Monday, 29 September 2008

No Pain, No Gain

There is little doubt that great teamwork delivers better results than a group of competent individuals working independently. But what is it that makes a great team and how does a team leader go about developing a great team?

This issue was addressed several decades ago by Bruce Tuckman with his four stages of team development - forming, storming, norming and performing.

When a team first comes together they are at the forming stage where members are unsure of their role in the team, cannot yet trust the abilities of other team members and therefore, productivity is low. As familiarity grows and team members start to jostle for position in the team, particularly in relation to roles and responsibilities, tension grows, co-operation is low and so too is productivity - this is the storming stage. As team members settle into regular patterns of working with clear roles and responsibilities (the norming stage), their productivity improves alongside increased co-operation and steady working relationships. And this is as far as most teams get to - a steady, co-operative working environment with decent productivity.

The fourth stage occurs when the team reaches the high performing stage where team members actively support and challenge each other to deliver outstanding results. Mutual trust is very high, relationships are very mature, processes are slick and co-operation is absolute. As a result, productivity is exceptional.

The harsh reality is that few teams ever truly reach the high performing stage. Consider for a moment how many times in your career you have been part of a genuinely high performing team that consistently delivered exceptional results. For most people this is a situation they might find themselves in maybe three or four times in their whole career. Some might never experience it. As for leading a high performing team, the averages are even lower.

What then does it take to lead or become a high performing team?

There are of course several factors, including the condition that the team must stay together long enough. In his book, Brilliant Leader, Simon Cooper explores many of the inputs required by a leader to build, develop and lead high performing teams, indeed, he sets new standards in how to do so. But perhaps the most compelling factor lies in the stages of the team's development and in particular, the storming stage.

The storming stage is uncomfortable. There is high tension among team members, passive or active conflict and low levels of trust. The tendency for most team leaders is to manage the team through the storming stage. This usually involves dealing with issues reactively and focusing on individual performance to ensure that everyone is doing their bit. Worse still, many leaders will highlight the weak links within the team and deliver negative feedback in order to encourage improvement. Additionally, they might manage conflicts as they arise or try to avoid dealing with them at all - the ostrich approach.

What many leaders fail to understand is that storming is actually a golden opportunity that enables the rapid progress towards a high performing team. The tension that is created provides energy that, if it can be harnessed properly, provides the momentum for the team to progress to the high performing state. No pain, no gain!

When the team enters the storming phase the leader needs to draw all the conflicts out in the open and challenge the team to resolve these conflicts based on what each member brings to the team both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The leader should not avoid these conflicts but rather, they need to be embraced and facilitated. And they should try to take the team through this pahse rapidly. This of course, can be easier said than done.

Quite often taking teams rapidly through the storming stage is the focus of our team building events. We design exercises that draw out the conflicts in an open and safe environment. Our expert facilitators are then able to guide the group through these conflicts to help them appreciate each other, co-operate more and play to each others' strengths while supporting each other in their areas of weakness. And of course, team members have a shared experience to use as a reference point.

In our four day leadership workshop, Brilliant Leadership, delegates are actually taken through the four stages each day. So on the second day we create an environment that makes them storm. We take people out of their comfort zone and put them in situations where conflict is inevitable. We create tension among the group. But then we guide them through the process of using conflict and tension to create trust and co-operation. By the time we get to the end of the workshop, delegates are operating as a high performing team and we help them highlight the key aspects of what they have experienced in order to help them apply a similar methodology with their own teams upon their return to work.

Some people might call it high risk learning. Perhaps it should come with a health warning, 'don't try this at home kids'. Certainly, it requires top quality workshop facilitation to handle the environment we create. But there is no doubt that the learning is both extreme and powerful.

Whether it is via a team building event, our Brilliant Leadership workshop or by facilitating a live team, storming in the workplace, the message remains the same - no pain, no gain!

