In writing this article we were motivated to share our experience with organisations keen to make the most of external thoughts leaders (e.g. business school faculty, business leaders, practitioners, etc.) who intervene on their development programmes. It’s obviously an expense to bring in external thought-leaders, so here is an idea for maximising the impact of their contribution.

As a starting point, it goes without saying that organisations need to carefully select external thought-leaders with key capabilities required to engage experienced and intellectually rich executives. In her insightful article “Why leadership development isn’t developing leaders” (HBR, October 2016), Deborah Rowland suggests that organisations should “enrol faculty who act less as experts and more as Sherpas”.

Beyond this guidance skill, a key capability that we would always recommend an external thought leader to have is a delivery style which is engaging, interactive and challenging. Finally, we only work with subject specialists who have a team player attitude and genuine interest in our client’s organisation and the context within which the delegates operate.

When thought-leaders “transmit” knowledge, delegates may be engaged, but they listen and learn passively. When leaders are taken to visit alternative organisations to learn by observation, they may be enlightened, but unless their insights are adapted and applied to their own business and leadership challenges, they are easily lost.

In his excellent white paper, “The How-To of Vertical Leadership Development”, Nick Petrie of CCL, argues that “too much time is spent delivering information and content and not enough on the hard work of developing the leaders themselves”. In other words, transmission alone doesn’t work.

Effective utilisation of classroom time

Through a well know pedagogical model called “flipping the classroom”, technology can be used to deliver content and insights to the delegates prior to a face to face workshop. This frees thought-leaders’ time allowing in-class conversations to be devoted to more added value activities for the delegates, like working on their personal leadership and business challenges for example.

As part of a business transformation initiative, we had set-up prior to module one a webinar where content was delivered by a futurologist on the theme of “what is shaping the world of IT”. During in-class time, approximately six weeks later, the thought-leader spent the first half hour to further stimulate thought and insight. After this additional provocation, she handed the floor to the delegates for them to present to their peers their initial findings on key business challenges which were sponsored by board members of the organisation. In teams of five, delegates were invited to discuss their views and solution on a key strategic hurdle to achieving their company’s aspirations as well as a key strategic enabler to enhance the company’s future success and market relevance.
Technology enabled learning up-front allowed for greater interactivity and more business-driven conversations between delegates during the in-class module. Furthermore, delegates entered the face-to-face sessions as “advanced beginners” leading to a highly interactive environment and a higher quality level of dialogue. Throughout the development intervention, the thought-leader acted as both a “content resource” as well as a Sherpa or facilitator.

What about internal thought leaders?

Bringing external views into the corporation is one way to help organisations from becoming too insular and ensure they stay in touch with the latest thinking and insights. However, organisations can still get the world class expertise they need if they further leveraged internal knowledge. The insights from internal subject experts will be more relevant and a better cultural ‘fit’ than that of external contributors because they have a better grasp of the organisation, its culture as well as the strategic priorities.

Pushing internal subject specialists to create a thought provoking session requires them to go through a short improvement journey of their own, before the programme. When they take the stage, in front of their colleagues, they present their session with greater confidence and a deeper commitment to make sure they succeed. Their leadership ability is enhanced – and it continues after the programme.
The effect of this approach on the leaders themselves is significant.

I could bet my house that I won’t win an award with this article, but that doesn’t matter (I’d be very gutted though!). I just want to encourage all of us to be mindful that if we want our investment in leadership development to have more impact than it has in the past, it will require a shift in the way leadership development solutions are seen, designed and delivered. And this includes how we carefully select and harness the knowledge and insights of external contributors.