Recently, my colleague Tim Coburn highlighted the following in an article called The Power of Ten.

“In every field of human endeavour, people who perform together, train together… Except in the corporate world.”

“If corporate success comes from leaders working together, why don’t they learn together, too?

The war for talent has focused our attention on individual leaders. But great performance comes from teams. When leaders learn as a team, it’s easier to turn learning into action, gain agreement and get on with implementation. It creates clarity, builds trust, improves communication and resolves differences. It’s a break through leaders understand – and enjoy.”

I could not agree more. One look at the Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” pyramid clearly illustrates why learning in leadership teams is such an effective strategy for improving business and leadership performance. And so it’s no surprise that many of the clients with whom we speak also agree:

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  • Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success
  • Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
  • Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
  • Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group



But the question they always have is:

“What does it take to get leaders to learn in leadership teams? How do you get leaders to want to learn in their leadership teams? What can I do if the team leader is not asking for this?”

Overcoming the Emotional Barriers

Well, I think the first thing to understand is that successful leaders are “Confidence Machines,” a term coined by David Brooks of the New York Times.

Over the years, many leaders have developed a recipe for success – and they believe that they are successful because they have applied it. Its circular logic but unfortunately, humans are exceptionally vulnerable to it when it comes to their personal identity. As a result, most leaders overestimate their skill and their effectiveness.

Here are some highlights from a 2007 poll conducted by Businessweek:

  • 90% of leaders believed they were in the top 10% of all leaders.
  • 97% of self-described Executives believe they are shining stars.

That’s a lot of star light! It’s also mathematically impossible for 90% to equal 10%.

So the first challenge is getting leaders to accept that they can learn something of significance from, or with, their fellow leaders.

The second challenge is that leaders want to be seen as competent and confident. It’s one thing to admit to a deficit in leadership skill or knowledge to a group of people you don’t work with every day in the setting of a traditional leadership program. It’s quite another to do it in front of your co-leaders on the team. It puts leaders in a very vulnerable position.

So the “overall challenge” is to overcome the emotional barriers to learning as a leadership team.

One of the most effective ways of overcoming this barrier is to focus the learning on a “common goal.”

We recommend focusing on a significant business challenge in the future – but not any challenge will do. The business challenge needs to be “adaptive.” In other words, we know what we want to achieve but we don’t know exactly how to achieve it.

The only way to tackle an adaptive challenge is through learning, i.e. experimenting with new ideas and learning from mistakes, etc. The benefit of focusing the learning on an adaptive challenge is that, by definition, no one knows the solution so no individual leader is threatened by not knowing the answer. In addition, no one owns the future. The future is a new territory where endless “new possibilities and solutions” exist, which is a great space for learning.

Remember, Lencioni highlighted that the act of working in teams is a strategic choice. This essentially means that there must be a concrete reason to work in teams. So the first question is, “Can we achieve significantly more through a team based approach?” The same logic applies to learning in leadership teams.

Overcoming the Solution Space Barriers

The second major challenge to learning in teams is credibility and leadership mindset. Learning in leadership teams requires bringing together management and leadership challenges that are traditionally handled in different environments with different people.

Traditionally, leaders have separated the space for discussing business challenges, which is done at off-sites or during regularly scheduled management team meetings, and the development space, which is traditionally done in a nice hotel or at a business school.

The external parties brought in to work with management on business challenges are traditionally “Management Consultants & Specialists” – think McKinsey. The external parties brought into work with management on developing their leadership effectiveness are “Academic Faculty and Leadership Consultants.”

So in effect, the two issues never meet in the minds of most leaders because they are tackled in different spaces – literally and figuratively!

A Step-by-Step Approach

Selling a new idea to a skeptical audience requires a cautious “step-by-step” approach. So what are the first few steps we can take towards getting leaders to learn in leadership teams?

Step 1

The first step is to find a leadership team that is open to doing things differently, facing a set of adaptive business challenges, and willing to experiment with the “Learning in Leadership Teams” dynamic. Explain to the team leader the concept and ask the team leader for permission to interview the leadership team to identify an adaptive challenge. Offer to share the insights gained from the interviews with the team leader.

Step 2

The second step is to engage each member of the leadership team, including the team leader, in a discussion that explores the following questions:

  • What are the major business challenges the team / organization is facing over the next 24 months?
  • How confident are you that the team / organization has the knowledge and capability to successfully meet the challenge?
  • What capability or knowledge do you think the team / organization needs to be developed to achieve success?
  • How effectively does the leadership team work together and what could be improved to successfully address the identified challenge?
  • What help do you personally need to navigate the identified challenge?

Step 3

The third step is to analyze the data gained from the interviews and identify a common goal. Highlight the areas where their answers overlap and illustrate a desire to learn on a specific set of topics.

Step 4

The fourth is to present the analysis of the data back to the team leader – and better yet, to the entire leadership team. During the discussion, explore how they would traditionally approach these business and development challenges. Challenge them to think differently to their traditional approaches by highlighting the need for learning to meet their adaptive challenge. Finally, outline the “Learning as a Leadership Team” process and highlight that the learning runs according to their timeline – not HR’s.

Next Steps

Seminar Meeting Office Working Corporate Leadership Concept


Once the leadership team, or team leader, is open to the concept, then the work of developing the program begins. However, the design of the program and its execution needs to be co-owned with the leadership team. They need be part of the topic selection process and the structure of the sessions in which these topics are explored.

Once you begin the design process, you can begin introducing additional elements that will address team dynamics and deficits in the leadership team’s performance – or better yet, accelerate it.

Some of the program design options include:

  • Individual 360 Feedback for each Leadership Team member
  • External feedback on the Leadership Team’s effectiveness
    • Direct Reports describe how effective the leadership team operated as a team.
  • Intra-Team feedback on the Leadership team’s effectiveness
    • What do I appreciate about you?
    • How do you add value to our team?
    • What do I wish you would do differently?
  • Executive Coaching for each Leadership Team member
  • Topic Sponsorship – each major topic is assigned to a Leadership Team member who is responsible for the delivery of that learning session.

Creativity and Courage is Required

Introducing the concept of “Learning in Leadership Teams” to a skeptical audience is not for everyone. It is difficult and risky, which requires a good amount of courage and creativity to pursue – from both the leadership team’s perspective and HR’s.

However, the logic is clear and the potential benefits are significant when the learning is focused on real business and leadership challenges.

The success of the first program is the key to generating future opportunities. A successful delivery of a “Learning in Leadership Teams” program demonstrates the value of the approach and de-risks the approach for future teams.

The key is to design a program that merges the “Learning Issues” into the “Management Agenda” for the leadership team in terms of challenges, content, time and space. This results in a design process that is dynamic and usually requires the “Just-in-Time” delivery of learning modules to accommodate the Management Agenda timeline. It’s a bit like changing the tires on a moving car.

Unfortunately, it’s necessary…

There are very few cases where a Leadership Team will wait around for HR to design a learning module to address pressing business challenge. Therefore a key message to the leadership team is that the program will be able to address the priorities and urgency of the management agenda.

This is a very different approach to the way traditional leadership and executive development programs are design and delivered. However, the benefits to business and team performance are clear if the program can be executed to the specifications of leadership team’s priorities and timeframes.

Who doesn’t like a challenge?