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Animal Instincts

At the start of my Brilliant Leadership workshops I’ll often ask delegates to compare their preferred leadership style and management approach with members of the animal kingdom. Before you read the rest of this article you might like to do the same by reflecting on the following question for a moment or two:

Which animal best mirrors your own leadership style and why?

Perhaps not surprisingly one of the most popular choices is a lion, the king of the jungle. The lion rules his territory by dominating those around him. Nobody messes with a lion. Male lions are also great delegators; they eat, they sleep and they mate while the lioness takes care of everything else. Interestingly, very few female delegates choose the lion as the animal that best reflects their leadership style and by the end of the workshop, many of those who have chosen a lion have changed their minds. Specifically, a lion tends to represent an autocratic management style, leading through fear rather than co-operation.

More surprising to me are the number of delegates who choose a horse as the best reflection of their leadership style. The reasons normally focus on the fact that horses are strong, quick and graceful. They can be both independent and operate in a herd and can work hard when they need to while preferring a relaxed and carefree existence most of the time. I’m not so sure what this says about the leadership style of those delegates who elect for the horse, perhaps they are leaders who seek an easy life but can work hard and as part of a team when the pressure is on.

Some delegates have maybe been influenced by the ‘Lessons from Geese’ video otherwise it is hard to imagine that a Goose would spring to mind as reflecting key leadership behaviour. Geese of course, are great team players but a flock of geese doesn’t have an obvious leader. But then perhaps that is the point these delegates are making. Allow the team to manage themselves and they will find a way of working together synergistically just like geese do.

Another popular choice is the dolphin. Delegates who choose the dolphin are quick to point out that they are very intelligent animals with great communication skills. They are by and large friendly creatures but can become hostile when under threat. It is certainly my experience that brilliant leaders are also great communicators but I’m not so sure that there are too many geniuses amongst them. The genius of brilliant leadership probably has more to do with surrounding yourself with experts who help you do a great job.

One of my personal favourites is the eagle, particularly to reflect the behaviour and traits of brilliant strategic leaders. Eagles spend much of their time at a great height surveying the big picture but then they spot something of interest and with their great eyesight are able to hone in and look at the detail. Based on this detail, they are very decisive and swift to strike before stepping back again and looking at the big picture. Eagles are also very protective of their young while encouraging independence from an early age. Much of this behaviour sums up brilliant leadership. You need to have a view of the big picture while being able to selectively drill down and look at the detail. Brilliant leaders certainly need to be very decisive and often, swift to act. The idea of encouraging the independence of your staff based on effective coaching is also very positive leadership behaviour.

The chameleon though just pips the eagle for me, although not an animal that is often identified at the beginning of the workshop. Chameleons of course, adapt and change according to their situation and environment. And this is precisely what brilliant leaders need to do. There are times when staff need an autocratic leader and other times when they need an arm around their shoulder or perhaps just left alone to get on and do a great job. The intuitive ability to adapt and change according to each specific situation is often the hallmark of brilliant leaders.

Perhaps you thought of one of the animals above or maybe you had another idea like one of my delegates who put up a brave defence of why she had selected a mouse. The herding instincts of elephants, the communal nature of gorillas and the wisdom of owls also feature regularly among choices of the workshop participants.

But of course, there aren’t any right or wrong answers. Leadership is not an exact science and it is not my place to try and make it so. There are common behaviours and traits exhibited by many brilliant leaders and I see my job as being one of a tour guide. I can point out behaviours or actions and the effect they are having or might have in certain situations just like a tour guide can point out what you might like to look at. But whether you choose to look or not and how you apply what you see is entirely up to you.

At the end of my Brilliant Leadership workshops delegates revisit the same question. Around sixty percent have usually changed their opinion as to which animal’s behaviour and traits they wish to mirror in terms of their own leadership style.

The reality is that there is not a single leadership style or management approach that will work. Brilliant leaders develop a toolbox that they can dip into depending on the situation they find themselves in. And that is the instinct which needs to be developed.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

To Train or Develop?

