May 2017 | 

A Prescription for Senior Leaders: Learn, Unlearn, Relearn

Prescription for Senior Leaders

Once they settle into their seats, the dozens of strangers who have come to Philadelphia for a two-week leadership and business acumen program are faced with a startling quote by Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Wharton professor Peter Fader, the academic director of the Executive Development Program (EDP), says Toffler hit on the key to executive education. He explains, “Successful leaders often have an Achilles heel in common. They’re surrounded by people who are reluctant to challenge them. They hold onto ingrained beliefs and behaviors for decades because their organization makes it hard to change. Even when you get a hint that something could use a refresh, it’s not easy to adjust.”

EDP is deliberately structured, says Fader, to help participants acknowledge and confront what needs to be changed. Classroom sessions on business acumen and a unique and intense simulation, often described as a “business war game,” give participants numerous opportunities to collide with their shortcomings.

The simulation, which pits teams against one another over the course of the program as they apply the day’s business lessons to move their “company” forward, is one reason Andrew Fullem recently attended EDP. An associate director and the director of the center of HIV at John Snow, Inc., Fullem says it caught his attention when he was comparing similar offerings.  “Other schools’ programs have a heavy emphasis on case studies. The idea that you would apply what you are learning, work in a high-performance team, and get daily personal feedback stood out.”

Fullem says the simulation and the classroom sessions challenged long-held beliefs and behaviors, especially those common to the mission-driven health services organization where he has worked for 27 years. “Our decision-making process, whether about internal investments to improve efficiencies or new product development, was about allocating resources because something sounded like a good idea or we had trust in the person who had the idea.”

During the session on Operations Management, which provides tools for linking decisions to financial performance, a light bulb went off for Fullem. “This is not just a not-for-profit; it’s a business. Every decision has consequences. We have to be profitable so we can pay the bills and invest in innovation. To do that we need to unlearn the old process for allocating resources and instead ask, ‘Is this the right investment that will help us see change?’ It’s about adding complexity to the decision. Now I can better guide the process and improve outcomes.”

Fullem says the simulation also helped him to unlearn another common NGO habit — building consensus. “I was the CEO of our ‘company,’ and I was spending too much time getting consensus around decisions. One piece of feedback I kept getting from our observers and my teammates was that as a leader I just needed to make a decision.”

That feedback, though, went beyond what to change; it was also about how to change it. “I have decision-making tools to move ahead with,” he says. “The feedback might be something you’ve heard before, but when it’s delivered in-the-moment and in a different frame, you’re able to come back to work and manage yourself in a different way. It’s easier to unlearn when you know what to relearn.”

Fader says that combination of intense simulation experience and feedback from seasoned observers is critical. “Every team session reveals moments of discomfort, and deals with them in a timely and tangible way. As soon as the teams make decisions for each of six rounds, they talk about the process. There is not even time for coffee — the mirror is held up immediately. The first time you’re observed doing or saying something that could have been better, you might dismiss it. But when you fall into the same trap over and over again, and other people point it out to you, you can no longer deny it. It’s a signal to unlearn and relearn.”