Leadership Programs that Work

Posted by Rich Mesch on Nov 20, 2014 9:16:00 AM

Many of us have been in “Leadership Training” since we were very young. We learned leadership GirlsSoccerTeam.Medjpginformally, through participation in sports teams, youth organizations, or community groups. And sometimes we learned it formally, through events, retreats, and challenges. But one thing that’s probably true of all of it is that we never called it “leadership training.” It was about having great experiences.

Leadership is a difficult topic to get your arms around. Part of that is because leadership content is easy to understand, but hard to actually do. It’s rare that I hear someone say, “I just read Peter Drucker (or Covey, or Kouzes & Posner, or Conner), and I have no idea what he’s talking about.” Actually, I find people are very inspired by these books, and are excited to put these ideas into practice. And that’s where things get dicey, because sometimes these behaviors are very hard to do properly. Why? Lots of reasons: I’m intimidated by my team members. I don’t want to give people bad news. I don’t think my boss will support me. I don’t think my organization “gets it.” The list goes on and on.

It certainly doesn’t help that a lot of leadership programs are a parade of models, disjointed, without context. Situational Leadership! Myers Briggs! DISC! These are wonderful, thoughtful, well-researched models, but when they come at you in rapid succession, as if fired out of a cannon, they can become an endless series of matrices, process graphs, and pie charts that have little relevance to actually being a leader.

So what are the missing pieces? The first is context. These models are not stand-alone solutions; they are tools in a toolkit. Can you imagine learning carpentry by spending one day on the hammer and then the next day on the screwdriver? Of course not; there’s no context. Your goal is to build something; tools help you build. As a leader, you manage people, processes, tools, and money (yes, money). The tools need to help you do that. If you don’t understand how the tools get you closer to your goals, then you really don’t understand the tools.

business_trainingMedThe second missing piece is experience.  Effective leadership programs have a strong experiential component, the more, the better. Sometimes, experiential learning can be low risk, as in simulations. A good simulation can provide a safe environment to practice new behaviors, try out models, and get a feel for how people will react to you. An angry team member can be a rude surprise for a new leader, but if the leader has had the experience of dealing with this behavior in a simulation, she may be able to handle it better in real life. But good programs will also have experiential assignments, the chance to use new behaviors in real life. This may include job shadowing (observing an experienced leader as they go through their day), leadership of project teams or communities of practice, or feedback from coaches and mentors.

In her wonderful book Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership, Linda Hill of Harvard Business School observed that a very high percentage of first-time managers failed at their jobs, due to a gap in expectations between what they thought the job would be like, versus what it actually was like. In simplest terms, they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. By creating leadership programs that focus on context and experience, we help guarantee that our next generation of leaders is prepared for the realities of the job.

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Rich Mesch is Senior Director, Customer Engagement at
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Topics: Leadership

Teaching Problem Solving

Posted by Reni Gorman on Mar 14, 2011 10:32:00 AM

by Reni Gorman

multi-colored squares on a puzzle cubeWhat is Problem Solving?

Whenever a living creature has a goal but doesn’t know how to accomplish it, they engage in problem solving. (Holyoak & Morrison, 2005) Problem solving is considered the most complex of all intellectual functions, as a higher-order cognitive process that requires activation and control of more routine or fundamental skills in order to solve the problem at hand. (Goldstein & Levin, 1987) There are a number of methods for problem solving, including:

Difference reduction, in which we keep reducing the distance between the current state and the goal step by step;

Means-end analysis, where we work backwards from end goal and set sub goals; and

Analogy strategy, where we find similar problems we have solved with pervious strategies and try those same strategies on the new problem.

This is just a basic list; there are many other problem-solving methodolgies. So, how can we set up our learners to succeed?

Conditions under which Learners might Demonstrate Good Problem Solving

Gestalt psychologists have outlined a number of features that make problem solving more difficult, they are as follows: (Holyoak & Morrison, 2005)

Groupingwhen all elements needed to solve the problem are not grouped, but rather scattered. Problem-solving becomes easier if all elements to solve a problem are grouped.

Distraction, think of distracters used when testing learners, the more there are the harder it is to solve the problem.