To train or develop? That is the question.

Consider for a moment how many managers up and down the country sit down with their staff to review their development needs (often as part of the appraisal process) and end up by simply sending them on a training course. Job done? I think not.

When your staff attend a training course, the best you can hope for is that they return with new knowledge, new skills and some ideas about how these can be applied in the workplace. And if you don’t make any interventions you might, just might, get lucky and find that their diligence enables them to apply what they have learned from the training course and actually get better in the area you had intended.

However, all sorts of things can (and often will) go wrong with this approach. Firstly, staff members might not agree with your assessment of their development needs and will not be either a willing or motivated learner at the training course. Secondly, the training course might not deliver the knowledge or skills you were hoping for, especially if you have simply picked out a one-size-fits-all course from a training catalogue. And even if these first two barriers do not apply, the most common problem with using training courses as your primary development tool is that your staff will often struggle to apply what they have learned when they return to work.

Many human resource departments have developed processes to help overcome these common barriers. There is the development section of the appraisal form. There is often a pre-course briefing form where learning objectives need to be identified followed by a post course debriefing form where learning outcomes and action plans can be captured. But here’s the thing. Many managers see these as forms that need to be completed whereas the most important thing is the conversation that needs to take place between manager and staff member at each of these junctures – the form is merely a tool for helping to record the conversation.

These conversations aside, the most important thing a manager can do if they are truly focused on developing their staff is to make coaching interventions as staff members seek to practice and apply what they have learned. Coaching interventions that are constructive, objective, motivational, timely and learner centred. And let us not forget, coaching does not have to be used in conjunction with training courses, it can also be used instead of them. A good coach can pass on knowledge and develop skills just as effectively as a good trainer can.

Why then, do so few managers proactively engage in coaching their staff, preferring instead to rely on training courses to do the job for them? Perhaps it is due to a lack of appreciation for the power of effective coaching, a lack of time to coach or a lack of coaching skill. All of these are barriers that can be overcome and in most instances, relatively easily.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to staff development. The most powerful learning occurs through experience and work assignment where the staff member takes ownership of their own development, supported by effective coaching as appropriate. There are a variety of different types of work assignment that should be considered.

Leap Experiences – This is when high talent staff members with high levels of self confidence are exposed to a completely new and challenging skill set that stretches them to their limit. This is a high risk, high reward learning strategy which if successful, will see the staff member climb a steep learning curve in a short space of time. Well designed experiential workshops offer a form of leap experience with a much lower risk profile and it is also possible to design work based projects that offer leap experiences in a controlled environment.

Good to Great – We often don’t think to develop staff in areas that they are already strong. This can be a missed opportunity when somebody has the natural talent to become exceptional. Having identified an appropriate area, the leadership challenge is to create opportunities in which the staff member is able to advance their skill level by increased exposure to situations which stretch their ability.

Skills Transfer – It is not uncommon for staff members to have already developed the core skill required but struggle to transfer this to a new task. The coaching role here is to help them make the appropriate connections in order to transfer the skill to the new area.

Exposure – One of the challenges often encountered in developing staff is to find sufficient opportunity to expose them to the skill area. This can be particularly true when the development relates to a future rather than current job role. Simulation, secondment or special projects all provide potential solutions in this area.

Confidence Building – Quite often staff members are capable of performing in a new skill area but lack confidence in their own ability. Enabling them to practice in a safe environment with sufficient time to check and correct any errors before the work goes live provides a useful strategy in these instances. You might also look for quick-win opportunities to help build their confidence level.

Marketing – Sometimes a staff member will believe that they are capable in an area which is unproven as far as you are concerned. This can be especially true when considering experience gained in previous jobs or environments outside of work. A useful strategy here is to give them an opportunity to market themselves to you and others by demonstration and example in a controlled environment.

