between the effort to develop people and the integration of that learning back into the organisation. The failure to surround formal learning in an incubator that will ensure the translation of that learning to the benefit of the organisation is nonsensical, yet in most cases, that is precisely what happens.

Those involved in leadership education know that ‘keeping the client happy’ has gotten in the way of real leadership development. In some instances they have strayed far enough to have forgotten what it is they should be doing – they have strayed from their calling, their true north as leadership educationalist. Instead of saying to the anxious client, “trust us and leave us to do our job” they bend and scrape to the every whim and wish of a client nervous about not antagonising his or her colleagues and sometimes, a client driven by the need to be seen to be in charge. It proves to be a lethal mix in the cocktail that is leadership development.

I know this to be the case as I have repeatedly experienced it first-hand.

I call this depressing dance between the educator and client the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – too hot, too cold, too soft, too hard, to little too much and so it goes. The end result is a compromise in which everyone continues to smile and the game goes on: leadership processes that fail to grow leaders.

What is to be done about it? How do we stop the music and start a new dance – one that is relevant, needed and that will be effective?

I have some suggestions, some of which you may not like depending on your position on the dance-floor.

Educators need to grow a pair…well, you know what I mean. I wince at the crudeness but feel compelled to write it, as it will take some pretty harsh words to snap educators out of their comfort and politeness – or ‘client-management’ as it is known. Let the client know that you know best – and you do, or should do at least! Design processes not merely programmes; be willing to risk the participants being disgruntled, angry and upset at various points along the journey. Know that many of your current measures are usually inadequate, superficial and invariably done at the wrong time: participants are usually asked to evaluate the day’s programme when the truer test of what has been learnt would be better served months from the time and place of instruction. Educators need to take back their domain – something that should be easy when client trust is earned and a relationship developed. They need to tell the client when it needs to be ‘green’ (and not ‘blue’) and not compromise on process and content they know is needed.

Clients (and here I speak of those within organisations tasked with learning and development – or who are the link between the organisation and the service provider) need to be bolder when it comes to articulating learning needs, organisational culture and the ‘norms’ that need changing. These people often find themselves caught in the crosshairs between senior executives who resist change and have suspended themselves from learning. You know what is needed but all too often your own anxiety between creating the right climate for the change and managing internal expectations and politics – produces a damp squib of a process. Is it easy to be the one to articulate the change needed or to draw the flack when there are disgruntled learners? Absolutely not, but then again, doesn’t this sound an awful lot like parenting? So my word to the ‘client’ is to pick your service providers carefully, give them what they need and then let them get on and do the job you have hired them to do.

And Bosses…I have a word for you as well! It all starts with you really. If you have delegated the learning and development (and certainly most of you have) and then show little real interest, how then can you expect the results to be anything like what they need to be in an ever-changing world? Before you are quick to protest your innocence and excuse yourself from this lecture (I don’t apologise) – notice I wrote ‘real’ interest. I know you are interested as you routinely show up on opening night and say the right things and you may even grace some feedback presentation with your presence. That is not what I mean by ‘real interest’. Real interest cannot be faked and perhaps the litmus test for you would be to ask those (your people) responsible for such processes and programmes if they truly feel your interest. If they are honest, you may not like their answer. Ask them what it is they expect from you and how best you can support the learning culture within your organisation. It might be one of the most important conversations you will have.

Here is a suggestion for you if you really want to go beyond mere lip service: how about insisting that every member of your executive be present at (you pick an amount/time here) select leadership development programmes? Imagine the impact of senior people showing up to learn, build relationship and hear first-hand what is being taught and learnt? I know this would reverberate throughout the organisation for I have often asked course participants (your people) what they would make of such behaviour. You should hear their answers…well, you could if you were there!

Here would be another suggestion closer to home. Were I to sit in on your executive meeting what evidence would there be of learning? Would I encounter open-ended questions that lead to open-ended discussions? Would I find intentional learning agenda items or would the agenda be one of the operational matters perhaps thinly disguised as ‘strategy’? How are you learning from the future and what is it you are reading? I can almost hear you dismissing all this with a, “we don’t have time for that” and then I would say to you that you have fallen prey to the tyranny of the urgent: the important stuff has been replaced by the urgent. Continue like that for long and you will soon have plenty of time on your hands, as there will be no business to lead!