Functional fixedness, when solving the problem requires that something be used for something other than what it was made for. Using a bunch of pieces of cloth to tie together to form a rope latter is not as intuitive as if rope was just lying around.

Set effect, if we always use a certain method to solve a problem and suddenly that does not work, we have to unlearn the previously learned solution and it is harder than starting from scratch without the set effect.

Based on the list above, if we offer learners a problem where:

  • All the elements needed to solve the problem are grouped,
  • There are no distractions
  • All objects used to solve the problem are used the way they were intended, and
  • The learners will not be reminded of previously experienced, typical problem solving strategies because the problem is so unique

We will have created a condition where the learners will most likely demonstrate good problem solving. However, this approach may not be appropriate for everyone. This approach may only be appropriate for teaching beginners; perhaps advanced learners need just the opposite to challenge them.

Conditions under which Learners might have Difficulty with Problem Solving
In order to challenge more experienced learners, we can do just the opposite: make the conditions under which learners solve the problem more difficult. We can make sure all the elements needed to solve the problem are scattered and not grouped, there are several distractions, all objects used to solve the problem are used in a different way from the way they were intended or are used every day, and we can design the problem so it superficially looks like a very easy problem that would invoke memories of previous strategies, when in fact it is not and will need new strategies.

Setting up a problem in this manner would surely stretch the knowledge and skills of any good problem solver. The goal, of course, is making them a great problem solver.


Goldstein F. C., & Levin H. S. (1987). Disorders of reasoning and problem-solving ability. In M. Meier, A. Benton, & L. Diller (Eds.), Neuropsychological rehabilitation. London: Taylor & Francis Group. Retrieved July 7, 2008 from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Holyoak, K.J. & Morrison, R.G. (2005). The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. New York: Cambridge University Press

Topics: Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Change Management, Coaching, Leadership, Organizational Learning

How to Train an Executive: Quick, Relevant Content and Meaningful Conversations

Posted by Rich Mesch on May 27, 2010 6:15:00 AM

by Reni Gorman and Rich Mesch

55 and Older Execs Don’t Like Training

reni gorman 092412Reni: I read an article on The Economist titled: Executive education and the over-55s: Never too old to learn. The focus was about the trend that older executives are shunning corporate training. The reason? To put it bluntly: They are sick and tired of going and sitting in training. Why? Many assume they will not learn anything earth shattering, while others just don’t have the patience/time away from their job. Training has to be “worth it”. The article goes on to discuss what does work, one being sending executives to prestigious schools. They won’t go to internal executive training, but they will go to external training at reputable institutions. Why? Probably because they feel like they will really learn. So, it is not really that they don’t like learning, rather they don’t like corporate training.

The Generational Lie

RichM 001Rich: I attended several learning conferences this year, and at each one, I heard some variation on this message: it's time to get past old school training models, because the generation of 20-somethings entering the work force don't learn that way. We need social media for the 20-somethings, because that's how they learn. We need virtual environments for the 20-somethings, because that's how they learn. And every time, I wanted to scream from the back of the room, "HEY! I'M A 40-SOMETHING, AND I LEARN THAT WAY, TOO!"

Where on earth did we get the notion that because employees of a certain age have greater exposure to "traditional" learning methods that we like it better? Or that we're somehow resistant or techno-phobic? Every generation has its share of resisters, but most of us like trying new things, and we especially like making good use of our time and being successful.

55 and Under Don’t Like Training Either

reni gorman 092412Reni: I don’t know about you, but all of the above applies to me and I am not yet in the over 55 category. Perhaps the under 55s “fake it” better and at least show up to training but most of the time don’t you want to run screaming? I know I do—and I admit that even though I am a learning and development professional. Yikes! What does that say about most corporate training? I also know when I go to internal training events I am antsy and can’t wait to get out and go back to work, but I am attending graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College and, most of the time, once I get there, I really enjoy what I am learning and am really focused and “present”.

