Facilitating Leadership Development (through experiential learning)

(by George Telfer)

“No man can reveal anything not already in the dawning of your own knowledge. The teacher, if he is wise, does not bid you enter the house of his knowledge but leads you to enter the threshold of your own mind.”
(Ralph Long)

Leadership development is a highly personal learning experience that can provide new and relevant insights into one’s strengths as a leader as well as the key areas to work on for further development. The role of a facilitator in this learning process, their respective input, knowledge and skill, as well as the responsibilities that go along with these, have the potential to make a leadership development intervention a purposeful and lasting experience.

Many leadership programmes have a tendency to focus on fact and theory with the worst of ‘management training’ being perceived as a non-participative, functional exercise in knowledge transfer, typified by a series of stultifying ‘death by PowerPoint’ presentation slides and endless case-studies rather than any meaningful personal development opportunities. Leadership development shouldn't be simply an exercise in information download but the facilitation of a more self-directed learning process. With further contrasting images of outward-bound adventures and paint-shooting weekends, changing the historic perception of leadership development remains a central challenge for a training provider seeking to change this outdated mind-set.

Self-directed learning creates self-directed change and means that participants must become aware of and understand the process of intentional emotional, cognitive and behavioural change. However, when it comes to developing any lasting leadership skills, the way people feel about learning will matter immensely. Studies have shown the ‘half-life’ of knowledge acquired on MBA programmes to be approximately six weeks and the limitations of a didiactic approach to leadership development is further highlighted by a series of studies graphically demonstrating that adults only learn what they want to learn and show that most if not all sustainable behavioural changes are intentional. As in the ‘boiling frog syndrome’, slow adjustments are more acceptable, and the same changes, if enforced or made too rapidly, will not be well-tolerated.

Good leaders never cease to learn and taking personal responsibility for one’s own learning remains a central tenet in any personal development iniiative. As Stephen Covey claims: “No person can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate that can only be opened from the inside.” Esa-Pekka Salonen, formerly the Principal Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra would seem to echo this view, with the caveat that it is the Conductor, as an orchestra's leader and facilitiator, who provides direction, creates unity through a common purpose and brings a symphonic manuscript to life:

“The main thing is to release the passions and energies in different individuals, creating the illusion that they are actually doing what they are doing and not being led by somebody.”

Self-directed learning usually requires a level of external facilitation; evident by how autonomous groups on our own leadership development courses at LtEI generally remain distinctly leaderless during the early stages of the programme until group members are assigned specific leadership roles by the facilitation team. Bloom's ‘Taxonomy of Learning Domains’ underpins the classical 'knowledge, attitude and skills structure of learning and evaluation, highlighting three overlapping areas that enable skillful facilitators to focus on where the blockages to learning may lie:

1. The cognitive domain (our intellectual capability, i.e. knowledge and thinking)
2. The affective domain (our feelings, emotions, attitudes and behaviours)
3. The psychomotor domain (our manual and physical skills and actions).

Collectively, these domains present a valid framework for experiential learning and provide a cogent structure for planning, designing and evaluating effectiveness in the acquisition of new skills and knowledge as well as the attitudes and behaviours that determine performance; surely the primary goals in any learning and development process.

An important factor in all of this is the right level of expertise in leadership issues and in this respect a skilled and experienced facilitator plays a pivotal role. Participants make early judgements on the artist before they judge the painting and credibility and trustworthiness are further personal qualities required in any training role as is a degree of humility and an open mind that can help in establishing rapport; reflecting, as David Gilbert-Smith believed, “that one ended up teaching the subject one most needed to learn.”

To ensure a positive learning experience, a facilitator must create the appropriate learning environment by being fully aware of what each participant is trying to achieve and thereafter supporting them, though not always by too readily reporting on their actions, but more often through observation, interpretation, analysis and then questioning and listening. Any plenary sessions should compliment, reinforce or guide the learning experience by engaging each participant and communicating the salient message effectively, at the same time remaining relevant to the reality of the participants' workplace and flexible enough to adapt accordingly. Furthermore, they must advise individuals and groups, in advance, of their role, the ground rules and the nature and context of any proposed experiential exercises. This early clarification of roles is an essential aspect in creating a safe environment for self-exploration.

In a coaching sense, the prime responsibility of every coach is to enable and support the learner in achieving their personal learning objectives; thereby improving performance. Progress is made through open, honest interactions and a clear structure that avoids any potential ambiguities by remaining realistic in relation to the learner's capability. Excellent communication skills are required here; demonstrated through observation, active listening and by asking productive questions that draw out the important issues. “Seek first to understand,” writes Stephen Covey “most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” Effective facilitation means being able manage the information derived from purposeful communication through observation, followed by an open and honest dialogue.

'Facilitating' or simplifying the learning process is exactly this, yet at the same time resisting the temptation of expressing potentially strong and individually held views on any of the issues being discussed. The quality of the interpersonal relationships and the resulting conversations have a decisive impact on the way participants think and feel. A key factor, therefore, is the ability to engage effectively with people by being aware of what really matters in order to expose the real issues and problems. Effective interventions should deal with any defensive behaviour in the group with the appropriate role being one that accurately represents a detached relationship with the individual or the group whilst at the same time remaining engaged with the learning process; if inappropriate, at times acting as ‘agent provocateur’ should the group ‘circle the wagons’ defensively or retaliate negatively against a difficult issue or proposition. People have difficulty hearing someone articulate their personal observations without assuming that there is a critical evaluation embedded in them and what is heard is often more important than what is actually said. When a facilitator intervenes, it should be to enable group members to learn a little more about themselves; too much intervention prevents the group or individual from taking responsibility for the content and quality of the learning process or from practising self-directed facilitation - itself an important leadership skill; too little and the facilitator risks letting the group or individual off the hook.

