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27 March 2020

Never has there been a better time for development in action

Written by
Zafer Achi

For the twenty years I have been involved with leadership development, one debate has haunted the field. Are we offering development as an indulgence – sort of a treat with perhaps trickle-down benefits? Are we doing it as an investment in the long-term potential of our people? Or, are we doing it because it makes a difference right now, right in the action? While each of these has its place, it is the last one (we call it development in action) that matters most right now.

For example, Morten chaired a leadership team that oversaw the operations of a global manufacturer with a couple of hundred facilities around the globe. He had invited his colleagues to a rare two-day offsite – part business, and part team building.  I went in thinking this was a regular indulgent approach. I kicked off with a wonderful but slow-paced trust-building exercise. Within half an hour, people were restless.  Morten interrupted me: “Listen, we have 38 business decisions to make. This pace is just not working for us. Let us do our business (you can watch) and then you will do your stuff.” By the end of that day, slides were up on the screen, notes where on the whiteboard, and they were still mired in decision #2 … Morten was despondent. I took a gamble and suggested that on the following day, they give me one hour to teach them a few distinctions, and then allow me to coach the team live while it went about its business decision making. In desperation, Morten agreed. Lo and behold, by 3 PM on that second day, they had actually made all 38 decisions in a way that they felt unusually good about. They were now hooked to the idea of development in action.

I share this story because right now, the other two framings of leadership development might be not only unhelpful but actually dangerous. If we think of leadership development as an indulgence, we’ll pause it—who has the time or money for indulgence right now? If we think of it as an investment, we’ll put it off—in a crisis, most people don’t consider investing.

However, Covid19 makes development in action not only helpful, but necessary and super-actionable.

  • Necessary: Leaders are facing unprecedented challenges, often of a chaotic nature, with life and death at stake, for which they feel woefully unprepared. For most, seeing new possibilities feels like a breath of fresh air.
  • Actionable: By necessity, leadership is playing out mostly in the virtual world; that in turn enables (a) resetting meeting norms in ways that create space for real time, balcony reflection; (b) greater ease and lesser cost of inviting coaches to shadow, facilitate and/or intervene in the action as it happens.

Here are some ideas* about bringing development in action to bear on your day-to-day:

  • Live team coaching. I have long done top team coaching, and while this is one of the most helpful sorts of interventions for a leadership team, it can also be expensive because of the need to bring your coach in to watch the team and give feedback. Now that the meetings are virtual, the coach can pop in for an hour or two regularly. If you don’t have a coach, you could get a helpful colleague to pop in and observe your team meeting and give feedback. Asking for this sort of support has never been easier.
  • Hi-fi data for individual and peer coaching: While we would rarely consider recording an in-person meeting (it feels awkward), video conferencing platforms make it really easy, once participants have given consent, to create an audio or a video transcript of the meeting. With that in hand, any participant can use the transcript as ‘hi-fi data’ for reflection with their coach; or use it to engage in joint inquiry with peers about how they showed up and how they might change that (peer coaching).
  • Shadowing a leader in action: When you are experimenting with new ways of leading (and Covid19 provides plentiful reasons to do so), it really helps to get in the moment feedback and nudging. Virtual conversations make it easy to loop in your coach or your trusted colleague, asking them to log in on audio and stay muted so as to be least conspicuous, while giving them permission to communicate with you on chat when they have feedback or suggestions.

And yet perhaps the most profound impact on teams and organizations who open their practice to development in action during this forced and prolonged hiatus from business-as-usual is this: Crises bring out the best and the worst in our communities, our teams, and ourselves. Slowing down to witness and make sense of ‘us at our best’ and ‘us at our worst’ allows us to stretch and expand into the best version of ourselves, so that when work life reverts back to some form of normalcy, we will be significantly better than we were before.

A crisis such as this is pregnant with the twin possibility of devastation and reinvention. Wise leaders will use this time to evolve themselves and their organizations for a better tomorrow.

* These are just examples.  Imagine the power of together committing to expand the range of modalities for development in action in the virtual world.

2 thoughts on “Never has there been a better time for development in action”

  1. These distinctions are very helpful, and the case example illustrative. Thank you, Zafer, for a highly relevant article.

  2. Tor Mesoy says:

    Thank you, Nicolai, for pointing me to this article.
    And thank you, Zafer, for super-practical hints about leveraging technology to provide coaching in new ways. I really enjoyed this perspective – clearly shared on the basis of personal, practical experience.

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