Avoiding the leadership vacuum

Building a community-centric programme can help develop the next generation of leaders. David Robertson explains

It’s hard to escape reports of an aging workforce since the default retirement age was phased out a few years ago. News of how more people will work well into their 60s is often set alongside claims that millennials will flood the workforce over the next twenty years.

While this parallel rising between the two generations is certainly true, at some point those of the baby boom era will retire. Senior leaders will leave, taking their know-how of the business and job with them, while younger, ambitious workers will be looking to the business for support to climb the career ladder.

If rising stars are not ready to step into the shoes of retiring executives then the business will face a leadership vacuum. This is a problem for learning and development teams around the world but one that can be solved through a healthy pipeline of talent continuously coming through to the business.

So what’s the key to building a successful pipeline strategy?

One tried and tested approach which Forum has used when supporting L&D teams faced with a similar challenge is to establish a comprehensive, community-centric learning programme for the next generation of leaders in the organisations.

It is a continuous learning programme where community members attend classes, participate in expert roundtable discussions and work through business problems together with the support of an experienced coach. They can be as small as a two-person project to the whole company and can be simple or complex, with members meeting annually or frequently, online or face-to-face. It can be short-term to solve an immediate skill shortage problem or an ongoing programme to protect against any future talent issues.

Learners move through the programme as a group but also create a space where they share individual competency development and concerns. Participants are encouraged to seek out organisational experts – regardless of age and rank – and use threaded discussions and ongoing communities of practice to solve business issues. Participants then document their learning online such as on a programme blog so knowledge can be shared across the company.

This ongoing, layered-learning environment helps executives avoid the leadership vacuum by engaging teams in a collaborative, cross-generational, skills-swapping dialogue. By sharing knowledge across the community learning programme, any potential shortage in skills are highlighted and can then be cultivated, equipping younger workers with the knowledge necessary to step into the shoes of those retiring. 

Learning communities work particularly well with Gen Y workers. Reports have shown that millennials desire a work environment that emphasises team work and a sense of community.

Forum also dug a little bit deeper into how millennial groups prefer to learn. From our own research, we too discovered that, on the whole, they prefer communal learning that involves tacit, immersed experiences, and that generates knowledge which is then distributed across the community.

So what things should L&D teams consider when creating a learning community?

Bring learning closer to the work

Often organisations separate learning from work by focusing on event-based learning programmes often held off-site and lasting for a day or two. These sessions are targeted at a specific learning experience away from the daily job so it’s not surprising when learners find it hard to then apply their skills in the real world.

To help younger workers continuously learn from experience, L&D should ensure that their learning experiences are incorporated into the flow and context of daily work. Said simply, learning should be the work and the work is the learning. 

Managers should regularly take advantage of opportunities to place team members into projects that demand new or different capabilities such as stepping into another employee’s role or regular job rotation. This can help members expand their understanding and experience.

L&D professionals should then include reflection into these routine activities by encouraging people to be conscious of their actions while on the job as well as to think back on their activity and to be diligent in sharing learning with the rest of the organisation. Reflection can also be included in coaching conversations by asking employees questions that cause them to give more attention to the problem and quietly reflect on possible solutions. A good coach then nurtures the worker to share and explore their insight on a solution by asking another round of questions and answers, and then motivates the worker to take action quickly on the heels of an insight.

Such reflection will encourage people to pause, evaluate, and become aware of their new knowledge. It will ensure that employees process and indentify opportunities for improvement and will help them to better retain the lessons that they have learnt, which they can then share with others. Further, their learning will be more intentional and closer to work which fosters increased efficiency, effectiveness and speedier strategic execution.

Teach as well as learn

L&Ds can strengthen learning further through a community-centric programme by offering the opportunity for the next generation of leaders to teach others their new found knowledge. By teaching, learners construct and deepen their knowledge, become aware of gaps or missing information, and successfully shift the learnt concept into their long-term memory. At the same time, any new joiners that they teach will too be learning the skills necessary to move up the talent pipeline. They too will be ready to step into their teacher’s shoes when they take over from the retiring workers, thus, a pipeline of talent keeps flowing through the business. 

However, not everyone in the organisation will be ready to teach. L&D professionals need to carefully select intentional teaching opportunities, prepare the teachers, provide a teaching structure and consider the context and people who will
be taught.

Intentional teaching opportunities could be asking the learner if they would like to teach the material to their peers, to coach someone, or to capture their knowledge with the intent of sharing it. All these actions help a learner to develop a much deeper understanding of what they have learnt.

Provide a balance of challenge and support

When people stretch themselves beyond what they think they can do then the learning experience is richer, more satisfying and lasting, but as long as they also get the right level of support at the same time.

The best learning situations are therefore those that provide a realistic level of challenge with enough assistance so that the learner feels comfortable asking for help when needed, understands that mistakes are an acceptable part of the learning curve, and is willing to keep pushing forward even when faced with uncertainty.

The dilemma for L&Ds is how to create sufficient challenges, but still provide enough support within a learning community, particularly when too much challenge can lead to stress which is then counter-productive.

