Feature Article: Leadership Development: Can It Really Happen?

June 2011 / Feature Articles

An account of a pilot leadership development program for Aker Solutions.

Jonathan Reams

Jonathan Reams

Imagine a room full of engineers, all highly skilled in their areas of technical expertise, with a few human resource people thrown into the mix. They have been successful enough to advance along their company’s “leadership pipeline,” yet find that the skills that got them there are not the ones they need now with the responsibilities of leadership in an ever more complex organization. The stakes are high—their work includes responsibility for global projects and deliveries with high technological requirements as well as for safety and quality.

They are in a competitive market with ongoing quality issues, eroding profit margins and constant learning curves. Now they are here at a resort center an hour out of Oslo to take part in a pilot leadership development program.

This article will briefly outline the story of how this program developed, some of its core theories and practices, an external description of the three day program, as well as an internal one from observation notes and participant quotes. The aim is to convey a sense of how an integrally informed leadership development program has come together and how its implementation impacts participants. It is the beginning of an ongoing research project.

The development of this program has been a collaborative effort between myself (Jonathan Reams), the head of Aker Solution’s Global Learning Academy (Bjarte Johannessen) and colleagues on both sides. An eight-person team (four internal and four external, including a researcher documenting and evaluating the program) has gone through a beta version of this module (the first of three) and refined the program to try it out on a select group of mid-level managers from across the organization. The day has come and all are gathered in anticipation of what will happen.

How did we get to this day? From my end, events unfolded in the usual manner—a series of relationships and synchronicities coming together. An adult student in the masters in organizational leadership program I teach in, wanting to try out a program like one of my leadership courses as the subject of her thesis, got us a presentation in a division of Aker Solutions last fall. (Aker Solutions is a Norwegian based multi-national in the oil and gas industry http://www.akersolutions.com/ ). Interest in running a small pilot experiment was high, but then the newly hired head of their Global Learning Academy placed a moratorium on all the leadership development programs, announcing that “something new” would be delivered next spring. We were passed along to Bjarte and his interest in The Leadership Circle 360 led to an invitation to collaborate on developing an innovative new program (see http://www.archive-ilr.com/archives-2005/2005-02/2005-02-fresh.php for an interview with TLC creator Bob Anderson). After the usual negotiations, a beta version of the first module was presented in February 2011.

The entire program will consist of three modules plus coaching: leading self, leading diverse teams, and implementing strategy. The first module is the main focus of my attention and energy. The core framing for the program is Heifetz’s concept of adaptive leadership, which will run through all three modules. In the first module the aim is to increase leaders’ self-awareness and it has been designed based on a course I teach at NTNU in the organizational leadership program. (A description of that course can be found here – http://www.archive-ilr.com/archives-2009/2009-06/2009-06-article-hanssen.php ). This course, and the Aker Solutions program, uses The Leadership Circle 360 (TLC) as a way of bringing deep self-awareness and follows it up with Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change (ITC) exercise (you can find a brief overview of the ITC here—http://integral-review.org/documents/Reams,%20Immunity%20to%20Change%20Vol.%205%20No.%201.pdf and a description of the NTNU course from my 2010 International Leadership Association presentation, Making Leadership Development Developmental, here—http://jonathanreams.com/downloads/articles/ ). The initial part of the module is followed up with a variety of exercises to help participants hone powerful communication skills necessary to make progress on the issues that arise for them. The goal is to have participants come out of the first module with a real connection to the issues that can help their capacity for meaning making and handling complex situations as they evolve.

In addition to the three modules, participants will be supported in their journey with coaching. A number of external coaches, all TLC certified and all familiar with the ITC work, will work with participants for eight and a half hours over the next few months. This will provide a structured support for keeping the work presented in module one front and center for participants.

So the day arrived, and the group of managers assembled in the room. The following is a description of the flow of the three days in order to give an idea of the external view of the participants’ experience. This will be followed with some early indications of an internal view of their experiences based on observations and feedback.

After opening remarks from Bjarte that set the context for this pilot program and participant introductions, the case for leadership development was established by reviewing both the shift from traditional organizational structures to complex matrix organizations—and the complexity of challenges they face—and remarks about how quality issues generate loss of profit margins. Participants then spent time generating and sharing their hopes and expectations for the three days.

I then had the challenge of introducing the core concept of adaptive leadership in the after lunch slot. We explored distinctions between leadership and management, and leadership and authority, to establish the territory of adaptive challenges and leadership beyond managerial authority. This thread will run through all three modules and link the various activities to give participants a consistent framework to anchor the topics of each module. Exercises will be given over the course of the program to help them learn how to identify, diagnose and make interventions on adaptive challenges. The premise is that they already know how to apply authoritative management to technical problems and that it is in addressing these more complex, value, culture, attitude and belief oriented adaptive challenges that we find the areas where participants’ need to develop leadership capacity.

