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Coaching and mentoring monthly feature: How do people at the top learn?


Dr Richard Hale, Director of Action Learning Forums, International Management Centres Association and the CPD Business School writes exclusively for TrainingZONE on a whole range of coaching-related issues.

Dr Richard Hale
In this fourth column for TrainingZONE, Dr Hale considers:
"How do people at the top learn?"

It seems there is an endless choice of networks that we could join up with these days ranging from online networks to face-to-face, and structured to unstructured. I was recently involved in the Forum-4 Management Development network which brought together a group of senior managers from the corporate world who are working in management development. An enthusiastic group arrived at the Room-4 Business Venue near Manchester. Such inaugural meetings are always interesting because people turn up I suspect for a variety of reasons - professional interest, to make new contacts, to meet old friends, for 'continuing professional development', out of curiosity, for a day out of the office - I could go on.

Some such groups I have linked up with will resist too much structure and stress the social side of networking but interestingly this group decided from the start it wanted to create its own structure and to achieve some 'take-home' value. Interestingly from a development perspective we started by listing our questions rather than anyone making assumptions about what to spoon-feed. How often do we take this approach with our clients? (See link to Leading With Questions article below)

Being good trainers we split into sub-groups and I volunteered to join the group looking at the question of 'How Do People Learn at the Top'. Here were our findings based on a combination of formal research, experience and opinion - with a little editorial embellishment:

Structure - learning is a voluntary process
Some people at the top resist having structure forced upon them from the centre (HR or Training Departments) whether that is in form of pro-formas or manuals relating to coaching, mentoring or learning. Their belief is that learning should be more personal and individual. HR and training departments, however, have traditionally emphasised structure, systems and manuals showing 'how to do it'. We need to recognise that learning is a voluntary process.

Whose Language?
Using HRD speak such as 'development needs' 'personal development plans' 'growth' may come across as irrelevant or even arrogant to those who are not part of the HRD club. Can we talk the language of our clients rather than create barriers through our exclusive language?

It is lonely at the top
People at the top of organisations may feel isolated and may fear their weaknesses will be exposed if they admit to development needs. If we are supporting their development we need to manage this and a key aspect is finding a way for people to admit there is a need for development.

Menus don't work
Formulating a menu of 'development options' and presenting for the top leaders to choose from does not work. We can add more value by identifying real work problems or issues and working with those and supporting learning along the way.

How do you define learning?
Too often the focus is on training rather than learning. Most people when asked to recall their major learning experience in life do not quote classroom, school, training centre or business school experiences. They quote workplace experiences and relationships which were often unstructured and in times of turmoil and change. Our challenge is to help top leaders interpret such experiences and draw out learning when they are in the middle of such turmoil or shortly afterwards.

Learning relationships
Learning relationships abound but contrary to the beliefs of some HRD professionals they are happening without us! Sometimes well intended formal mentoring or coaching interventions in fact lead to much less learning than the informal relationships and connections people are making of their own volition. Is there a way in which we can support the informal mentoring and coaching or should we stay out of it?

Knowledge, skills or insights
Once someone is at the top it might be assumed they have their professional training behind them (knowledge) though they should be staying updated through continuing professional development. They will have many of the skills required, some of which will have been covered through skills courses. The real value in terms of continued learning comes from achieving insights, and a powerful way of achieving these is through learning from others whether mentors, coaches or role-models. An insight cannot be prescribed in a course or book - it comes from making connections about things like navigating the political corporate environment or strategies for influencing a key person.

Go where the energy is
If we are to add value in supporting the development of those at the top then we should go where the energy is. Seek out those people who are interested, motivated and open to ideas, rather than allow those who just aren't interested to take up a disproportionate amount of our time. Involve these people as sponsors of the development agenda.

And most controversially...
The hypothesis was posed that 'there may be a correlation between professional seniority or expertise with an unwillingness to take part in shared and collaborative learning'. This came from discussion with those who had worked in the education sector where it might be assumed that collaborative learning would be strong. In fact it was found that top experts would respect and learn from other subject matter experts with the focus of learning on the subject or topic rather than personal development. Similarly in developing others their focus would be on professional content rather than personal development.


For more information about the Forum-4 Management Development network, contact Lynn Clarke on 01942 276981.

Dr Richard Hale, May 2002


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