May 2022 | 

What It Takes to Transform Your Leadership

What It Takes to Transform Your Leadership

Amazon currently sells over 60,000 leadership titles, including The Art of War, believed to be written about 2,000 years ago and considered by many to be the first book in the genre. If you’re seeking to improve your leadership, you don’t need to confine yourself to the page, though — over 10,000 of those Amazon titles have audio versions, and then there are podcasts, YouTube lectures, and seminars.

With so much wisdom available, why do so many managers continue to struggle? McKinsey interviewed hundreds of chief executives about leadership development and distilled their input into four reasons why most efforts fall short. Their insights probably won’t surprise you if you’ve read any of those 60,000-plus books: passively consuming information about what to improve and how to improve it rarely creates positive, lasting change.

What does work? The McKinsey survey’s top observation is that context matters: a one-size-fits-all approach usually fails because it doesn’t take into account the unique, existing strengths and challenges of individuals and their teams and organizations. Personalization is key. That’s why Wharton’s Executive Development Program (EDP) (among other leadership offerings) provides a holistic, deep, real-time exploration for each participant. It begins with a 360-degree leadership assessment completed before the program starts. Rather than passively consulting it, the assessment is used as the basis for an initial meeting with an executive coach to design specific short- and long-term goals.

It was in that meeting that Emily O’Neill, VP of Emerging Channels Offering & Activation at Edelman Financial Engines, admitted that the vision she had for her career was not very expansive until she joined her company. “I’ve always been a very career-driven person, looking around the corner for the next big opportunity. But it wasn’t until I was surrounded by leaders who saw more in me than I saw in myself that I knew I should aim higher. After EDP, that bar is now higher. My two weeks there confirmed that I could hold my own in a room of brilliant professionals; I have experience and expertise to contribute at an executive level like this.”

Wharton’s coaches then observe participants in an intense business simulation that runs across the two-week program. Designed to be a hands-on laboratory for the lessons taught by faculty in the classroom, it’s a real-time opportunity to try out new skills and insights. It’s also one of the reasons Chip Greek, vice president of the Mission Services Operating Unit at a.i. solutions, chose to attend. “I am on the path to being promoted to COO, and my CEO wanted me to find a program to help with executive development. EDP was my choice because of the focus on business acumen, and importantly, the inclusion of a simulation and coaching.”

Greek continues, “The simulation covered all aspects of business, and I really liked how the concepts we learned in the classroom were immediately applied to the next round. We were put in a situation where we had to make decisions based on what we just learned. But in addition to that applied learning piece, it was also focused on teamwork and how we were able to make quick decisions, see how they played out, and then adjust and pivot as necessary based on our strategy. I particularly liked the speed. It brought a significant amount of stress, but that real-time implementation made negotiating and executing more difficult and more true-to-life. From a teaching standpoint, it made the lessons very clear.”

That “true-to-life” experience and immediate feedback are critical elements in making the learning transformational. O’Neill notes, “One of the purposes of the simulation is to push us out of our comfort zone. I could have easily taken on a role similar to one I already knew, but the learning would have not have been as great. I knew I had to do something I was afraid of. I went into the program with a strong ‘worker bee’ mindset. I’m most comfortable doing things myself. So instead of choosing something comfortable, I took on the CEO role. My team challenged me throughout the experience on the behaviors I needed to work on. I learned to manage my time better and to ask where my help might be needed instead of making assumptions.”

She adds, “We did After Action Reviews after every round of the simulation, and they were incredibly helpful. You heard about your performance, and if it was something positive you found ways to repeat it. If it needed improving, you found a way to do it better. And because the simulation was tied so closely to the classroom sessions, you could gauge how well you were applying what you learned. No one lets you, or themselves, off the hook — it was all about improving as individuals and as a team.”

The real test of leadership development, though, comes when participants return to work. Transformation means there are significant, tangible improvements that benefit the individual leader and their team and organization. Greek explains, “I have already started implementing the new approaches I learned, and my growth will not only help me in my present and future roles, but also will help the company as a whole. I know I’ll continue to progress because I now have a group of peers that will tell it like it is, unlike people at work who might tell me what I want to hear. Staying in touch with my EDP team will keep me focused on my goals. That network, and the combination of classroom learning, coaching, and simulation, prepares you for reaching the next level — whatever that is for you.”

O’Neill agrees. “EDP gave us a safe space to be vulnerable, to work on ourselves, and to be a part of a powerful feedback loop. l already considered myself self-aware but EDP brought it to another level. No one in my workplace could be as objective as I need them to be, simply because we work so closely on a daily basis, but my EDP peers and coach could. We developed a very high level of trust quickly — you could share what you were struggling with because you knew the other participants could provide valuable advice. I don’t think you can get that kind of perspective anywhere else. I’ve had leaders in my company tell me I have a lot of potential, but I didn’t always see it for myself. Now, with the added exposure from EDP, I see my future as limitless.”