It is not an exaggeration to say that executive leadership programs are usually conservatively crafted and play on the reputation of both the institution that created them and the academics who deliver them. These courses actually rely on reputation and their ability to deliver much of what you would expect in such a program, rather than on innovation in either content or form. Executive leadership programs from any number of business schools are pretty standard as well as being reliable and robust. That is what you are paying for—essentially getting what you expect, in a traditional format, from a source that has a universal brand and reputation as well as deep credibility. DeakinPrime, like any university offering executive development, used to work in this relatively traditional way. Its former leadership program used external experts and Deakin Business School staff to offer a mix of lectures and discussion over a few days to focus on the key areas of development such as strategy, leadership and marketing. This is entirely familiar.
The new DeakinPrime Enterprise Leadership Program, however, takes a different route. It is profoundly different from the traditional model and has been repurposed from top to bottom. DeakinPrime decided to shake up its offering and move into a new mode of working that would better meet the needs of both existing and new clients. So this was the corporate development arm of Deakin University remaking itself and rethinking not just about how executive development is delivered, but the purpose behind it. This case study demonstrates what can be achieved if you listen to clients and adjust your offering to meet the changing world of business and evolving needs of leaders. This new approach, however, did not come out of the blue but emerged as a happy congruence of three elements that were by no means unique to Deakin University. And it was this congruence that made the need to move forward so compelling.
Firstly, DeakinPrime undertook research on current thinking around effective design for L&D program including leadership development program. This gave the team some ideas on how they could take a different approach, and tuned them into what was going on outside DeakinPrime in the broader L&D community. If more effective models were being developed that challenged the way things had been delivered by DeakinPrime, then in many ways it would have been foolish to not work with this newly acquired knowledge. DeakinPrime’s research emerged at the time when there was more general discussion about the outcomes of previously more conventional leadership development program, and the feeling that they could do more and get better results. There was real incentive to move forward and some excitement that they could do something, in their terms, that was innovative and mold breaking.
Secondly, the prominence of the 70:20:10 model offered the chance to apply that blend of learning in situ with stretch assignments and coaching support to an entirely new program. The great achievement of the 70:20:10 model is that it is not a prescription about what you have to do, but a challenge to use all your resources to focus on one learning goal, and extend its impact and effectiveness. And it reflected how people learn in the real world.
Finally, the arrival of new technology applications offered the chance to deliver something that was a better mixture of face-to-face and online learning, and created the opportunity to extend that more coherently into a framework that could build true personal learning into the mix.
The big idea behind this initiative was to design a new kind of bespoke program that was more clearly focussed on what went on in the workplace and that would promote lasting change. It meant a complete rethinking of the way that DeakinPrime approached the development of a leadership program.
Here is what one of the participants from the first cohort said:
This course changed the way I work. I now always use my informal networks inside the University before I turn to the formal networks (including those developed through the formal program).
The reflection element of the program really stuck. I now walk twice a day to reflect on my challenges and plan my strategy going forward. I am a much more conscious leader now.
The cohort coaching worked brilliantly, and morphed into a co-coaching experience which continues 16 months after the program began. I feel much more part of a team and part of the future of this institution now. I feel less isolated and more energised about my role and my role as a senior leader.
She has changed how she leads, how she sees her role, how she works with colleagues and how she connects with the institution she works for. These are not superficial changes or intellectual frameworks but practical and long-lasting changes in attitude, approach and behaviour. We are approaching the holy grail of leadership development—the permanent changes in behaviour that trigger a profound alteration in both the perception and delivery of leadership inside an organisation.
The unique opportunity that presented itself was a program targeted at a group of 120 senior staff at Deakin University. A review had highlighted key leadership competences that needed to be improved as a matter of urgency. It showed that there were a number of significant gaps in the group’s leadership approach, and that the group’s basic management techniques also needed to be improved. The cohort comprised both academic as well as general staff. This group was willing to try a new approach and the university was prepared to fund the program. This happy coincidence meant that DeakinPrime had both the incentive and resources to do something completely different to meet a clear and urgent need. The new program was launched in June 2015 and has made steady progress since then.
What is different?
There was a real drive and commitment to tear up the rule book. This spurred on DeakinPrime to deliver a program that was focussed on building permanent change in the participants, which, in turn, could offer DeakinPrime an entirely new way of building and delivering bespoke content. The organisation also wanted to help leaders deal with an increasingly uncertain and volatile external environment. These two elements dominated DeakinPrime’s thought and helped it to rethink what it should offer, and how it should be delivered.