Henry Mintzberg and the Role of the Manager

RichM 001Rich: The driver behind the article in The Economist is researcher Henry Mintzberg. I might have guessed that we'd find Mintzberg at the bottom of this. Mintzberg did a groundbreaking research many years ago about what managers actually do each day. Prior to his research, there was a general belief that they sat in big offices, smoked cigars, and made big strategic decisions. Mintzberg followed managers around for weeks and recorded everything they did. Ultimately what he found was that a manager's day is a series of meetings, most of them 5 minutes or less, and that they are generally focused on dozens, if not hundreds of things at once. For us today, that seems pretty obvious; but when Mintzberg originally did the research, it was startling, since it didn't fit the perception of the role. He effectively changed the perception of management, and a lot of the way we perceive management now can be traced back to Mintzberg. Glad to see he's still trying to change our perceptions.

So How Do You Train an Executive and What is the Role of Training?

reni gorman 092412Reni: Short bursts/chunks of training, making content really relevant to the workplace, and learning from peers such as through mentoring and communities of practice. I don’t know about you, but when I read this bells went on and my experience and intuition said: YES, but not just for 55s and older—for the rest of us too! At the end of the day we all want the content quick and relevant, and the conversations (with peers and SMEs) meaningful. We learn from each other best and most of all. My first thought when I am stuck is to ask a peer and/or expert. The content snippets are just an appetizer. So, what training professionals could best do is provide the short snippets of content and help put learners in situations, where they can have the conversations. Mentoring meetings, communities of practice gatherings are perfect for such things. Perhaps give people a learning guide to spark the conversation and then let it go where inquiring minds want to take it and learning will surely flourish. 

What does this come down to? Highly interactive, excellent, out of the ordinary instructional design. It is possible, just ask yourself: would I run screaming from what I am designing or would I get into it? Be honest with yourself and great design will flow and flourish too!

Topics: Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Leadership, Talent Management

Attributes of Effective Coaching: Coaching Appreciatively

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 26, 2010 3:46:00 AM

Coaching is one of my favorite topics to research and discuss. That might surprise you since I’ve written the majority of my blog entries on transformative learning; however, there’s a distinct synergy between the two. Think of coaching as an enabler of the transformative learning process. Coaching can be a catalyst for personal perspective transformation.

Yet, the focus here is firmly on coaching—more specifically, the coach. My manager asked me yesterday to share my opinion on why some individuals don’t make effective coaches. I cited the propensity some people have to “tell” versus “ask.” Some coaches struggle with asking powerful and probing questions. But these were my opinions based upon my study of the topic and experience as a coach; I wanted more time to chew on his question some more and synthesize my thoughts.

In the end, as I look across the literature on coaching and recount my own personal experience, I’d have to say that it appears to boil down to the coach’s approach to the coaching relationship.

Approach 1: If the coach approaches the relationship intent on addressing the coachee’s gaps or weaknesses, then problem-solving becomes the main goal of the coaching interaction. The relationship is built on addressing the coachee’s problems or deficiencies.

Approach 2: If the coach approaches the relationship intent on having the coachee reference past achievements and capitalize on key strengths to achieve a vision for success, then positive change becomes the main goal of the coaching interaction. The relationship is built on positive exploration in service of meaningful change.

What approach is more motivating and inspiring? What approach is more likely to lead to sustained change?

The second—and more positive—approach to coaching appears to be more effective in eliciting individual and organizational change. The evidence is well presented in the text Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change. Its authors are scholars and experienced consultants in the area of organizational development who have built a coaching model on the core precepts of Appreciative Inquiry. As one of the authors aptly states, “We get more of what we focus on.” Therefore, it would stand to reason: Focus on problems, get more of them. Focus on positives, get more of them.

So, to answer my manager’s question, which is what provoked this blog entry in the first place: Effective coaches are ones that adopt an appreciative approach to change and coach to possibility instead of deficiency.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Coaching, Leadership, Talent Management

Transformative Learning, Part 5: The Value of Reflection

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 1, 2010 9:56:00 AM

Last night, I attended an ASTD Corporate SIG meeting where a panel of speakers shared their talent management and development best practices. As one of the speakers described his company’s first-level manager program, he said something that struck me as curious. He stated that participants in this program rolled their eyes when they were asked to spend time reflecting on the course content. Self-reflection, he said, was not initially embraced by these new leaders in training.

