Provide opportunities for practice, feedback, and reflection

#6 of 9 in our weekly succession planning blog post series:

Our guest blogger, Paul Riley is life-long learner of Organizational Leadership and Change who applies systems thinking and community development principles to help people work more effectively together within the complex human systems we create.

This week’s blog post focuses on the fourth principle of the 7 principles of successful Succession Planning: #4: Provide opportunities for practice, feedback, and reflection. The organizations that succeed at developing a sustainable leadership pipeline, approach succession planning as more than a process of updating a list. They prepare individuals for future roles. However, our focus on short-term results and managing the day-to-day operations often competes with our ability to actively support and develop future leaders, which can result in poor placement and promotion outcomes as employees aren’t properly prepared to move to the next level in their careers. Therefore, organizations should create processes and systems that facilitate the transfer of knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) and also achieve organizational results.

Experiential learning is one of the most effective ways to provide developmental opportunities while simultaneously achieving business objectives. And research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership indicates that leaders and emerging leaders prefer experiential learning opportunities. Experiential learning techniques include job rotation, lateral moves across functions and business units, cross-functional assignments, mentoring, coaching, communities of practice (CoP), and action learning teams. Many of these experiential methods can be implemented in combination to achieve multiple objectives. For example, cross-functional team assignments can be used to facilitate action learning and promote strategic thinking, team building, collaboration, leadership, and management skills.

The action learning process is based on a belief in individual potential. Participants of an action learning team typically work on complex, strategic issues that have no right answer and aren’t amendable to quick or expert-based solutions. Through these experiences, participants learn to work on teams, and they learn skills needed to influence others over whom they have no direct authority. Most importantly, they learn how to learn more effectively and intentionally from their actions, by taking the time to question, understand and reflect, and to gain insights about how they might act in future situations.

Action learning teams are generally easy to set up. In Action Learning: A Practical Guide for Managers,  Weinstein suggests six main elements:

  1. The team – a small group of five or six people who meet regularly to work together in a supportive yet challenging way
  2. The ‘learning vehicle’ – work-focused, real-time projects or tasks that each person, or the team as a whole, focuses on during the program
  3. The processes the team adopts when working – each person has their own space in which to work on their project; the team meanwhile adopts a helpful questioning approach (no advice, and no general discussions)
  4. A team adviser – who helps the group as it works and learns
  5. The duration of a program – normally three to six months
  6. The emphasis on learning – which emerges both from working on the projects and from working on the team

Researchers have found that learning is generally affected by three elements: (1) amount of challenge, (2) variety of tasks or assignments, and (3) quality of feedback. Therefore, experiential learning programs should be designed to provide continuous feedback to help participants reflect on both individual and group learning processes and outcomes. Multisource feedback has gained widespread use in recent years. For instance, upward feedback from subordinates has been found to be useful for leadership development, and peer feedback is most effective in team-based training, providing participants with opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback. Mentors and coaches also play an integral role in providing timely and relevant feedback and helping learners reflect on their performance.

One of the challenges of experiential learning can be that learners don’t have time for reflection as they’re caught up in the action and are immersed in the demands and challenges of the work. We’re often more results-driven than process-oriented. As Peter Senge points out in The Fifth Discipline, we typically assume that a person who’s sitting quietly at his or her desk isn’t busy, so we feel compelled to interrupt, rather than assume that the person is deep in thought and shouldn’t be disturbed. This mindset can inhibit learning, because we don’t often give people the time or space to reflect on feedback or experiences. So, it may be necessary to implement a more formal and methodical process that provides opportunities for feedback and reflection on a regular basis. After all, although it’s important to achieve business objectives, it’s equally important that people are able to learn from their experiences. Otherwise the ultimate objective of the action learning program won’t be achieved.

Want to know more about the Seven Principles of Succession Planning? Stay tuned for Part 7 of this series, when I discuss the fifth principle – Promote openness and transparency.

Also, be sure to check out our other Succession Planning blog posts in this series:

What’s so important about Succession Planning? 

The 7 principles for successful Succession Planning

Aligning Succession Planning programs with the organization’s strategy

Combine Succession Planning and Leadership Development

Include all levels of the organization