David Kolb claims that learning involves experience and the testing of new actions based upon new concepts. Above all, it requires a process of reflection and he expounds the view that the repetition of desirable thoughts and behaviours through action and reflection are the key to changing undesirable thoughts and behaviours. The failure to modify existing ideas and habits as a result of new experiences means that people are habitually repeating the same mistakes and is therefore mal-adaptive practice that will certainly require some external facilitation.

Robert Cooper and Aryan Sawaf regard the fear of saying things we don’t mean as more of a euphemism for worrying that we’ll say what we really mean, and initiating a discussion on personal feelings rather on the behaviour of others helps participants to understand each other better and leaves less for people to defend, justify, explain or deny. The process from which the learner draws on the lessons learned must be handled skilfully. The most influential person in this process should also be the most enabling.

The way in which participants are encouraged to interact in an experiential learning intervention may be quite different from how they are expected to act at work or in other learning environments. “Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups.” wrote Fredrich Nietzsche and a facilitator will inevitably have to deal with potential conflict both within the group and at times with the learning process itself. Groucho Marx once famously quipped, “Whatever it is – I’m against it.” and John Kotter seems resigned to this view; “it is impossible to estimate how many good ideas are abandoned every day as a result of difficult-to-manage relationships.” Effective facilitators understand this and successfully manage diverse and sometimes quite turbulent personal relationships. However, being 'constructively malcontent' can be a positive feature in effective teams who will readily accept the inevitability of disagreement with Peter Senge endorsing this view:

“In great teams conflict becomes productive. The free flow of conflicting ideas and feelings is critical for creative thinking; for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.”

As group members ourselves, we tend to deal with tension within the group in one of three ways; either by repressing it and pretending to be nice to each other, or by confronting it constructively and trying to change ourselves or others. Alternatively, we perpetuate and fuel the tension and ultimately hurt one another. A facilitator must continuously reflect on the extent to which tensions and behaviours are hindering the group’s effectiveness and consider the type of intervention skills required, as well as the potential consequences of doing nothing. Assuming positive intent in others is a powerful tool and an admirable personal value.

The three key roles of a facilitator are to enable the learning process, to manage feedback effectively, and to move the group or the individual towards a desired intention. Facilitation provides the learning opportunities rather than managing or controlling the learning and there are significant differences in behaviours and outcomes between a facilitative approach and more directive or didactic teaching. Four core elements enable the facilitation process to succeed;

o by engaging fully with the group and the environment
o by informing, to help individuals and groups acquire new information that relates to them personally
o by creating opportunities for active experimentation through experience
o by ‘personalising’ the experience to make the learning relevant.

Furthermore, the learner is the central player in the process and four prevailing conditions are essential in facilitating desirable outcomes;

o the learner(s) must see a connection
o there must be feedback on the learner(s) performance
o the learner(s) should have on-going opportunities to practise
o the learner(s) should be helped with any potentially poor communication.

As the group and individuals begin to manage their learning, a facilitator should intervene only when they believe there is some larger underlying issue, be it structural or contextual that is reducing the group’s effectiveness, or when it is appropriate to explore their core values and assumptions more deeply. The decision to intervene, who to intervene with, on what issue, and how to craft the opening lines are key decisions. Personal perceptions and bias must be controlled and behaviours observed long enough for the facilitator to make a reliable diagnosis before deciding on what to do or not do. It is neither feasible nor productive to intervene every time a group member acts ineffectively, otherwise facilitators could find themselves intervening on every comment; too much, and the group loses their own self-supporting opportunities, becoming over-reliant on an external source of learning; too little and potentially contentious issues may be deliberately avoided.

Feedback is considered a principal tool in leadership development and it is important to manage this in a sensitive and supportive manner. Understanding the impact of behaviour through feedback remains a core theme in all of LtEI’s programmes. However, evaluating performance can make a relationship judgemental and will remain relatively non-evaluative or judgemental only if the facilitator comments solely on what was seen or heard. Thereby, there is less of a perceived judgement of what is right or wrong, purely a comment on what was observed or heard.

Leadership development should be a planned and measured process through which knowledge is provided, attitudes nurtured, and skills developed thus enabling individuals become more effective as leaders. The learning process must be relevant and properly evaluated instead of merely a transfer or facts and theories for mindless recall. The roles of an external facilitator is key in enabling this process to reach successful outcomes yet so much of leadership development comes from within. As Robert Frost said at the inauguration of John F Kennedy; “something we were withholding made us weak, until we found it was ourselves.” Enabling others to overcome personal obstacles through enhancing their self-awareness, self-control and self-confidence plays a key part in unlocking the personal power that lies in everyone.

Due to the personalised nature of leadership development, facilitators must be trustworthy, adaptable, resilient, and constantly prepared for groups or individuals to see things differently. At certain times, they may have to draw on their own personal courage to open up contentious issues and enable participants to confront the brutal facts. They must be self-aware and self-controlled themselves to remain outside the group and avoid any personal stakes in their issues or any direct role in their decision-making processes. Being consistently willing and able to put the learners' needs to the fore and remain committed to the principles and values of coaching, mentoring and leading are the true measures of an effective facilitator.


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