Feedback – Sometimes it is an awareness of a weakness that is required in order to develop the motivation to improve it. This feedback might come from you but can also be driven through multi-perspective feedback. After all, sometimes the leader is not aware of a weakness either whereas others might be.

Assessment – There are times when a general awareness of a weakness is known but the specifics are not. This requires an analysis of the underlying issues, often by an external expert, to identify the specific areas that need to be improved in order for the weakness to be overcome.

Redeployment or Workaround – You cannot put a round peg into a square whole. Sometimes you will have to accept that a staff member simply does not have the underlying talent in a particular skill area to perform tasks requiring that skill. If these tasks are non-critical to the role you might be able to facilitate a workaround by utilising other team members or resources. If they are critical to the role you are best advised to look at opportunities to redeploy the staff member in another role, especially if their general talents and work ethic warranted retaining them in the organisation.

There are then a plethora of development activities that extend way beyond simply sending a staff member on a traditional training course. While training courses have their place in the developmental toolbox, they are best used in conjunction with coaching in order to maximise the return on investment. Coaching can also be utilised independent of any training courses. However, the most powerful forms of development involve engaging the staff member in targeted work assignments or experiential events that enable them to fulfil their potential and deliver maximum return to both the team and the organisation.

To train or develop? Brilliant leaders know the difference focus on developing their staff.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

Leap Experiences

The term leap experience was first coined back in the early 1990s to describe the rapid learning curve that can be achieved by placing a high talent individual into a targeted work assignment. Such a work assignment would be designed to take them out of their comfort zone and beyond their current level of competence. If they succeed in this stretched and challenging environment the learning is rapid and powerful.

The essence of a leap experience is that of throwing the learner in at the deep end which in itself must be regarded as a high risk learning strategy. Would you be comfortable expecting a new driver to learn simply by getting behind the wheel and working out how to drive by trial and error? The risk of course is that they will fail by crashing the vehicle. However, it is also true that a new driver will only become competent by practising the art of driving.

The compromise solution in the case of learning to drive a car is to have a theory test, a hazard perception test and then to allow the learner to practise under the supervision of an experienced driver and/or a qualified driving instructor. Once they have had sufficient practice and guidance, the new driver will be ready to take and hopefully pass a driving test. Will they be a competent driver as soon as they have passed their driving test? Unlikely!

A new driver will need to practice for many more hours before they would be regarded as competent. In fact, many people would claim that one only learns how to drive after passing one’s driving test. Consider driving on motorways, driving in poor weather conditions, anticipating the misdemeanours of other drivers, using a multi-storey car park and so on. These are all mini forms of leap experiences. If the driver has a basic talent for driving, exposure to the relevant driving scenario is likely to give rise to a rapid learning experience.

And so it is with just about any form of learning, although practice makes perfect is somewhat inaccurate. Conveniently, the word LEAP can be broken down into an acronym to pinpoint the process that encompasses experiential learning – Learn, Experience, Apply, Perform.

The LEARN element involves providing the individual with the underpinning knowledge and developing or transferring the relevant skills. It is here where one ensures the individual has the appropriate level of talent before exposing them to a leap experience.

During the EXPERIENCE stage we are concerned with providing opportunities for practice. This can either be in safe, supervised or simulated situations or the higher risk option of live and unsupervised practice.

The APPLY stage is an extension of this practice into a wider variety of practical situations, ideally unsupervised. While the lack of supervision at this stage represents a risk, it is likely to be less of an issue if there were a degree of coaching involved at the previous stage.

PERFORM is the end result of a successful learning experience. The individual is able to perform at a competent level, without supervision.

There are of course variations on the theme but essentially LEAP is how people learn best. This provides the foundation and the inspiration behind how we operate at the Experiential Learning Centre. We look to address the knowledge component either in advance of a training course or during the early stages of the programme. The majority of the time is spent on exposing delegates to carefully designed simulations and activities, often with the additional benefit of expert coaching interventions. Towards the end of each training course we then focus their minds on opportunities to apply what has been learned back in the workplace. On returning to work they are able to practice with minimal supervision in order to become a competent performer.

