“Take action! An inch of movement will bring you closer to your goals than a mile of intention”
– Steve Maraboli
Many people are attracted to a career in the A/E/C industry because they love the tangible quality of building something; they love action. As the labor market continues to heat up, many organizations are searching for development tools that will rapidly move leaders to the next level, create training opportunities for eager high potentials, and gain a competitive hiring and retention tool. Of all the many ways to develop leadership ability—to reflect on your behaviors, to ask for feedback, to read a book or article, to observe others—there is one method that allows leaders to simultaneously learn while solving real-world organizational challenges. Known as “action learning,” it moves leaders to action and allows them to learn by doing.
Much like learning to ride a bike, action learning is founded on the belief that learning by doing is required to spur progress as a leader. This is a structured process that involves small teams of leaders working through real-world problems – building leadership ability and solving organizational challenges at the same time. Action learning is not a new concept. In fact, organizations around the world have been reporting benefits of action learning programs to build teams, solve organizational problems, and develop leaders for more than 50 years.
In the US, organizations who have used action learning programs to develop talent and solve organizational issues include GE, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Coca Cola, and GM, to name a few. The most successful action learning programs carefully focus on the organizational challenges, participants, and the specific competencies targeted.
In general, action learning involves four basic steps:
- FORM THE TEAMS: Create small teams of high-potential leaders. Such leaders tend to seek out visible and active ways to contribute to real-time issues facing the organization, and action learning allows them to do that.
- SELECT THE CHALLENGE: Each team is partnered with an executive sponsor—a senior member of the organization who acts as a guide and sounding board. Each team selects one real-world problem or opportunity the organization is facing—this is not a simulation—the challenges need to be important to the future of the business.
- UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEM: Over 6- to 9-month period, the small teams work together to gather research, analyze the data, and speak to experts. This process exposes leaders to a real-time business challenge or opportunity beyond the scope of their usual duties, forcing them to think strategically and work collaboratively.
- RECOMMEND THE SOLUTION: Finally, they make a presentation to an executive panel that offers tangible recommendations for how the organization should proceed. Throughout the action learning process, these leaders are challenged to move out of their day-to-day thinking patterns to think globally about the organization. This gives them a preview of what executive leaders do routinely.
Leadership success depends on far more than just gaining technical knowledge and management concepts. Action learning gives developing leaders an opportunity to directly impact the company; this is a chance for them to see the immediate impact of their ability to lead others. As an added bonus, the organization gets well-researched solutions to a real-world issue. It’s the difference between having a team that reads and thinks about how bicycles work and having one that can actually ride them.