Over the years, I’ve picked up a number of tactics for getting the most out of participating in professional conferences. One tactic is to organize conference sessions on topics you want to learn more about and invite people doing interesting work related to that topic to participate. In other words, create a session you can’t wait to attend, which is exactly what I did for the recent SIOP conference in Philadelphia (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology).
Since I was intrigued with this notion of enhancing the impact of formal development programs by making them a force for experience-driven learning, I invited five colleagues who were designing and delivering such programs to share their work and insights:
- Vicki Tardino talked about Boeing’s program for executives who have just moved into director-level jobs and how the program puts the transition experience at the center, surrounding it with tools and supporting roles to maximize learning from that experience.
- Laura Ann Preston-Dayne focused on Kelly Services’ program to develop a community of “solutionaires” (senior consultants who can design creative talent solutions for clients’ complex workforce issues) via formal learning events and hands-on skill building with a sponsor.
- Vicki Flaherty described IBM’s program to develop top MBA graduates on an accelerated path to general management positions—a program that integrates structured job rotations, coaching and mentoring, and training opportunities.
- Lyndon Rego shared insights from a program CCL co-designed for middle-level managers in the rapidly changing microfinance environment in India and the learn-apply-teach approach that serves as the foundation of the program.
- Erica Desrosiers described the key design elements in Walmart’s formal programs to accelerate the readiness of their top talent for new roles, including an emphasis on leaders developing leaders and opportunities to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to real experiences in the field.
Here are some key ideas I took away from the session—ideas about how to make formal development programs more impactful:
- Build the program around people experiencing the same challenging assignment. We often call a group of people attending the same program a “cohort,” assuming that the shared program experience itself will band them together as a learning community. And it does to some extent. But when you connect people who are dealing with similar on-the-job challenges, like moving to a director-level job at Boeing or working as a microfinance middle manager in the rural part of a developing country, you up the developmental power of the experience. People are not just learning from their own experience, they are learning from each other’s experiences. They are able to bring different perspectives to bear on shared problems. And they find comfort and confidence in knowing that they are not alone, that others struggle with the same challenges, and that they now have access to companions on the same journey.
- Make use of well-known methods for integrating learning and doing. For example, the sponsors in Kelly’s program employ an apprenticeship approach, building skills in participants by observing and coaching them as they do work side-by-side. Building on the notion that individuals deepen their own learning by teaching others, the program for microfinance managers requires participants to teach program content to their own staff members and together discovering ways to apply it in their own context. And Walmart’s Leadership Academy has intensified what I would label the “educational field trip” by making these experiences both practice fields for trying out new techniques and real work that benefits the organization.
- Provide participants valuable experiences that are often hard to get. IBM’s program rotates participants through three key assignments to give them breadth of experience and to target each participant’s development needs. Several of the programs provide the opportunity to have real conversations and interactions with senior executives (rather than just see the “public” face of these executives). And it is important to make sure the program provides what formal coursework has often uniquely offered participants: the experience of stepping back, taking a deeper look at oneself, reflecting in the midst of new experiences, and being more aware of what and how one is learning.
Many thanks to the session participants (and audience members who asked great questions). To learn more, you can access their presentation slides here.
I’m still intrigued and would love to hear about your own efforts to design and implement more experience-driven approaches to formal development programs.