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Learning Mastery

C3 LearnNet

The Collaborative Learning Guidebook. Dori Digenti, 1999

Building Cultural Consonance: Dynamic Harmony for Global Teams ,” Dori Digenti. The Transnational Teams Newsletter, June 1998

Dynamics Underlying the Peer-Based, Action Learning Process,” Carter McNamara, Leaders Circles

Kodak’s Digital Moment,” Bruce Upbin. Forbes Magazine, August 21, 2000.

The Ecology of Leadership,” Peter M. Senge. Leader to Leader, No. 2, Fall 1996

Make Space for Informal Learning,” Dori Digenti. Learning Circuits, August 2000.

Making Teams Work at the Top,” Jon R. Katzenbach. Leader to Leader, Winter 1998.

Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning,” John Seely Brown, Allen Collins, Paul Duguid. American Educational Research Association, 1989.

Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Chris Arygyris. Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991

Teamrooms: Why Don’t We Use Them More?” Dori Digenti. unpublished manuscript. [requires Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0]

The Three Cultures of Management: Implications for Organizational Learning,” Edgar Schein. Sloan Management Review, Fall 1996.

You Can’t Create a Leader in a Classroom,” Jennifer Reingold. Fast Company, November 2000



Let’s stop pretending that it’s easy for leaders to learn; it’s not. A number of organizational barriers and our expectations of leaders get in the way of effective learning.

First, learning for leaders is typically carried out in executive education programs far removed from the realities of organizational life. This makes it difficult for the leaders to transfer new learning to the organization without setting off the corporate cynicism alarm. Second, leaders are hired as leaders because they are expert decision-makers who can consistently apply their experience and intellect to the organization’s problems and quickly resolve them. Leaders are hired for their ability to perform, not for their ability to learn, change, and grow, but the very ability to learn increasingly sustains performance for leaders over the course of their career. However, to put top-performing leaders into learning situations where they must suspend judgment and be vulnerable goes strongly against the grain—to put it bluntly, it’s not what we are paying them for.

One additional impediment to learning for leaders is that their role requires them to spend most of their energy focused outside the organization: on shareholders, the finance community, and the press. They are preoccupied with managing the image and health of the company, and often cannot effectively use internal resources for learning. Let’s look at each of these barriers in turn, how they came to be, and how leaders can surmount them and learn collaboratively.

Executive Education for Leaders

Executive education plays a vital role in leadership learning. Typically, when leaders need to refresh their knowledge, they are sent to executive retreats where academic experts regale them with the latest management theories. Most of these retreats are held at reputable universities and provide high-quality learning opportunities. Many programs now add experiential and case-based group work to the traditional “sage on the stage” lectures from experts. Yet, the insights that the leader experiences at the retreat session have no fertile ground to take root in back in the organization. Back at the office, workers often perceive the new ideas as just the latest program-du-jour. The worst case is that subordinates feign excitement over the new ideas or programs in the after-retreat meeting, and then leave the room shaking their heads and muttering about how out of touch their leaders are with the real issues of the organization.

Why does this happen? The new practices are not consistent with the current work practices of the organization. John Seely Brown of Xerox PARC says the fault lies with lack of embeddedness of what leaders learn at executive retreats. This, according to Brown, is a result of our educational background, where knowledge, in order to be validated by testing, must be abstracted from practice and presented in a classroom-type environment. But, paradoxically, the act of abstracting the knowledge results in an inability to transfer the knowledge back into the work context.

Team Learning and Learning Anxiety

This question of embeddedness is increasingly addressed in organizations through collaborative learning activities among teams. Some of the methods that teams have used successfully to learn together include after-action review, peer seminars, critical thinking exercises, and discussion forums. However, leaders in the organization seldom engage in these team-based activities and, if they do, communication is often stifled due to workers’ fear of being seen as incompetent by their leaders. Leaders are also unwilling to expose their lack of knowledge to subordinates in a team-learning situation. Chris Argyris, the organizational learning guru, would attribute the failure of team learning when it involves leaders to defensive routines—ways that we protect ourselves from new learning due to the risk of exposing ourselves to threats. It is frustratingly true that the people we most need to be good learners—our leaders—find little incentive and great risk in engaging in embedded team learning activities.