There were a number of fundamental differences in approach between what DeakinPrime did in this program, and what had happened previously. In the previous model, DeakinPrime built learning program which were very much content focused and content driven. Most of the planning and discussion was around determining the appropriate content; there was little opportunity to change much else. There was no debate about the format and process of delivery, so all participants experienced the same content at the same time. There was no choice in terms of what was experienced, participants sat through content that could be highly relevant or almost totally irrelevant.
The lecture delivery model was based on the assumption that most of the content would be useful to most of the participants for most of the time, so flexibility was not required. This is not an uncommon approach, and an obvious limitation for flexibility in conventional delivery. Indeed, most of the content was delivered lecture style to participants in the same room. There were, however, a few opportunities for very conventional e-learning to be included. This was again more content. It was not core and it was delivered mostly at the fringes of the program. Learning was, clearly, completely separate from the day-to-day work and any relevant linkages had to be constructed by the learner. It was also designed so that the sole focus was on the individual participant with very little team or group work.
The new approach aimed to turn this on its head. The focus was on personalised learning based on individual goals and needs. The participants themselves defined much of the content, and the delivery was varied and blended. It also reached directly back into the workplace where a concerted effort was made to encourage the line managers of all the participants to offer intense on-the-job support during and after the program, to ensure that the learning was in context and that permanent change could emerge. The content was in much smaller chunks and delivered regularly to learners. Much of this was not specifically created for this program but curated from DeakinPrime’s own learning resources as well as others that were available freely outside the university.
The emphasis shifted from learning in the classroom to learning at work. And there were online technologies using both synchronous and asynchronous techniques to facilitate learning in the workplace and to align with day-to-day work issues. So discussion forums based around problems and challenges, plus webinars focusing on specific topics, punctuated the delivery of resources. The key emphasis was not on pulling people out of work into the classroom but to build an enduring online community that could offer mutual support and expert input. In this way, learning was integrated into the workflow and the biggest emphasis was on the group’s ability to solve its own problems collectively either with help or unassisted.
This can be summed up:
- program focused on content delivery
- no choice of content for the participants
- all learners experience the same program at the same time
- content is delivered largely through face-to-face workshops and lectures
- the only use of online resources is conventional e-learning modules to supplement the existing content
- learning separate and disconnected from day-to-day work
- main focus is on the individual with little team or group work apart from the odd discussion in class.
- personalised learning based on individual goals and needs
- participants define much of the content
- blended and varied delivery
- line manager support for all participants
- bite-sized curated content delivered regularly
- emphasis on on-the-job learning
- multiple uses of online methodologies with webinars and discussion forums
- an enduring online community integrated into the program
- learning integrated into the workflow
- focus on the group not the individual
- design based on doing your job more effectively
- an expectation that diverse groups will work on institution-wide ‘wicked problems’.
These changes in design principles led to two very specific outcomes that had been articulated from the beginning and were core to the program. The first was an emphasis on behaviour change for the participants. Emphasis was put on working with each participant to identify their personal learning goals at the outset of the program. These plans were expressed in terms of behaviours that the participant wanted to change. There was, however, space built into the program to address emerging needs as the program progressed. The second outcome was that the group was required to work on a number of wicked problems that would lead to positive organisational change. This term ‘wicked problem’ was first used, in the modern sense of the term, by C West Churchman in an editorial he wrote in the journal Management Science in 1967. Keith Grint has used the term more recently to describe problems that are not susceptible to solutions by ‘experts’ because they are complex, and because they evolve and have no correct solution (Grint 2005).
The purpose of this new approach was, on the one hand, to get the group to feel that they could change their institution for the better, not just change themselves; and on the other hand, to develop a process that gave the participants the confidence to deal with thorny problems inside the institution that were contradictory and hard to deal with.
The core principles
The underpinning model for the new program was adaptive leadership (Heifetz, Glashow & Linsky 2009). The idea was to help leaders respond flexibly and creatively to the changes in their environment and recognise that change and leadership were inextricably bound together in contemporary institutions, and increasingly shaping the nature of work. A dominant design principle was the explicit recognition that the whole working environment that leaders faced at Deakin University and elsewhere was chaotic and overwhelming. Existing development programs had not addressed that changing work environment, or offered much support to leaders to deal with it. The program had to offer leaders a new approach to be able to cope with it. This was essentially a change in mindset.
