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A new model for leadership development in large organizations

Article by: Phil Dourado | Published: 26 January 2017

Head of Global Leadership Development for Specsavers Jennifer Alexander and her team are six months into an experiment that could be a game changer: a global, online community of practice for her company’s leaders and partners. She explains in an interview with Phil Dourado.

In this connected world, much of our thinking happens collaboratively and ‘out loud’: it becomes formed during conversations, in real time.

Yet when we get to work, we revert to what we feel are more formal, and therefore acceptable, ways of communicating and working together. For the most part, that means we revert to email.

Our Leadership Hub is partly about bringing connected behaviour into the workplace, and helping evolve work from the assumption that this kind of social connection is informal and therefore somehow invalid or the equivalent of unstructured play.

How we started
The concept was endorsed by our Global HR Director and Board Member Pauline Best, who encouraged the exploration of external and internal research around social learning. We explored a number of papers produced by ‘Towards Maturity’ as well as our own internal white papers. We knew we wanted the user experience to be powerful from the start and that we wanted to take a people focused technology approach.

We started with 360 members – leaders in the business and store partners (Specsavers is run on a JVP – Joint Venture Partnership – model).

When they go into our online Leadership Hub, the way in is through a Common Room. That’s where general interaction takes place. There are four classrooms leading off the Common Room, for our four programmes – Leading Self, Leading Others, Leading Change, Leading Commercially.

Those rooms are where the users go into a deeper dive on one of those topics. Each room is led by a programme sponsor, a Specsavers Board Member who is an advocate for that stream of learning.

So, they come into the online community and into the relevant classroom to access the learning materials before and after their programme workshops, for prep in advance and then post-session follow-on work. The classrooms initially acted as a repository for the materials and a place to work with those materials in your own time.

That ‘help yourself in your own time’ element was primary. The social collaboration tool was secondary to that. One thing I’ve observed is that we now have over 550 users and they have used our Leadership Hub predominantly as instructed; to access the pre-work and leadership resources available.

We need to remember that the members are essentially non-digital natives for the most part. So, any assumption that they might intuitively go in and play…well, it wasn’t going to happen naturally for everyone.

What we have learned
Looking back, we should have made the social collaboration side the primary purpose, with the resource access secondary. And for 2017 we are taking that learning and applying it. Some cohorts where there is strong sponsorship do collaborate more in The Hub. We learned that strong sponsorship leads to 20% more activity than in groups where the sponsor is not actively leading the collaboration.

That learning about how the users behave and what prompts most participation will help us evolve The Hub: so, for example, with the next generation of sponsors we will make it explicit upfront that part of their responsibility is to lead the collaboration in their group, as we now know that’s what works.

Where we are now
Thanks to the work of some who have taken the lead in the community, I know what good looks like now. This gives us a blueprint to build on.

The sponsors will fill the role of agitators or ‘nudge’ action from participants (nudge theory recently emerged from studies in behavioural economics).

The facilitators – the experts who created and ran the real-world workshops that make up the physical side of our leadership development programmes – also nudge in the community. We give them log in rights and they participate in the community, some more than others.

Sukhwant Bal, for example, facilitated the Leading Others workshop and he recently dropped in a little nudge on self-limiting beliefs and how do you overcome them, to spark off follow-on thinking and action from the workshop itself.

Graham Wilson, who facilitated the Leading Change programme for our Partners, regularly posts short videos with real tips and techniques – they are captured on his phone and are great examples of using technology to share ideas and leadership thinking.

These nudges and prompts create a continual drumbeat to the self-learning journey within the community. Instead of the usual model of ‘here’s the workshop, tick the box when taken, roll out and deploy’.

Jen Alexander was talking to Phil Dourado. This is the third in his three-part series on how in-house leadership communities of practice are the way forward for leadership development in large organizations. For all three articles in the series, and a ‘blueprint’ paper outlining the principles of how an in-house leadership community of practice works, email: [email protected]