Intuitively, most people would accept that leap experiences and the underpinning LEAP methodology is the right way for people to learn. The problem is for managers to have the time and skill to be able to create the right leap experiences for their staff without risking current performance. Sending a staff member on a training course is often the preferred option but this presents the challenge of transferring what has been learned in the classroom into the workplace. If the manager has the time and the skills to do so, coaching the staff member upon their return to work is an excellent option.

Where time and/or coaching skill is lacking, an experiential training programme provides an excellent alternative. I would go so far as to suggest that a well designed and run experiential training course provides a safe leap experience. That is, the reward of rapid, applied learning without the risks attached to learning in a live work environment.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning is not new but is incredibly under used as a method for training and developing staff. Consider for a moment how people tend to be trained at your place of work and what methods top the list?

Training courses where people learn via presentations, group discussions, case studies and perhaps some role playing are likely to figure quite high on the list for most companies. But how much of this is actually taken back to the workplace and transferred into improved performance? Traditional training courses are essentially a method of knowledge transfer with a small amount of skills development. As knowledge transfer goes they can be very effective, especially if delivered by a good trainer but it is somewhat hit and miss if this knowledge is applied effectively by the trainee upon their return to work. How much support will they receive from their manager? Will the learning be reinforced and reviewed at regular intervals? Will they get an opportunity to practice what they have learned? How much of the knowledge will be lost or watered down over time?

An alternative to sending staff on a training course is for the manager or an experienced team member to train them on the job. Coaching can be the most effective form of learning when it is done well. Knowledge can be transferred by the coach, skills can be developed in stages and both can be applied in live but supervised situations. This provides an opportunity for the work to be reviewed and feedback provide in order to facilitate rapid learning. Given that coaching is a widely effective form of experiential learning, what are the downsides? It requires a large investment of time by the coach. It requires a high level of coaching skill. Perhaps most significantly, it takes two people, the coach and the trainee, away from their normal tasks making them both less productive in the short term.

Another form of on the job training is to provide the trainee with a leap experience. This essentially involves providing the staff member with a specific job assignment or project aimed at developing a targeted skill set. This is raw experiential learning. If successful the individual is likely to learn rapidly, hence a leap experience. However, the downside of a leap experience is the risk of failure and the accompanying damage to both the person’s confidence and the business.

When I set up the Experiential Learning Centre it was with the intention of combining the best of these learning methods in order to provide the most powerful developmental outcomes at the lowest possible risk. Together with a small team of learning and development experts, we designed a series of simulations and activities that mirrored a range of leadership, team working and business skills scenarios but delivered within the safety of a classroom environment. A great simulation in itself is not enough. In order to complete the learning experience each simulated programme needs to be supported by high quality facilitation and expert coaching. The results have been extremely powerful.

Trainees are able to learn by experience and transfer what they have learned back in the working environment in order to perform at a significantly higher level. In essence, what we have developed is a series of safe leap experiences which is the holy grail of staff development.

As one of our leadership facilitators, Jonathon Elliott says “It really is quite remarkable to see the learning that takes place during an experiential leadership event. Delegates don’t just learn from being a leader themselves but also from how others go about leading and managing. Sometimes they will be on the receiving end of an activity in which there is a weak plan or where a conflict is poorly handled. Other times they will experience an exceptional piece of teamworking or find themselves being motivated at a high level. In both scenarios they are learning something that they will be able to take back to work and use immediately. At the end of an experiential event, people are noticeably at a significantly higher level of competence than when they joined the programme. They are able to apply what they have learned in a variety of situations and perform better.”