We know that bringing learning closer to work is effective so using an apprenticeship model in a learning community, with a ‘master’ and an ‘apprentice’, working together, can be a successful balance of challenge and opportunity. With the guidance of the master, the apprentice can learn to become a leader in their particular area, thus training a new generation of workers on a particular skill.

An expert/apprentice relationship does not have to be a one-on-one commitment for months or years; it can be a project-specific arrangement for the short-term, a single coaching session, or a job-rotation plan. Furthermore, a knowledge agent can mentor more than one apprentice at a time. Regardless of the arrangements, a properly functioning apprentice model creates and maintains the challenge while also lending the support.

Mental models

Learning through mentors, while on the job and through teaching are all great ways to build a learning community where knowledge and skills are shared and taught between generations. However, to know whether a person has truly internalised something, you have to look deeper by measuring any changes to their attitudes and beliefs, often referred to as “mental models”.

Mental models are people’s view of themselves and of their world. They are their beliefs, attitudes and feelings about what happens to them and how they should respond and this deeply affects learning and the behaviours they keep or change.

[pullquote]Some attitudes and beliefs can be changed or developed through learning and used as a benchmark for how effective the programme has been[/pullquote]. For example, does the person now ‘act’ and ‘think’ strategically like a leader? L&D professionals can then measure whether any changes have occurred through observational methods or online metric reporting systems which seek participant feedback as well as examine the impact learning has had on areas such as individual performance, business results and return on investment from L&D investment.

Some beliefs and expectations are generational or cultural and therefore less influential to change. However, these attitudes need to be considered and worked with when developing a learning community otherwise the learner is less likely to engage and adopt the new learning behaviours.

For example, millennials need reward and recognition, but are not necessarily focused on financial gains. They prefer electronic communication to face-to-face dialogue, particularly when it comes to content that is emotional or confrontational in nature, and they report less loyalty to the organisation and more loyalty to the team and the local community.

Consider the learning tools available

[pullquote]To engage younger employees in a learning community, ensure they have access to the correct equipment and tools that will engage and encourage them to learn[/pullquote]. Millennials, as shown in reports such as the PwC 2013 study, expect access to the best tools to collaborate and do their job.

Not surprisingly, social networks have great appeal to Gen Y’s because this is how they interact outside of work but also because millennials tend to have greater loyalty to a local team or community than they do to the corporation as
a whole.

Social networking tools like posting videos, blogs and podcasts are effective for recording and sharing experiences and knowledge within the community and organisation. They help adjoin all the information we have flowing around an organisation but never collate. For example, L&D could consider incorporating low cost, digital video cameras into their work and learning teams to document progress via a blog and in a video diary to share with others.

L&D can also use online learning tools to track information exchanges, efficiently connect employees with needed knowledge, mine team and community correspondence and documents for valuable lessons, and leverage the existing expertise in the organisation.

By recording and tailoring the learning experience of an individual through online and social media, L&D can check that learning links back to the goals of the organisation and the needs of the individual; thus linking learning to value for the employee and employer.

They can also use it to encourage and capture reflective experiences and actions by. For example, L&D contributing to blog posts and comments. This in turn, invites participation from others to share their views and consider their actions and adds depth to the whole learning experience through a climate of collective wisdom.

So, if learning communities are so powerful in helping strengthen our pipeline of leadership talent then why are not all companies using them all of the time?

In part, it is because it is not trivial to create a well-run and productive community. Challenges include: organisational barriers that prevent the appropriate community members from finding and connecting with each other; variable capacity among people to commit to taking part regularly in a community or communities; a mix of competencies among the membership to meet and a lack of organisational support.

To help address all these difficulties, it is important to get buy-in from senior leaders as they will play a critical role in the success of a learning community, from the early forming stages right through to its conclusion. Their personal and financial backing will help break down barriers and encourage people to get on board with the programme.

To get senior management buy-in, it is important for L&D to portray the community as a well-oiled machine (and not a working group) that is focused on developing talent, improving performance and building strong team relationships. They need to demonstrate how it can bring specific benefits to both the individual and the organisation. For example, as the individual cultivates personal experience, expands his or her skills, and enjoys the team-centric connection, the organisation benefits as the L&D group collects, archives and shares learning results with the broader workplace. By re-distributing these ‘results’ through the community, L&D can maintain a cost-effective learning process that runs through the business to build a robust pipeline of leadership talent. These learning results can also be evaluated to ensure that any learning continues to link to the goals of the business and is of value to the individual’s career path.  

In short, learning communities are a winning strategy to discover, capture and share knowledge within the organisation; protecting the business against any leadership vacuum. 

They are flexible enough to accommodate all learning needs and expectations. They are particularity suited to the working style of Gen Ys, or otherwise, tomorrow’s leaders. And they can be measured and monitored to ensure learning is always linked back to goals of the business and the individual. 

Capture and present these benefits to any senior management team and L&D will soon have the support and financial backing they need to get their community learning programme off the ground and their pipeline of talent flowing.


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