"I want to know what my leaders are learning," said the chief executive when I asked him if he was staying for a leadership workshop. His insistence on learning first-hand was a pleasant surprise to me. All too often the CEO and others from the executive team excuse themselves from the room while the other leaders are learning.
But not in this instance.
That morning’s sessions were filled with executive presentations celebrating the stellar growth from last year; the chief executive spoke about the challenges ahead, and the regional managing director shared the plan for 2014. Then in the afternoon, I was to speak on leadership.
So over lunch I told the chief executive I was impressed by the company’s growth and the way it was being run. Then after chatting for a few minutes, I asked: “Are you going to stay in the afternoon or do you have to slip out for a meeting?”
Frankly, I fully expected him to slip out along with the other senior leaders. Then he surprised me – partly by staying and more specifically by what he said.
“I have to stay and hear what you are going to say to my leaders,” he replied. “What’s the value in you being here if I don’t know what you say and cannot use it after you leave? You will only be here a couple of hours but I need to bring your ideas to life all year long.”
This was music to my ears and contrary to what I’ve experienced in other companies. It’s fairly uncommon for the executive team members to be present at workshops and seminars with the senior management team. They seem to attend only when the speech is crafted just for them, as if they are an elite group.
You may think this makes sense as they are really busy, which they are. But so is everyone else. It is also assumed they should already know the content of what is being said. But that might not be true.
Their presence extends beyond the visual support and it indicates that what is being said is important to them. Their presence allows them to be familiar with the points and stories that others are hearing so they can keep the message alive and use it to drive growth in the business. This CEO was correct; the message needs to live past the couple of hours of the seminar.
The leader, along with other senior management, is the catalyst for making this happen. If they are not present, they will not know what is said. If they do not know what is said, then it is difficult to realise this investment in learning.
This thought puzzles me: why would any chief executive allow an expert in leadership or another topic speak to his leaders without knowing the message? One of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to develop his senior management team, so that they will be able to fulfil the strategy. They need to know what is being said.
Actually this point extends beyond the C-Suite. It highlights the need for every leader to take an active role in the learning efforts of an organisation.
Have any of your employees ever attended a training session, workshop or seminar? I certainly hope so. The question is: what happened afterwards? All too often, leaders complain that they did not see the impact of the training. But this is not a consequence of the training – the responsibility rests on your shoulders to drive others’ learning into their daily routines.
When your employee returns to work, you should set aside at least 30 minutes, and have him share with you what he learnt at the training. Then you need to ask the two most important questions: “What will you put into action now?” And: “How can I hold you accountable for this?”
This approach is what is called stakeholder-centred learning. You, as the boss, and the company are the stakeholders in the learning contract. The training is provided to have an impact in the workplace and to address a specific need. Therefore, you need to make sure it translates into action.
Think of yourself as a coach who is putting forth his efforts to help his team build their skills and as a result perform better. With this mentality, it is natural to take an active role in what your team learns.
Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center.
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