If you are not a learning organization you will not survive the future. The current way we are conducting much of our leadership development does not necessarily mean that learning is taking place. Something needs to change and all those involved in the process that is leadership development have a voice and role to play in the changes that are needed.

Connect with Keith here to chat further about the work he and the TomorrowToday team does to help our clients develop their leaders and organisations to be successful in this changing world of work.


11 thoughts on “How to be a learning organization that provides meaningful leadership development for the future of work”

  1. An Excellent, informative and timely article!!
    On a scale of 1-10……I’ll give it a 12!

    1. Keith Coats says:

      Thanks for the feedback Henning, much appreciated.

  2. Clive Price says:

    A raw set of thoughts that got me squirming! Yes, agreed learning takes place in the uncomfortable space, and if delegates want to leave, well they can. Too often the facilitator tries to ease the ‘pain’ instead of drilling down further – nice one Keith.

    1. Keith Coats says:

      Thanks Clive. ‘Raw’ is a fitting description!

    2. Keith Coats says:

      Thanks Clive. All the best as you pursue the ideas shared!

  3. Dave Stroud says:

    Hi Keith
    Have so appreciated reading this article as it has so many points of application for me. I will be taking time to distill and apply the principles. Thank you.
    AS a side note: I tried to engage with the personal email link but it did not seem to be working. Please don’t take this the wrong way. under the heading “client” you use the term “damp squid.” The term is in fact a “squib” – a small explosive charge, which when wet does not achieve it’s potential. I hope you don’t mind me bringing this to your attention, as I’m sure you would use it again in another context.

    1. Keith Coats says:

      Hi Dave, thanks so much for the feedback and as you have the chance to distill the ideas further please don’t hesitate to share your insights and applications for my benefit. Thanks too for pointing out the error (so frustrating how these always seem to escape detection!) and the link fail…both of which have been sorted.
      Take care,

  4. Mark Hayter says:

    HI Keith,

    Thanks for a really thought provoking read. Not only does this apply to the corporate market, but also to the schools’ environment. Often leaders in schools are apprehensive to make changes because of the parental influence on the school. “We seldom tell our doctor’s how to treat a disease, but are always prepared to tell a teacher (educator) how to do their job.”

  5. Keith Coats says:

    Couldn’t agree more Mark. There are some huge concerns as to ‘learning mindsets’ predominant within the educational system. It is a sector I never shy away from when given opportunity to address given the need to ‘get it right’ at this foundational level. There needs to be a concerted effort to ‘educate parents’ and allow the Educators room to do what they need to do.

  6. Hi Keith,
    I was reading this article immediately after reading one on how the effectiveness of 1:1 coaching or consultancy is easier to research than the effectiveness of consultancy by (advertising, legal, business consultancy) teams to corporations.
    You made me consider whether:
    1. big impact change is hard to achieve if groups from two different corporations need to align on goals and tasks at hand (master pieces of art or unconventional new concepts are not commonly created by project teams) and
    2. group-think and group consciousness (do not rock the boat we are in – socially or otherwise) makes it difficult to go against the internal norm (“we like blue here”).
    Like migrating lemmings we may steer our company over the cliff rather than muster up the courage to accept and follow an outsider. It feels safer to claim “they” do not understand the complexities of our business than to look inside or to hand over control.

    I am absolutely with you on the conclusion that the solution lies in top level management setting the example. True Leaders do have the self-confidence to hand over execution power to experts when they know change is needed – but we all know Bosses who have too much ego involved to dare allow someone else to know better than themselves.
    Skill at exerting control is usually the reason these decision makers got to the top and old habits die hard. If the Educators and these latter type of Bosses start a contest of comparing the size of their ….. well, I bet with such clients other influencing skills would prove to be more successful. 😉

    1. Keith Coats says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Afke. Much appreciated. I am exploring how best ‘unlearn’ old entrenched habits and am experimenting with a few things. I think this is important work and certainly is easier said than done!

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