High-Performance Leadership: Converting Potential into Execution

Three Keys to Effective Online Leadership Training

At a recent executive retreat, one of the participants asked a simple but blunt question: “Tell me, Professor Bacharach, if there is one skill I should make sure that everyone onmy leadership team has,what would that skill be?”

“Easy question,” I said, “The capacity to deal with uncertainty.”

To summarize how the corporate world has changed in the last 25 years, one could draw on the work of Charles Perrow, a well known sociologist, who maintained that we have moved away from the world of execution through routine technology to a world of execution through problem solving. From manufacturing, to R&D, to marketing, from the frontline to the boardroom, uncertainty demands from all leaders the capacity to be proactive motivators and innovators, constantly focusing on change. The successful corporation must give its high-potentials the analytical skills to move agendas ahead in a world where nothing is certain.

In this context, if e-learning is to succeed in the challenge of developing leaders, it must become a full partner in this enterprise and show the capacity to bridge the most fundamental pedagogical divide between academic chalkboards and avatar technology.

We all know the e-learning critics who adhere to the older academic/chalkboard model. They maintain that teaching is experiential. Not only is it about the transfer of information, not only is it about dialogue, but it demands an integrative, communal gestalt presence that can only occur in the classroom. They hold that e-learning, while potentially interactive and perhaps able to transfer discrete chunks of information, fails to constitute a community of learners.

On the other hand, those who support the avatar/technological model maintain that learners can construct their own knowledge from a wide variety of bits of information presented online. If information can be broken into bits, segmented and captured, and presented clearly to students in a searchable, and even networked manner, they will be able to integrate the bits of information into their own personal narrative.

But if e-learning is to serve the higher level skills training that is required for leadership development, it must move beyond this false dichotomy.

Nowhere is this challenge for balance between chalkboards and avatars more essential than in the teaching of higherlevel skills; those required to help leaders deal with uncertainty. Higher-level teaching enhances the capacity of the learner by
giving them the skills necessary to succeed in their world of practice. It creates what Donald Schon calls a “reflective practitioner”— an individual who looks at a problem and implicitly, almost unconsciously, applies his or her learned skills.

This becomes imperative in the corporate world when the concern is with training
high-potential leaders who know their business, are technically familiar with what they do, and know what needs to be done. Yet they are now challenged to get things done. They need skills in critical thinking, supervision, coaching, decision-making and conflict resolution. These skills need to be part of their daily problem-solving repertoire. The capacity to teach these high-level skills is a critical problem faced by e-learning if an organization wants to develop these skills across the enterprise in multiple business units and regions.

I encountered this challenge eight years ago when I was approached to author a series of leadership, negotiation and coaching courses. For someone who has been teaching for many years in a face-to-face classroom setting, it seems like a far-removed reality. I used to think the class room demands completely different skills than the online modality— but now I’m not sure.

Leadership, no matter how it is tackled, has rarely been taught as a transferable micro-skill. Leadership is often taught and presented in its broader sense. For example, some draw a distinction between transactional and transformational leadership. Others draw a distinction between leadership and management. Still others make arguments that leadership is an innate trait —that leaders are born—and leadership skills cannot be taught and acquired.

Notice what most leadership courses do: They drive the student to internal introspection; they engage the student to examine their style; they are often a combination of drama coaching and self-analysis. This perspective does not give students the skills they need to lead.

Leadership is about the particular skills of execution: the simple capacity to move agendas through organizations; the ability to make sure that good ideas move forward and are implemented. Leadership is not about vision, it is not about creativity, it is not about personality—it is about the capacity to get something done.

So, back to our high-potentials who know their business and have the base knowledge to execute but now find themselves in a position where they need to work with people, lead them, and manage them to ensure successful implementation of agendas.

These high-potentials don’t need more training about their business.What they need are the micro-skills of execution. High-potentials may not have the charismatic personality, nor may they be visionaries and superheroes, but they can lead if they are given these specific micro-skills.

To the degree that leadership—or any idea—can be translated to its component parts, it becomes more amenable to the elearning experience. Therefore, while “charisma” cannot be taught online or a personality transformation cannot be done online, specific, discrete skills can be taught online—if you apply a consistent pedagogical model.

When I teach or train in the classroom, I operate on three different levels:

1) Presenting knowledge as segmented bits of information that can be learned by students piece by piece. This is what I call the ”segmentation of knowledge.”

2) Drawing linkages among the segments so the knowledge hangs together as a whole. I call this the ”gesalt-ing of knowledge.”

3) Using interaction and application to make sure that the knowledge is absorbed and, more importantly, integrated by students with their realworld experience. I call this the “personal acculturation of knowledge.”

When I developed my leadership courses for the online modality, I used the same template. First, I had to make sure that the students are not presented knowledge in a way that was overwhelming. To that end, I carefully segmented the material. Second, it was my responsibility to draw linkages among the bits of information; that is,making knowledge a whole. And lastly, it was important to me that the students adopt into their own personal mindset, into their own frame, the knowledge that has been presented to them.

A truly good test of teaching success— both in the classroom and online—especially
in an applied field, is to figure out to what degree the knowledge taught becomes part of the taking-for-granted cognitive reality of the students’ mindset—that is, the ability to deal with uncertainty.

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my more successful students. He told me that, in the classroom, I taught him how to think. He doesn’t remember word-for-word lectures from 25 years ago, but he understands — and keeps with him — the whole of what I taught. It is now part of who he is.

Our conversation moved to e-learning, and he seemed to be a bit surprised. He asked me if the same goals could be achieved via e-learning. I said, “Yes, but only if e-learning operates on the same three levels that I think are essential for higher-level classroom teaching.”

As learning leaders in organizations begin to use e-learning for higher-level skills development, they should evaluate programs on the basis of:

>> whether the information is clearly presented;
>> whether the information is integrated; and
>> whether the information can be deeply absorbed.

Segmentation. Gesalt-ing. Acculturation. When you are evaluating a high-level e-learning experience — in fact, when evaluating any high level skills learning experience — my work in the classroom and on e-learning platforms tells me that these three pedagogical criteria should be kept in mind.

I’m not suggesting that this approach will recreate the intimacy and communalism of the classroom. Nor am I saying that the organic whole of the material will be reconstituted online. Indeed, in many of our joint activities we have used mixed modalities to achieve these goals. I am, however, saying that if we are to address the challenges of training high potentials for success as leaders, we must focus on these three essential factors.

—Samuel Bacharach has written more than 20 books and is co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group (blg-lead.com), a leadership training organization that specializes in developing high potentials for corporations. BLG and eCornell operate in partnership to deliver mixed-modality leadership learning.

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