Experiential learning approach: building better leaders

by Hudson
Leader showing colleague laptop

Building better leaders with an experiential learning approach

You may have heard the saying: “meetings are places where good ideas go to die”. I’d add that in the leadership development space, death by a thousand PowerPoint slides is a prevalent crime.

There is however a growing desire to revisit the way many organisations approach leadership development, and for good reason. The traditional ‘chalk-and-talk’ method, where participants sit for hours trying to absorb theoretical information,
is often time wasted. Without practical coaching on how to apply learnings in the workplace, the knowledge doesn’t always stick.

I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Says Garth Saloner, Dean of Stanford’s Graduate Business School: “There is a set of leadership skills that can not be taught or lectured about but that can be learned only experientially. You have to put people in an experiential setting,
in small groups and have them work through leadership tasks. It’s ideal if there is actual leading involved.”

While there is always room for reading and theory, at the end of the day, leadership is active. People learn it by running up against complex situations and figuring out the best way through them. Fortunately, those at the forefront of leadership development – such as Stanford and Harvard Universities in
the United States – are embracing a far more experiential approach.

Put simply, experiential learning is about encountering a new experience or challenge, dealing with it as best you can, reflecting on what happened, and coming away with new insights and knowledge that can be applied to future situations.

These learnings are ‘sticky’ – they stay with you. That means an accelerated learning curve, the injection and application of fresh ideas into the workplace, and ultimately a quicker and better return on the investment in these programs.

There are two approaches to experiential learning. One is leveraging direct work experiences like day-to-day tasks and stretch assignments, which can become rich learning opportunities with the appropriate reflection, coaching or mentoring.

The other approach emerges from more artificially created experiences like business simulation exercises, where participants are engaged in new experiences that provide them with an opportunity to gain insights and develop their skills and learn in a
safe and supported environment without real-world risk.

There are various ways my team has done this with clients. For instance, to help leaders conduct more constructive performance coaching conversations, we might act out one of these talks with an expert coach. The coach plays the part of an underperforming
employee, and together they role-play a coaching scenario. Afterwards, they unpack the experience and glean insights.

Some business simulation exercises we’ve helped clients design are a lot more intricate. One large client organisation recently wanted 50 managers to sharpen their business mindset. Our assessments showed their people were good at operations but
weren’t proactive enough in spotting new opportunities to grow market share.

The 50 managers were invited to what we call an experimental learning centre and the moment they arrived they were divided into teams, with each responsible for running a fictional hotel. Crucially, the business had nothing to do with hotels, but switching
to a new industry helped participants step back from the details and focus on broader business skills.

Over six rounds, teams made strategic decisions to gain market share from the others and increase their revenue. A complex mathematical algorithm we designed scored the decisions they made against the others and gave dynamic metrics on things like financial
performance and customer satisfaction. After each round we evaluated how each hotel was going, and the next round they made appropriate adjustments to their strategy.

Those who chased a different market segment to their competition scored more. Those who had higher price points than the competition – without investing in quality – scored less. There were also opportunities to do creative things that weren’t
part of the original exercise; in one case, two hotels decided to merge. This type of gamified learning – a fresh take on leadership development – is not only a lot of fun but is also highly memorable and transferable.

At the end, expert facilitators led a debrief to draw out learnings and apply them back to the client organisation and the skills they were aiming to develop. The energy in the room was phenomenal.

Fundamentally, leadership development is about building self-awareness through this type of reflective practice. This not only helps individuals to fully leverage the learning potential of their experiences, it also builds a culture of reflection in the workplace.

It’s easy to get caught up running from one thing to the next without really learning from experiences. Leaders who ask reflective questions – like “Why do you think it happened?” or “How might you do things differently?”
– give their people the permission, time and space to consider and grow.

Looking to assess and develop your organisations leadership potential? Speak with one of our Talent Management consultants about how we can meet your leadership challenges and bring tangible results to your business.