Diving Head-First into Action Learning


June 10, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

One of the leadership development tools that I believe in the most is action learning. I am not an expert at action learning myself (my personal focus is individual or team behavior), but I have seen action learning make a huge positive difference in many of my clients’ organizations. Chris Cappy is a good friend of mine, and an expert on this topic. I hope you find value in his reflections on action learning. Edited excerpts of a recent conversation follow:

Chris, how would you define “action learning?”

At the heart of this idea is learning by doing (BusinessWeek.com, 6/4/08), or learning by tackling real problems. One of my clients believes that around 10% of what people learn comes from a class or conference, 20% comes from other people, and 70% occurs while you are on the job. Why is this? You are in the line of fire, you are focused, and there are real consequences.

Action learning deliberately sets up situations in which there’s visibility both to your results as well as how your results came about. A lot of companies use some version of action learning to develop their leaders and managers, and as a methodology it has proven cross-culturally valid, something really valuable in these times of globalization.

This makes sense to me. In my research on behavioral change, I find that leaders who achieve positive changes in behavior take action upon what they learn in feedback. They do not just attend classes. How do you use action learning?

There are quite a variety of approaches which I might classify on the “spice index”—mild, medium, and hot. “Mild” might be seen in experientially based simulations or training exercises that can help build awareness and specific skills. —Hot” is based upon significant business challenges in which leadership needs to change something on the dynamic and challenging playing field of their work—where their performance will be visible and consequential. This gets a learner-leader’s heart pumping, for sure!

Yet what better way to develop a mindset along with skills than to take a deep dive into the realities of your environment where there is the genuine challenge to you to be an ever-better performer?

How did you get interested in this field?

I started 24 years ago working with an award-winning consulting group at Boston University called Executive Challenge…an innovator in the U.S. with simulation-based education that focused on the “how-tos” of high-performing teamwork…our central message was “extend yourself!”

It seemed the Japanese were increasingly dominating critical core industries—steel, automobiles, semiconductors—and they seemed to work more collaboratively and productively than we Americans did. In that environment, there was a strong reaction that screamed “We need to team better!” My first clients included Walt Disney (DIS), General Electric (GE), and Morgan Bank—all vanguard companies who were trying in earnest to figure out how to be stronger competitors.

The learning challenges we set up got heads turning and important conversations going. It led me to serve in a role creating and running action-learning-based programs for 11 years at the GE Crotonville facility. It was an amazing time to be there when a lot of resources were being invested to help GE managers and leaders step up. We used all sorts of simulations and we built action-learning teams who led in-depth market analyses of emerging-market countries. There was rigor and there were results.

What goes into good action-learning design?

At the heart of how we learn, there is typically something of challenge or interest that gets our attention. Action-learning design focuses on these essential questions in sequence: What happened? So what does this have to do with my life and work? Now what can I take forward and use?

To structure action learning from a programmatic point of view, several things need to come together. You find an appropriate project/challenge to be addressed. You build in some duration with several follow-up checkpoints…say a range of as little as 90 days, or as much as nine months. You provide individuals with personal feedback so that they have awareness of personal behaviors that may strengthen their leadership. You develop each learner’s playbook to help them engage and manage through their projects. You build in a peer-coaching process to leverage each other’s experiences and learning. You have finals in which projects and personal results are reviewed and assessed by the peer community and executive sponsors.

What are the benefits of action learning?

Both individuals and organizations can achieve real, ROI [return on investment]-based results. You see many lightbulbs regarding how to lead going off. The learner-leader gets recognized and validated. Whole peer communities of interest are formed and supportive relationships are created that help bridge the spaces between business units and functions. High-potential leaders (who are the bench strength of the organization) have the opportunity to interact with top executives. This is an invaluable experience for them, and for their executives! You work with, serve, and learn from terrific people who really get a chance to step up and show their stuff.

After 24 years in the field, what excites you about your work now?

I get to work across a diverse set of companies and different industries and get to play in the space where strategy, execution, and executive education all intersect. One of my latest projects involves 30 high-potential players from a Fortune 20 company who are engaged in a nine-month Leader to Leader program that is forging vital and key relationships across the future leadership of the enterprise. The power and practicality of the peer coaching and support is amazing to see. We are using some cool software to keep track of progress, and a number of small but useful content pieces that people can use in real time.

We’re bringing speakers from the C suite and the board who talk about their roles as well as share stories from their personal leadership journeys. It is very rewarding in terms of both the creative process and the results.

Do you have any parting ideas for readers?

With the right action learning-based design, you can connect and develop your leadership community on a relative shoestring budget, with ROI and other tangible benefits that vastly surpass what you get from traditional training and educational programs.

I agree! Although I don’t do action learning myself, I recommend this process to my clients. Several great consultants work in this space. To evaluate their credentials, I suggest that my clients take a hard look at the actual results that have been achieved. How can people reach you?

Please have anyone interested contact me at ccappy@pilotconsulting.com.