The mindset change required was identified as a shift from a fixed mindset to an adaptive mindset. The theory of fixed and adaptive mindsets was first set out by Carol Dweck in her research of young children (Dweck 2010). It has been widely adapted and applied in other contexts. The focus was therefore on developing the participants’ ability to respond to change positively, and to cope with complex and changing demands. The aim was to encourage the organisation to not only to be more flexible, and react more positively towards change, but also to build skills in the participants to respond with a greater flexibility of approach to issues that they confronted, and to learn from failure and challenge.
It matters whether people believe that their core qualities are fixed by nature (an entity theory, or fixed mindset) or whether they believe that their qualities can be developed (an incremental theory, or growth mindset) … I show that an emphasis on growth not only increases intellectual achievement but can also advance conflict resolution between long-standing adversaries (Dweck, 2012 pp614–622).
The fourth principle was that the program would be practical as well a theoretical. It would contain both leadership and management elements. In other words it covered both the ‘whys’ as well as the ‘hows’, and the opportunity for this was provided throughout the program for practical implementation of ideas and tools in the workplace. Therefore, there was a specific and consistent attempt to narrow the gap between learning and work, and give participants the opportunity to test out the theory in practice, and then report back to their colleagues or line manager.
Structure and critical success factors
Core research on adaptive mindsets was used to define and structure the program. That initial research identified the six critical success factors for the program. These factors form a neat framework for the program but have wider applicability.
The six factors are behaviour change, personalisation, contextualisation, experimentation and reflection, reinforcement and, finally, collaboration. The focus on behaviour change is to ensure that participants modify their practice, and ensure that this change lasts longer than the duration of the program. Personalised learning based on individual goals and needs increases the motivation and relevance of learning for participants. Contextualisation is about framing the program in the real world of work that the participants experience on a day-to-day basis. Experimentation links to reflection. It is seen as important for the participants to build in time and be encouraged to try out new ways of working and reflect on their success or otherwise. Developing the habit of reflection as part of their leadership practice was a deliberate core outcome of the program. The process of continual reinforcement was designed to ensure that changes in work practice became habitual; it was also an underpinning design principle that all the components of the program aligned and reinforced each another. This coherence tended to encourage more permanent changes in behaviour. The program was built around the concept of deep collaboration between colleagues. If one of the outcomes of the program was to develop a strategy for tackling some of the core, wicked problems that affected the university, then this had to be achieved through partnership and collaboration. It was also hoped that once these pathways were established they would become a permanent way of working and allow the deployment of more rapid solutions to emerging problems. If this way of working proved successful, then the resulting practice would allow teams to work together to help each other achieve their individual goals and targets, as well as improve the organisation as a whole.
The program was divided into five core phases:
1. Initiation phase
This was when the context for the program was established. The core business strategy was defined, and sponsorship for the program at the most senior levels in the organisation sought. In this phase the importance of achieving the ‘70’ component of the 70:20:10 model was stressed (Paine 2014). This is the ‘experience’ element, where learning takes place during the course of work. The basic discussion was about how the program and its learning could be firmly incorporated into the daily work rhythm of the participants. This was fundamental to the structure and approach for the whole development, and emerged before a single piece of content had been developed or conceived.
Specific tasks included setting up meetings with key stakeholders in order to explain the context, and analysing the challenges to gain commitment to the program as a whole. In addition a number of HR workshops were run to explain the aims of the program and solicit support for the endeavour. A half-day seminar for the entire university executive team was also organised in order to gain insight into the challenges that the group faced, to allow their free comment and discussion on the way that the program might develop, as well as gain their commitment to proceed. Welcome videos were created alongside a campaign that was aimed at committing senior executives to the program.
2. Discovery phase
In this phase, the needs of each participant as well as the profile of the group were worked out. A participant survey was also carried out as a basic needs analysis and a scoping exercise for the program as a whole. A whole raft of 360 degree feedback exercises were organised together with detailed debriefing for each participant to formulate both individual and group profiles. These had a positive focus, encouraging the recipients to move forward and build an adaptive mindset, that is seeing the feedback as helpful data to establish an individual change agenda, rather than reacting negatively to what could be seen as personal criticism. These first two phases lasted for one month.
3. Engagement phase
This was when the participants created their own personal mastery plan. This phase lasted one month as well. Essentially each participant looked at the feedback they had received and their own agenda that they wanted to work on during the program, and built their own plan of learning. They looked at personal outcomes which would determine whether the program was a success for them, and thought deeply about their own work context and what support they might require to achieve their aims. To help this process, a one-day workshop was organised for participants with three core aims: to help with the self-assessment of practical skills, to work out a Personal Mastery Plan (PMP) to develop an adaptive mindset, and to focus on practical skill development. Finally, a calibration session was organised to look at the overall scope and structure of the PMPs and ensure that they were fit for purpose and achievable in the time frame.