To best create conditions optimal for learning about themselves and how these leadership capacities can be developed, we have asked participants to do The Leadership Circle Profile 360 prior to the module. Thus, after the foundation and core concepts are laid, they move into getting oriented to the TLC profile and then receive their own profile. This is seen to be one way to create a crucible, openness to self-examination, reflection on maybe previously unknown aspects of themselves, or simply revisiting well-known issues from a new and hopefully deeper perspective. Participants reflect on their profiles, discuss them with colleagues and facilitators in a quiet late afternoon before a brief two-word checkout to close the day.

The next day opens with reflections from the previous day. Then a section linking the Aker Solutions values to TLC dimensions generates a lively discussion of what it is to put those values into practice. After this, participants do an exercise to help work with their profiles to come up with a specific focus for improvement. This leads them into the Immunity to Change map process, which allows an insight into assumptions holding them in place and making change difficult. The combination of TLCP and ITC has been powerful in the three years I have used it while teaching in the NTNU MOL program and it is the core of this module. The goal has been to initiate a cycle of deep reflection and awareness on what work is necessary to develop, not merely leadership skills, but also an internal operating system that can evolve to handle the complex adaptive challenges they face. The day closes with participants having identified their big assumptions and checking out with a deepened sense of self-awareness.

The third day of the program includes more orientation to the nature of adaptive leadership and work on communication skills through a variety of exercises that aim to enable participants to put into practice the work that the previous two days has initiated. It begins with an overview of a structured way of designing relationships along with some practice of one element of that structure. This is followed by a short exercise that drives home that attitude is the one thing that makes the biggest difference in developing leadership (as opposed to skills or knowledge). Two exercises after lunch focus on asking powerful questions and then practicing courageous dialogue. The day ends with a powerful and heartfelt checkout.

Beyond this external description of the three days, what was going on for the participants? Based on observation notes and feedback, here is a description of the same three days from the interior perspective, drawing on the observation notes and quotes captured during the event. First, the following are quotes that come from the beta version of module one that was run in February.

This stood out in a way. We’ve been there and done that—this is original. New approach—tools—the focus on adaptive leadership. It is deeply anchored in research—a 360 that goes deeper. It gives insights to who you are as a person. These programs use to be too touchy feely, this is a combination of head and heart.

From the observation notes [participant quotations are in italics]:

During the opening morning, the atmosphere was one of both anticipation and skepticism at times. Expectations about the need for a detailed agenda (there was none) and various other things kept participants’ attention focused on what was happening. When asking participants to share their hopes and expectations for the program, common thoughts that arose were I want to be a better leader, and when questioned as to what that looks like for them, I don’t know was a common response. When another participant said she wanted better skills and was asked what she meant by skills, her response turns out really to be around capacity building. It was observed that they began to learn that it was ok not to have a good or right answer to such a question.

During the presentation on adaptive leadership, participants appeared to engage in various levels of attentiveness and learning. The “temperature” of the learning environment fluctuates up and down in response to their needs, capacity, etc. They provide raw material for “curriculum” from examples they bring up that are then linked to the theory, allowing the learning to sink in a bit better than usual in such a course.

When presented with information on stages of adult development, participants appear engaged, yet also concerned as they see the implications and this is linked to their soon to be seen 360 profiles. After they receive their TLC profiles, most are quiet and reflective. Some leave the room to have more space for themselves, while others are seen to deflect attention by chatting or doing other things. Some take it straight in, some appear anxious. Notes from the end of the day checkout indicate the variety of reactions to the profiles.  I think these people know me more than I know me. He (another participant) wants to get rid of it. Other participant: This is so far off. They are shocked and amazed, enlightened confused and needing action all at the same time.

The check in the next morning continues with further reflection on the profiles, the participants having had a night to let them sink in. I can relate to and see me in the profile and the qualities—there is something I can use there. I can start to recognize when I’m about to do it and when I need to adjust. That was my view from the balcony. There are big gaps between what I do and how I am perceived. I’m still digesting, not ready to draw conclusions yet. The participant who had said this is so far off now said: I think my profile was just spot on, I will make sure I have it up on the wall somewhere so I get better. I can see myself in that, how others might see me that way. When you’re going to do something, you are definitely going to think about it.

The conversation continues, revolving around suspending the tendency to want to “fix” ourselves when presented with such feedback. Participants are seen to be withdrawing, reflecting, making notes, allowing the counter-intuitive direction of the program’s learning begin to settle in. As the conversation moves to discussing the company values in relation to the TLC dimensions, the energy begins to shift as they become more open when discussing the nature of open and courageous dialogue and the Norwegian culture of egalitarian leadership. I’ve seen a woman who is so open and direct in my company, and she has been pushed back. It’s not Norwegian to be like that, it will give you a bad score if you try to be too creative. Communication that is honest is different, and the language used can mean something different to the other person. That can also be a miscommunication. By the end of this session the audience appears empty and ready for a short break.

