Last week we held our first Global Chat for the year and I was the guest primed with discussing 5 mistakes I have made over the past 15 years of deep work in enabling quality leadership development at scale. Gulp, sharing mistakes felt vulnerable 🙄

It was a deep discussion and thanks to everyone who attended. The ‘chat’ also inspired me to send this summary of my thoughts – some of them we didn’t even get to in the 6O minutes!

Firstly, reflecting on the subject was incredibly valuable. I realized that our key insights, progress and wisdom have been formed and informed by mistakes, as well as people operating as a collective, and a true culture of experimentation. Individual heroes and first-iteration brilliance are rare in hindsight. Mistakes make us. Here we go.

1) I underestimated how hard this work would be. 15 years ago we started out with an unconventional approach to leadership development based on a few key principles

a) Content isn’t the constraint
b) Adaptive leadership is the central challenge
c) We are what we do – action and reflection are essential to developing

It was innovative and fresh, and we had early success. This lured us into thinking it would be easy. Not so. Having a commonly understood approach to, ‘how we do things’ is highly efficient but it makes effecting change and using a new approach hard as the new approach is judged through the lens of, ‘how we normally do things’. Many people nodded and agreed with the principles but when we shared the approach to apply this… eyes glassed over. I have no regrets and am glad I didn’t know how hard it would be. Thinking it would be easy was a mistake though! 😊

Lesson: Approach innovation in leadership development through the lens of change management and polarity management: Build support through inquiry rather than advocacy and combine your innovative elements with something existing that already works well. Learn from the story (or myth) of how the movie Alien was pitched to executives, it was framed as Jaws (existing and successful) in Space (new and innovative).

2) I misunderstood the power of framing. This builds on the first mistake. I used to think like an engineer, if it was right it was right and we all “saw” the same thing. Wow, was that wrong. We each see the world through a different lens, informed by our own experiences and mental models. The learning? Pay a lot of attention to how development is framed. Get influential senior leaders onboard to reset narratives about how important it is (and how it works), and keep repeating the message. Also, engage an early group of supporters to set a positive narrative for the work you are doing. Part of me doesn’t like to say it, but these things have more impact than improving the UX of the technology, your workshop slides or even the developmental processes we use.

Lesson: Engage senior leaders to sponsor development programs, open programs and share stories about how development has shaped them and their leadership, get them to keep engaging as you move through by highlighting positive changes they are seeing. Also, ensure your early cohorts are made up of influential participants with a positive attitude, they will then build momentum and ‘framing’ that can work wonders to bring the problematic participants along.

3) I didn’t eat my own dog food. Our approach is rooted in development in the service of work. It’s principled in helping leaders be conscious of what matters and then be curious about what might help and motivated to take action to be better and improve. However, several times when growing our own business I (and others) ignored this and tried to tell people what they needed to do and how. It didn’t work. Refer back to the first mistake – we all slip back to common norms, even when we are trying to change them!

Lesson: Regardless of the challenges your leaders face and how simple or complex the development gap/requirement they face is, remember to follow a framework that respects the fundamentals of learning and behavior change. Particularly address the knowing-doing gap through the importance of application and reflection.

4) I focused on things that were true but useless. Thanks to my engineering roots, I’ve had to learn that many things are true… but useless. The first version of our platform worked but it was hard to get people to use it. It didn’t matter how developmental the activities were if nobody engaged (again, showing the importance of framing).

This played out another time when we (correctly) felt that supporting leaders with targeted workouts addressing common challenges would be highly developmental. However, by using this approach, we violated what Robert Kegan refers to as the second job everyone has to do – that is to appear more competent than we actually are. Engaging in these social workouts was an admission that one wasn’t confident, for example, to delegate. The solution came later and is beautifully simple. Start by asking for advice on how to do these tricky things and people fall over themselves to engage. Then in the process, almost by accident, they get tips, advice and support. From true but useless to true and useful.

Lesson: Focus on the challenges and needs of the leaders you are serving to be useful. Dig deep when doing this, use design thinking empathy techniques and don’t always believe what you are first told. Kano analysis tells us that to deliver the most delight we must satisfy requirements that a person can’t yet express. Reading the news on our cell phone while on a train isn’t about the news, it’s about being anonymous in a crowded space. Engaging in development might not be about personal improvement, it could be about appearing motivated and competent or …… (you fill in the blanks).

5) I get overexcited. We first integrated AI into our platform in 2O15. It was a success and worked very well, we appropriately used the technology for its current capabilities. This led to us getting very excited about the possibility of technology enabling the vast majority of leadership development work. In 2O2O the rest of the world joined us (thanks COVID) and within weeks the narrative moved from, you can’t use technology for leadership development to you can only use technology for leadership development! We got excited and piled in but then things got wobbly!

This mistake helped move the general narrative about what is possible (again refer to mistake one) but the pendulum swung too far. We created highly scalable interventions that would have worked but few people engaged with them. True but useless. The pendulum is swinging back now and I’m hoping we learn and don’t overcompensate. Technology has a wonderful role to play in enabling high-quality leadership development, we can match insights between leaders with an instant precision that no human can do. However, people are essential in the system. We care, we can see and respond to the current emerging moment and not just look into the past data as algorithms do. Blended is certainly better when it comes to leadership development and breaking the “what works doesn’t scale and what scales doesn’t work” paradox.

Lesson: The most impactful, scalable developmental experiences wrap asynchronous digital learning around synchronous moments. Check out our webiste for how we do it.

That is five. It is a drop in the ocean and I know I have missed (many) others. However, I hope this has inspired you to also reflect on mistakes that have made and shaped how you now see the world. It would be magic if you could break Kegans’ second job rule and share your mistakes to inspire us all here 😊…