The reality is that many managers lack the time and ability to facilitate experiential learning in the workplace. The result is that staff are often unable to develop as well as they could or they are thrown in at the deep end, often with high risks attached. Simulated experiential learning provides a compelling alternative as long as it is supported by high quality facilitation and expert coaching interventions.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

Staff Development and Motivation

Of the top motivational forces in the workplace at least six can be either directly or indirectly attributed to staff development – job satisfaction, recognition, empowerment, personal development, promotional prospects and the relationship with one’s manager. Given this, it would be reasonable to expect that staff development was pretty high on the agenda for most managers – but is it?

On the scale of importance versus urgency, it would be fair to say that staff development normally ranks as highly important but very rarely urgent. This is but one reason perhaps why staff development doesn’t always receive the attention it deserves. As such, the solution for many managers is merely to seek out relevant training courses that fall within their budget and place an appropriate tick in the development box – particularly when it comes to completing the forms for the staff performance and development review meetings. Job done – I think not.

If we consider what is required for people to become competent in a particular discipline, it can be broadly broken down into three areas – knowledge, skills and practical application. Effective knowledge transfer means that the staff member understands what needs to be done, how it should be done and why they are doing it. The relevant skills either need to be developed from scratch or alternatively, can be transferred from an existing discipline in which the staff member is already competent. There are very few opportunities for applying the knowledge and skills in practical situations other than on the job.

At best, a traditional training course will deliver knowledge and skills. More often than not though, a traditional training course will deliver primarily knowledge with perhaps the odd role play or skills practice thrown in for good measure. Given this, how can a member of staff become fully competent by merely attending a training course? The reality is that they will only become fully competent if they return from the training course and practice what they have learned. This assumes that they have absorbed all the relevant knowledge from the training course and moreover, are given opportunities to apply this learning in practical situations. Better still, they will receive some coaching and feedback interventions from their manager or an experienced member of the team to ensure that the learning and development moves them efficiently towards a high level of competence.

The astute manager will not only realise the need for a proactive coaching approach to be combined with sending staff on training courses but rather, there are probably more cost efficient methods of the initial knowledge transfer such as e-learning, books, articles, shadowing others, industry seminars and even internal procedure documentation. I must emphasise though that using some of these alternative methods of knowledge transfer still require proactive coaching if the individual is to become fully competent.

Experience tells me that there are many instances where a training course is used as a substitute to coaching – after all let’s face facts, knowledge transfer and skills development can just as easily come from the coach as it can from an external training provider. Sure, a training course can give the impression that the manager is serious about their staff’s development and it can also make them feel valued but unless it is combined with post course coaching, it is somewhat hit and miss whether the individual will be able to apply what they have learned and become competent. But then of course we come full circle – many managers simply do not have enough time to coach their staff as they would like.

Is there a better alternative?

When I set up the Experiential Learning Centre it was just such an alternative that I sought to achieve. Prior to attending one of our experiential events, the initial knowledge component is delivered via e-learning. While we do spend some time at each of our events reinforcing this knowledge transfer, the majority of the time on our courses is spent with delegates actually doing rather than being taught. We have developed a range of high quality simulations and activities for each programme that enable delegates to experience the relevant business skills in an applied situation.

This is supplemented by expert facilitation and timely coaching interventions. And I do not use the word ‘expert’ lightly here. All of our facilitators are experts in the disciplines of the programmes they run. This means that they can provide effective demonstrations, make the right observations, ask key questions and engage in powerful coaching interventions. Moreover, each of our programmes include an analysis of delegates’ strengths and weaknesses and conclude with a detailed action planning sessions so that delegates are fully equipped to transfer their learning upon returning to work.

It would be remiss of me to claim that delegates will not benefit from additional post course coaching and proactive involvement from their manager. However, less time is required as staff members have invariably progressed further along the learning curve than virtually any other method of learning as they have already gained the relevant knowledge, developed many of the required skills and begun to apply what they have learned.

Therein lies the power of experiential learning.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.