After this short break the temperature goes down a bit as they engage in a task going from their TLC profiles to lead towards the ITC process. As they get deeper into the process, the temperature starts to climb again as conversations at the tables become more animated and good questions arise. Then, as the ITC process is introduced, one of the observers noticed that the participants appeared to be anxious about the apparent lack of visible process, feeling that something was about to be “done to” them. Their faces showed anxiety and their body language became closed. One said this is as clear as mud! Yet when four volunteers were requested to display their ITC maps along the way, the group appeared to have a new basis for trust in the process. The examples these participants provide for the group are powerful and very helpful in enabling the group to take another significant step in shifting their energy. By the time we get to the “worry box” the tone of dialogue in the room has softened. The adaptive nature of the challenges emerging are becoming more apparent, and confusion and ambiguity are being entered into more willingly.

The afternoon checkout has a changed tone to it. Something has happened during the afternoon as the ITC process did its work. Comments were as follows.

Anxious to find out and notice. Eager to continue the process and get feedback and help from a coach. I feel vulnerable from what has been going on today and look forward for the coaching part of this. More enabled for self-analysis than I ever have been. I’ve come to a place where managing some of the things that we deal with have always been hidden in the back of your minds. You knew they were there. And it’s good to see that we all have them, that I’m not alone. I feel I am facing a challenge but I am extremely motivated. Curious to see what things will happen. I feel relief for being finished. This journey will make me work with it. I feel very curious as well what is coming next. I think today for me has reinforced that the heart is stronger than the head. I feel a bit irritated, seeking the answers. I realize I’m more of a control freak than I originally thought, I hope I will overcome my assumptions.

The check in the next morning carried these reflections forward. I had I feel good on my mind, yesterday meant different things for different people. Someone said to me yesterday that they feel very privileged to be here, and I feel the same way. It’s a powerful way of understanding oneself. Yesterday we had a discussion of competing commitments. They are like baggage. I’m not going to be put down by these fears and worries; I will turn them into a positive energy to overcome.

As we went further into the nature of adaptive challenges and how to create containers for working on them, participants explored the boundaries of how to lead such work. For instance, they recognized When I go to my boss I want to hear the answer to my questions. If he doesn’t tell me the answer then it’s an adaptive way. Another suggested; so it’s like we are being some kind of shrinks that just ask back. I replied that you need to use a little judgment about when they need to hear an answer, like if they ask where the bathroom is… bringing plenty of laughter with the realization that as leaders, they can have answers when it is appropriate.

The day progressed through a series of exercises to help participants practice implementing aspects of the new ideas filling their heads. The closing checkout was powerful, with no one making noises or motions to leave before all were done.

I feel there is something there I can tap into. It changed my awareness and of those around me. I’ve come to realize that it is the engineer in me stopping me—now I can engage the engineer in this. I took a phone call then I noticed I was back in my old tracks—then I realized how much work this would take. My preconceptions got broken down after a while—I thought I had all the tools; that I didn’t really amazed me. I feel surprised—I’ve had to face some difficult things. I didn’t know how much I would get but I have gotten too much. I came with a lot of skepticism, now I’m energized.

One participant told a story of being out for a walk early that morning and coming across a young boy singing as he played at the nearby kindergarten. He remarked that if it had been the first day of the program, he likely would not have noticed this boy and his singing, and that now he felt just like that boy.

These quotes and observations from the program hopefully round out the external description of the program, and give some indication of how the focus on beginning to shift participants’ structure of meaning making capacity was experienced from the inside. How well this experience sticks will depend on many factors: the environment participants return to, their degree of commitment in the face of resistance to change, how well the coaching supports them and more. It is our hope to be able to contribute to making an impact for these people in their roles as leaders in the organization.

So, the question in the title, can it really happen, is not about to be answered in one three-day module. This write-up has introduced the initial move in a longer process that will be reported on later. What can be said is that we feel ourselves to be off to a good start. Data from the evaluation surveys were very positive with plenty of comments specifying some of the deep lessons learned, how the learning will begin to be adopted and the impact it will have at work. In the end, the room full of engineers (and a few HR people) became a room full of people present to the challenges of learning to be more fully human in order to grow as leaders.

About the Author

Jonathan Reams, Ph. D. is currently an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where he teaches and does research on leadership development and counselling. In addition, he is also Editor-in Chief of Integral Review, A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Praxis and Research (http://integral-review.org ) and Scandinavian bureau chief for Integral Leadership Review (http://www.integralleadershipreview.com).  A passion for understanding human nature has guided much of his experience, and eventually led to a doctorate in Leadership Studies, with a dissertation on The Consciousness of Transpersonal Leadership. In addition to this work, he has presented at international conferences on topics such as leadership, consciousness, transformative learning, spirituality, and science and religion dialogue. Jonathan has also done consulting and training for a diverse range of clients in the US, Canada and Europe.