To explore this conundrum further, we need to look at what MIT Professor Edgar Schein calls “learning anxiety.” Learning anxiety occurs when we set out to learn something new, and realize that we are risking our sense of competence, our identity, and our status with our reference group. How does learning anxiety manifest for leaders? First, any appearance of incompetence will be doubly bad for a leader, who is supposed to be an authority. Second, a leader’s self-confidence may be affected as he discovers that he must experience a temporary incompetence to learn any new skill. Also, if one leader within the organization does risk becoming a learner and acquires new capabilities, she may be seen as being out of step with other leaders in the organization, of not “being with the program,” and may lose her group identity.

Leaders as Lone Learners

The above scenarios seem to point to only one conclusion: leaders, if they are to learn at all, must learn in isolation. Let’s look at a case in point: that of George M.C. Fisher’s tenure as CEO at Kodak. Fisher came to Kodak in 1993 as the first outsider ever to run the company. He was seen as a savior at Kodak; a leader who would wave his magic wand and duplicate his successes with Motorola, a high tech semiconductor and equipment manufacturer, at Kodak, the film giant. Fisher moved quickly to draw on his high-tech networks and pull in outsiders to help Kodak move from film into digital photography. Most of the ideas he had were good, and many are taking root today, but in 1997 consumers were just discovering AOL and—they weren’t ready to print their photos at home, to process them online, nor to send them via email or post them to family websites. What Fisher ran up against was the leader’s worst scenario: the sunset technology—film—was making all the profit, and the new technology—digital—was the hope of the company’s future. He spent much time mediating between the two camps in a difficult situation. To make digital a success, resources had to be taken away from the film group, which cut into today’s profit. If he continued to invest in film, Kodak would lose its chance to lead in tomorrow’s market. When Kodak ended up in a price war with archrival Fuji, bad went to worse for Fisher’s strategy.

In hindsight, no one can truly criticize the decisions Fisher made; it was a messy and difficult time for Kodak, and the painful transition needed to be made. From the perspective of learning, however, one wonders where George Fisher could turn for new knowledge and learning. Clearly, executive education was not the answer – no one had a good theory to cover this scale of transition to a new technology with unknown potential. Since he had been placed on a pedestal at Kodak due to his successes at Motorola, surely Fisher was not inclined to ask his executive team for advice or engage in joint learning with them. It seems the only outlet available for him was a consultant or an outside coach who could bring perspective and new knowledge in. You can see how solitary such a path would be, especially when the corporation reaches a crisis point. Yet, in most cases outside the executive seminar, consultant and coaches are who most leaders rely on for learning.

Executive Coaching for Leaders

There has been a tremendous interest and growth in the executive coaching phenomenon. The buzz is more than just buzz, however: coaching is an effective way to learn. Also, executive coaching gets around many of the obstacles outlined above:

    learning anxiety: because the leader only has to expose her not-knowing one-on-one;

    lack of time: the executive can have his coaching sessions according to his own calendar

    embeddedness: the coach will only work on those issues which are workplace-specific and relevant.

The recent case of GE’s push into e-business and use of upward mentoring supports the feasibility of coaching for executive learning. When GE began their push into e-business, CEO Welch realized that none of the senior executives knew anything about the Web. He supported the development of a corporate-wide “upward mentoring” program enacted to assist 1000 GE senior executives. These leaders spent 3-4 hours a week with ebusiness mentors, typically 20-somethings who grew up with the Internet, who taught them to use the Internet and analyze competitors’ websites. GE cites expanded market share and increased customer loyalty as signs of the success of this executive coaching program.

