Article: Executive conversations - A journey in the making

Learning & Development

Executive conversations - A journey in the making

Position L&D as 'must' for everyone in the organisation irrespective of their designation.
Executive conversations - A journey in the making

Learning and Development (L&D) plays a vital role in building the human capital of any organisation. Each organisation draws upon its own unique requirements of their manpower and devises ways in which they wish to augment the growth of their employees, be it in functional domain or in personal growth areas.

Organisation A is part of a $5billion company. It has very talented personnel who are highly driven and growth oriented.  In Organisation A, five years ago, L&D as a serious initiative was being considered. Serious effort meant ”wanting to engage the entire organisation to respond to change."

The need for change was felt as the organisation comprised people who were used to working, interacting with others in certain ways they were comfortable with. There was a gender imbalance in recruitment and most of the employees belonged to a particular geographic location. Also, attrition rate being low most employees had been with the company for long periods of time which generated its own dynamics.

To address this issue, the first intervention the organisation made was to recruit youngsters, women, people from academia so that the cultural mix became more diverse. Another intervention was to introduce' new learning opportunities' for broadening the perspective of existing employees. The goal was to:

                                      Make people learn new things


                                      Make A Learning Organisation 


                                     Make everyone learn all the time

 It was important that the interventions be perceived non-threatening and the benefit clearly visible. The vision was to position L&D as a “must" for everyone in the organisation irrespective of their designation. It was hypothesised that if the intervention encompassed all employees then the organisation would be "learning to learn." Translating  this dream into reality was a very challenging prospective. The company's reputation, robust review mechanism and top management commitment were the strengths with which this journey started.

Why opt for new learning methodology?

In the past 2 years the company realised that Sr.Management (mostly Presidents) had not undergone any training. They did not have any concrete idea of the kind of programs they wanted to attend. They were also very particular that the duration of the L & D intervention should not exceed ½-1 day. The HR Head dialogued with then to understand their motivation levels, how they wanted to learn, what they wanted to learn and most importantly, whether they wanted to learn at all? They confided, “between 4 walls what am I going to learn? Am I going to have the required span of attention at this age?”

It was obvious that they associated learning with the classroom and, at that point, were not considering an alternative form of learning. This was a tricky situation. Class room training gave the numbers which were the measure for the success of L&D and these senior executives indicated their reluctance to accept this methodology. Their motivation to learn was very low and they did not see themselves benefitting from class room learning. The challenge for the HR head was how to energise these people? What pedagogy to employ?

Why executive conversations?

With valuable input from various sources and his knowledge of the organisation’s internal needs the HR Head hit upon the design of an innovative methodology for imparting Learning to the Senior Management team.

The target group  (Presidents) were experienced in running the business and were subject matter specialists. If they shared their expertise in running the business they could add value to their target audience. This would be a good source of energy too. So it was felt that making them talk rather than listen would be a suitable start to this experimental initiative. The pedagogy arrived upon was named “Executive Conversations”. Traditional classroom learning met with much resistance from the Sr Managers who saw negligible takeaways from that methodology. The idea of one on one conversation on given themes started to emerge as a viable option to traditional class room methodology.

The themes identified were:

  • Corporate Strategy
  • Global Economy
  • Corporate Ethics

The design of the initiative

Academicians from a prominent business school were identified to assist with this initiative .They were give in depth profiles of these participants .The profiles included details of their leadership and Interpersonal styles, sensitivities, whims and fancies, motivation levels for learning among other things.

Once the topic was communicated to the Academician he was required to provide a context within which the topic would be discussed. He was also required to explain the mode of the conversation. The Academician would ask high pay off questions and would motivate the participant to speak on the subject.

The Academician would contribute to the conversation by assessing the participant's knowledge level, the paradigms he held, his mental blocks, the lack of knowledge in certain areas. The Academician would also be able to gauge whether the participant had opportunities to apply his knowledge to the business in a practical manner and, thus, add value to his functional role. He could also understand the participant's leadership style. The participant, on his part, would use the “Executive Conversations” to calibrate his L & D knowledge. From a process point of view the participant had the golden opportunity to share his experience, give pertinent examples and opine on the subject of his expertise.

Most importantly, the participant did not see himself as a mere listener. He was encouraged to talk and share his knowledge. Since the setting was warm and congenial trust was high.

So the Executive Conversation started as a closed door meeting between the President and the Academician on an already agreed upon topic. The Participant shared his work knowledge, hands on industry experience, successes and pain areas within the context of the subject at hand. The Academician listened to the Participant and aside from asking for clarifications did not contribute to the conversation in any significant way. 

Towards the end, the Academician would present his theoretical framework in such a way that it would encompass and mesh with the participant's major inputs. The participant felt validated. The academician encouraged him to articulate his rich experience in a way that, when recalled, would benefit others in their learning. He was an active listener and contributor and encouraged the participant to look at creative ways in which he  would implement the new learning in his current role.

Then it was the academician's turn to share his side of the story- practices in the market, strategy, end results and opportunities available. Here he drew on his academic understanding as well as his significant experience in the field of strategic consulting. The academician added to the framework in a non-threatening, non-invasive manner. The participant questioned and sought information on other companies with similar issues. He expressed a keen interest in knowing how they addressed the issues he was grappling with and the whole conversation was imbued with new meaning. The participant was given due respect and his dignity was intact even when he professed ignorance in some areas of implementation and / or sought help with strategies to implement. 

The participant shared his hands on experience abs took theoretical inputs from the academician as well drew upon the academician's experience via research and consulting assignments as to understand how other companies handled issues he was facing. He saw things from a fresh perspective . Also, he was learning from the Academician who viewed things from an academic point of view or from a consulting role. This 2 way learning was meaningful, symbiotic, private and closed door. There was no inhibition of public scrutiny in the learning process. The participant felt  comfortable in exposing their ignorance and learn in a secure environment, At the end of the session the participant felt highly empowered, he connected the dots, bridged the gaps and felt supremely confident.

The President’s ( who is the participant in this unique initiative) brief already included a presentation to the MBA students of a prominent Business School. The profile of the speaker and the theme of the topic were circulated to the students well in advance so they came prepared with a volley of well thought out questions. 

The impact

The President felt very motivated to address the students as his pre lunch conversation with the Academician had broadened his horizons. He had learnt new concepts that could be successfully implemented in the work place and had "seen" many things from a new perspective. His conviction level was high. Since the students came well prepared for the presentation their questions were thought provoking and different. Some queries the President’s handled well while others they found difficult to address. However, these enquiries left them with insights which were a different form of learning all together.

When they knew the answers it bolstered their confidence. When they were challenged by questions they were unable to answer, they could identify areas of expertise they needed to build on.

The Presidents found this methodology so exciting that at the end of the session they wanted the programme to be run for everyone in the group.

It was decided to leverage this experience of “making the President’s learn” as they have a major role to play in key strategic areas like:

  • Talent development by Coaching
  • Leadership Development
  • Succession planning
  • Building a high performance culture
  • Building a learning organisation
  • Building an organisation which values inclusion
  • Running an organisation with external ways of corporate governance
  • Developing new businesses

Once these focus areas were identified they were addressed by the Presidents as the theme for the current year’s learning. Based on the feedback from the participants, academicians and the students these “Executive Conversations” will be further refined. The upside is the President enquiring when would their next training session be held? These changes are expected to percolate down the line to their immediate reportees. New practices, new concepts will be proudly shared as will be their own leadership thoughts once they have internalised these learnings.

This article has evolved from inputs of the former Head, Corporate HR of Organisation A. He was instrumental in designing and implementing the initiative named Executive Conversations.

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Topics: Learning & Development

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