Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The messy business of learning to become a leader

I have spent today, as I often do, working with a group of team leaders on the practices of feedback and coaching.

Running workshops for managers who work in commercial organisations is always interesting.  Managers are hungry for hints and tips that will help them solve pressing performance issues.  

Of course, providing hints and tips makes sense.  If there is knowledge that can be shared that will help improve performance then why not? However, what I notice, and indeed concerns me, is the extent to which this approach to learning, especially management learning, attempts to reduce it to a set of instrumental steps.  

This need for certainty in managerial practice is fed by the organisations that sponsor and commission management development.  Organisations want managers who are competent to, inter alia, manage performance, give feedback and establish a coaching culture that fosters personal responsibility.  They too are looking for instrumental approaches that will solve organisational performance needs.  The analogy that I've used before is the notion of learning as a garage refit - “remove a group of managers/team members from the workplace, repair or fit higher performance parts as instructed, lubricate if necessary and return to service.”

Knowing vs Becoming

I came across an interesting reflection about the vulnerability of learning in this blog from elearnspace.  What interested me was the way it drew attention to the distinctions between knowing and becoming and, in the writers view, a deficit in practices that encourage learners to explore their vulnerabilities and to notice how they are 'becoming' whatever it is they are learning to become.  Of interest was the extent to which this was not about the content but on the challenges of learning.

Roman roads or woodpaths

This reminded me of my blog in November 2011, based on the above title, in which I explored the issues of learning practices that were concerned with providing clear cut 'Roman roads' to knowledge compared with the messier notion of 'woodpaths' that meander and involve getting lost but which also produce useful learning about what works and what doesn't.

Back to today

And so coming back to what I noticed about my work with the group today.  The models that underpin practice in feedback and coaching are freely available  - A.I.D, Skill/Will, GROW, for example, can be easily acquired.  The challenge is in their application and in becoming somebody who can give feedback well and facilitate others learning.

For me it comes down to a choice about who is in control of the learning; the teacher or the learner.  In my own 'becoming' as a management developer and understanding how managers learn the most important role that I can play is to do everything I can to put the learner in control.  On skills based topics like today I favour the use of learner-generated scenarios over prescribed role plays.  There are risks with this approach, principally that the teacher/facilitator has no control over the scenarios and, consequently, the 'take aways'.  But, if I listen to the feedback, the managers tell me that they prefer this over the alternative prescribed approaches.

It's messier but it's also a deeper learning experience.

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