4. Action phase
This was the heart of the program and lasted six months. The focus was not on content but on changing habits and mindset. This was locked in with new skill development. Integral to the success of this phase were six small group coaching sessions. The aim of these sessions was to build a strong individual commitment to trying new things out at work and learning from their outcome, but undertaking this as a shared experience with colleagues and soliciting help and support if necessary. In this phase, strong relationships were established with colleagues and a number of new ideas were explored that could assist work-based experiments and help to ensure better outcomes.
It was important during this phase that individuals defined and reinforced their commitment to the group as a whole. These small group sessions helped to establish the collective will to change, and share the experience of change that the new approaches created. Throughout this phase content was delivered in small chunks. The content focussed on key leadership competences, such as how to influence others. The program ran in monthly cycles; every month there was one small group coaching session and then a combination of webinars, simulations, discussion forums and curated content, followed by diploma units for those who wished to pursue a qualification from the program.
In addition, on a weekly basis there were coffee and self-reflection sessions that ran alongside the action learning projects and peer coaching sessions where groups shared problems and challenges, and coached and supported each other. The program also established cross-project team buddies. Meeting your buddy was an opportunity to review your progress and discuss the outcomes of the learning in an informal way. Some of these elements such as peer coaching and the buddy system continued into the next phase.
5. Supercharge phase
This was the final phase and was designed to last 12 months. This was where the learning was embedded, and mastery of new skills and approaches occurred. Participants were mandated to build in regular reflection sessions on their own, as well as seek to work as a more effective senior management team. This was also where action learning sets were established alongside the more regular management meetings. The groups worked on organisational problems as well as individual change agendas. Each participant’s line manager had a key role in this phase; essentially the line manager had a critical role to ensure that the changes that had been discussed and worked on in the previous phase became embedded in new work processes and practices.
The program therefore concentrated on organisational change built around personal development agendas and more effective leadership. The outcomes of this specific program were designed to stretch beyond this initiative and into an entirely new way of looking at bespoke executive development. In some ways then, this was an investment in re-engineering the way that DeakinPrime tackled one of its most important work streams. The whole process involved learning an entirely new philosophy and approach to leadership development, not as a theoretical model, but as a practical working example with a track record.
The program had the entire senior management team from the university as participants (with the exception of the Vice-Chancellor) and the cohort was challenged to address six of the most wicked problems that the university faced. The action learning sets that were set up for this purpose had between 12 and 15 participants, with a deliberately diverse membership drawn from right across the cohort. One intended by-product of this process was to fracture the departmental silos and help participants see that they could contribute to solving whole university challenges. They were encouraged to work on building the university as a whole, rather than simply their part of it. This created a genuinely cooperative atmosphere and increased the sense that what went on in the university as a whole affected everybody and was also the responsibility of everyone to manage.
The course was built around cohorts of 25 members. Each cohort was divided into coaching groups of five, and larger action learning sets of 12 to 15. So some elements of the program were delivered as full cohorts. The coaching groups were small focused teams where members probably became closest to their colleagues. This was balanced with individual learning and the larger action learning sets that moved the focus from personal agendas to university-wide issues.
The delivery was a combination of external consultants and facilitators together with top learning experts. All those working on the program were briefed on the overall shape and the desired outcomes. Just as the participants were encouraged to take responsibility for university-wide issues as well as their own departmental or individual tasks, those teaching in or facilitating the program were required to think about the program as a whole and align with it, rather than simply focus on their own specific area of expertise. Everyone involved in delivering or managing the program was encouraged to be part of a coherent design and delivery strategy. This was time consuming but critical to the success of the program, which had to appear completely aligned. This meant that much more time was allocated to the design phase and the building of appropriate activities for the groups than is normally the case in leadership program, where the emphasis is on getting the content right rather than the process of learning.
In addition to this, regular pulse checks were built in to ensure that the program was on track. The outcomes were shared with participants to encourage a co-creation model and to build in their commitment to make it work. The evidence of success and emerging challenges is constantly gathered so that DeakinPrime has a pretty clear idea of how the program is working. Structure allows for modifications en route, so it is always dynamic and relevant. However, a formal evaluation will be carried out at some point that will focus on the enduring impact and permanent changes that have occurred in the organisation as a result.