Many of the best organizations are now combining executive coaching with executive education seminars as their leadership development strategy, but this is still not a complete solution. We are still playing into the myth that leaders are limited to individual learning, which they will only lose if they enter a group-learning situation. As the new ways of working: collaboration, Internet technology, supply chain integration, and boundary-spanning become the daily norm for business, we must move to support our leaders in learning collaboratively so that those skills can carry over into these new ways of working.

Leaders Learning Together

Collaborative learning methods for leaders can take place both external to the organization and internally. External groups can provide the needed objectivity and safety that leaders often require in order to let down their defenses and learn. Internal groups, on the other hand, offer the advantage of more embeddedness and a higher initial level of shared knowledge.

One leading example of an external collaborative learning approach for leaders is Leaders Circles, a method developed by Carter McNamara. The function of the Circles is to address specific problems of the leader members on a rotating basis. Each meeting involves a focus on one member’s quandary or a problem that they are working with. The other members of the group, all leaders of organizations themselves, then offer feedback, advice, and resources to assist the focus member. At a subsequent meeting, the focus member will report back to the Circle on how she took action based on the advice and resources offered by the group. Each Circle evolves as a fully customized vehicle to address the concerns of that Circle’s members. While the Circles, as cross-organizational structures, cannot fully address the embeddedness question, they do bring leaders together on a practitioner level. Accompanied by skillful facilitation and trust-building over time, the Leaders Circles appear to be an effective collaborative learning method for leaders. In founder McNamara’s words: “The primary goal of the Leaders Circles is to meet the ongoing needs of circle members. This requires members’ authentic involvement in their circles to express their needs and how their circles can help them to meet these needs. Achieving this authentic involvement requires members’ ongoing mutual support to engage wholeheartedly and take responsibility for their development in their circle. This full engagement and responsibility produce each member’s highly individualized outcomes. Members’ deep learning occurs as a by-product of their authentic involvement and in whatever form needed by each member.”

As mentioned above, collaborative learning for leaders, internal to the organization, faces a number of hurdles. One possible approach is building a leadership community of practice. This community would be a network of people who share a practice, in this case, leadership, and can derive benefit from sharing knowledge. Here, there would need to be a very skillful community design and facilitation in order to avoid competitiveness and to really open up the exchange among leaders. When the community is young, and to build safety and trust, invite outside speakers who can speak to general leadership issues, and then engage the group in discussion. Later, as the group develops, joint learning projects can be proposed that will deepen the level of sharing. Clear guidelines that separate what happens in the community from daily work may help the leaders see the value of learning together. If the community truly develops trust over time, it may organically evolve to a more applied learning situation with the organization’s business, like the Leaders Circles, but there should still be a focus on learning jointly about leadership itself, rather than just another meeting about the company’s problems.

The Blended Solution

Like every successful learning strategy, learning for leaders combines approaches customized and specific to their needs and abilities. Because of the expectations we have of our leaders, team learning on a daily basis is not realistic. We must honor the excellence that our leaders bring to the organization, but also create opportunities for them to continuously learn in ways that benefit both the individual and the organization.

To review, three general approaches to learning for leaders have been presented here.

    Executive education retreats were found to be good for exposing leaders to new ideas and theories, but often the new learning cannot be disseminated to the organization because it lacks embeddedness with real work practices

    Executive coaching has been a very effective method for leaders’ development, as it frequently results in behavioral change and new self-knowledge, and addresses the issues of learning anxiety and lack of time for formal programs

    Certain collaborative learning methods will work for leaders. Externally, Leaders Circles is a method for allowing peer learning among leaders, customized to the members’ needs. Internally, leaders could benefit from leadership communities of practice that focus first on formal presentations and move over time to joint projects on leadership

If these three approaches can be brought together, in full recognition of the kinds of constraints leaders face as learners, organizations will find that they are developing a more in-touch, responsive, and curious leadership cadre that will model and support continuous learning throughout the organization.

Dori Digenti is an author and consultant helping organizations develop collaboration, learning, and network strategies. She is principal of Learning Mastery and facilitator of C3 LearnNet. Reach her at


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