Why, I wondered? Why would a call for introspection prompt this reaction? Maybe participants didn’t understand the value of self reflection. Maybe they didn’t know that reflection—namely, critical reflection—has the potential to lead to transformative learning.

Taking a step back, I realized that the value proposition for self-reflection isn’t something we talk about a lot. Given that, I thought I’d identify at least two value drivers for reflection and encourage you to add to this list.

Value Driver 1: Reflection challenges limiting assumptions

All of us hold beliefs and assumptions based upon our previous life experiences and our socially-constructed norms. Critical self-reflection empowers us to challenge those assumptions. By asking the following questions…What is it that I assume? What’s the origin of that assumption? Why do I hold that assumption as truth?...we have the potential to identify our constraining beliefs, entertain alternatives, and shift our perspective. This shift in perspective followed by a resulting change in behavior is indicative of transformation. (See writings on critical reflection by Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield.) Think of the potential value in asking leaders to reflect critically on their current leadership practices. By doing so, we can prime them to grow and change.

Value Driver 2: Reflection aids in the integration of multiple perceptions

Many leadership development and coaching initiatives incorporate stakeholder feedback for the leader on his or her performance. Reflection on stakeholder assessment data is vitally important to leaders’ personal and professional development. When leaders take the time to understand the perceptions others have of their actions, why they have them, and how they empower or constrain them, they can develop significantly from the experience. Reflection is essential to integrating these multiple perspectives with one’s own. Without reflection, any leader would be hard pressed to develop an effective action plan to close gaps and capitalize on successes.

What other benefits are there to reflection? Share your thoughts. Hopefully, we’ll turn those critics of reflection into converts and eliminate their eye rolls.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Transformative Learning, Leadership

The Leadership Litmus Test

Posted by Rich Mesch on Mar 30, 2010 3:59:00 AM

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”    --John Quincy Adams

People who know me, know I’m addicted to quotes. When I read this quote, it struck me as being so parallel to a recent article I read on leadership titled “Recession as a Litmus Test”. Take a look!

The article discusses that during times of recession (or difficult times in general), there are four distinguishing aspects of leadership. Those four aspects are as follows:

1 - Disciplined Thinking (Dream more)

Help others to see through the noisy clutter of confusion during times of uncertainty. Focus on the known, such as the core business requirements, and keep an eye on the big picture.

2 - A Bias for Action (Do more)

Don’t just wait around for someone to tell you the new vision or the next steps to take.  Start creating it….one step at a time. You may need to take a step back once in awhile, but three steps forward and one step back is better than no steps forward at all.

3 - Timely and Transparent Communication (Inspire others)

Be open, be honest, be realistic. Find the right balance between realism and optimism, but always communicate.

4 - The Ability to Inspire Followership (Become more)

After someone speaks to you, do they feel as if they can move forward or do they feel “stuck”? Use the three items above to help inspire others. Lead by example.

Now, picture yourself in this situation. Due to a recent reorganization, you now are leading a blended team of individuals from two very different organizational cultures (maybe it was a merger, maybe it was a global reorganization effort, whatever the case may be). You need to begin laying out your strategy, supporting projects, plans and processes for your newly-defined team. But where do you begin?

Timeline and Transparent Communication – Acknowledge and recognize the differences in cultures. Discuss as a new team how you begin to for the new culture and expectations within your team.

Disciplined Thinking – Think about what you know and how to “anchor” your team on the known vs. worry and complain over the unknown.  Sure, as a new organization, not everything will be clearly defined. However, some things must be known. For example, the organization must have a business strategy and long-term goals. You can always use this information and collect data on the competitive marketplace or industry environment

A Bias for Action – Act! Based on the facts that you know now, start creating your strategy, begin planning projects that support those known goals. Start your research!

Inspire Followership – Examine your team and others that you have an influence on. After each interaction, think about the impact you had on them. If the impact was not as positive as it could have been, consider what you can do differently the next time you interact with your team.

Distinguish yourself from all other leaders by implementing these tactics on a regular basis. Take these steps and you’ll pass the leadership litmus test.

Topics: Performance Improvement, Change Management, Organizational Change, Leadership