What is already clear is the fact that personalisation and contextualisation were very high priorities for the program, which increased the motivation of the participants and their perception of the value that they took from it. It was made to feel as if it were ‘just for me’ and ‘just in time’.
It is noticeable that a new terminology has emerged in common parlance in the university as a result of this program. For example, staff talk regularly about wicked problems, and ‘servant leadership’ or ‘leadership for the greater good’. This represents a tangible shift in organisational culture. The conscious focus on leadership has improved decision-making, and staff motivation and engagement. In many ways, the process of witnessing the senior management in the organisation trying hard to be more effective leaders creates a positive atmosphere in itself.
In addition, the throwing together of staff from quite different parts of the organization, for example,academic and administrative staff, has built strong cross-university partnerships, and has resulted in interesting conversations around the university as well as generating imaginative solutions to some of the problems that the university faces. There is also evidence that the methodology used in the program is now being picked up and used by participants with their own teams. The open nature of the program, and the bite-size resources used, make it ideal for this purpose. Small elements of content can be used in discussion and development because they are easy to extract from the program as a whole.
There were a number of outcomes directly attributed to the program which indicate that it was achieving its core purpose. Setting out to identify personal learning goals and get commitment from the individual learners to deliver on those goals led to, in some cases, marked behaviour change. Noticeable changes in behaviour picked up by direct reports prove that the changes reverberated through the University as a whole.
Tackling of significant organisational challenges through the use of action learning sets changed staff attitudes. Instead of being overwhelmed by complex problems, there was a better ‘can do’ attitude amongst most senior staff. The process of working on significant challenges during the program encouraged the same people to tackle new, emerging problems when they arose rather than wait until they became disruptive.
The biggest change, however, was the alignment and integration of those two processes. For the first time, perhaps, individual leadership change reflected and reinforced changes in the organisation, and change in the organisation, in turn, reinforced the need for leaders to change. This was perfect symbiosis and an enormously enduring outcome that will help the institution adapt to the challenges of the next 10 years and ensure that staff in the institution embrace that change in a positive way. This is a remarkable achievement.
Core lessons to take away
- If you want different outcomes for your learning program then you have to build a different way of learning.
- A focus on behaviour and culture change cannot be developed by program that only focus on the individual rather than the group or the organisation.
- The establishment of self-managed groups that supported each member, and work on organisational and individual challenges are an enduring outcome from this program. Post program, the groups and the bonds that held them together endured.
- It is possible to make leadership development more about changing mindset and changing the organisation, and less about a focus on the individual in isolation. Many of the outcomes were due to group empowerment and the momentum that was developed.
- Getting early buy-in from the top of the organisation is critical for success. The commitment of the entire senior team, but especially the sponsorship of the Vice-Chancellor, was of enduring significance.
- It is important for the organisation to retain control. The powerful learning emerged from group members and the developers, not external teachers. There was a management team that kept control of the program at all times. They invited the external faculty to work with them and buy in to the logic of the program as a whole, and did not cede responsibility to those external providers.
- Building trust between participants was essential. That was the only way that those on the program would open up and make commitments to change and spend time supporting each other.
- The course had to remain aligned with the reality of the working environment of the University at all times. It was important to reflect back to the participants what was achieved at each stage, and vital for the organisation as a whole to acknowledge progress.
- Coaching—in this case in small groups—was essential to the success of the program.
- It is always difficult to get buy-in from line managers. In this case their direct involvement was an integral part of the structure and process.
We can finish by referring back to that participant in the first cohort. Her conclusions about the impact of the program as a whole were:
This program has helped me frame my own self-development needs going forward. It has made me more resilient and helped me think differently about my leadership role. I deal differently with my direct reports and am much more open as a leader. As a result, I am not just doing my job better, I am happier in my role and more confident about the impact that I make.
That is a ringing endorsement that reflects not just what is new about this program, but also the fact that it is actually delivering.
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Dweck, CS 2010, ‘Even Geniuses Work Hard’, Educational Leadership, vol. 68, no. 1, pp. 16–20.
—— 2012, ‘Mindsets and human nature: promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower’, American Psychologist, vol. 67, no. 8, pp. 614–22, accessed October 2016, http://doi.org/10.1037/a0029783. Grint, K 2005, ‘Problems, problems, problems: The social construction of leadership’, Human Relations, vol. 58, no. 11, pp. 1467–94.
Heifetz R, Glashow A & Linsky M 2009, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, Boston.
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