We live in a complex world today marred by information overload, full of paradoxes and contradictions. To be able to lead with clarity, order and purpose in these disruptive times, it is imperative for learning to go beyond conventional educational approaches. With the aim to address the skills gap among senior leaders and to decentralise and democratise education, John Kallelil, CEO founded XED in 2015 and since then, it has been a game changer, empowering leaders who are eager to drive change, influence and create a positive impact. With his mantra to revolutionise the way people learn, earn and lead the future, he has been leveraging technology to provide access to high-quality education to leaders from across the globe.
In an exclusive chat with People Matters, Kallelil reveals what it takes to lead in the VUCA world, why are there no quick fix solutions to toxic work environment, the skill set of a great leader vs a good leader, what are the programs to help new-age senior leaders navigate through tumultuous waters and the ultimate answer to phenomenas such as the great resignation and quiet quitting.
As organisations across the globe are focusing on digital and structural transformation, Kallelil also shares his insights on the silent killers that block systemic change required to make learning and development programs effective and what the age-old adage, ‘employees don’t leave organisations but managers’, really mean.
Excerpts from the interview:
As one of the pioneers in designing senior leadership learning programs, what are the radical shifts and trends you have come across in the L&D space in the post-Covid era in comparison to the pre-Covid era?
Until the pandemic, leaders were working with known threats; competition, disruption, digitisation, political and economic dynamics. The pandemic and the subsequent disruption was quite unprecedented and impacted executives and senior leaders globally. From suddenly managing supply chain disruptions, to adopting remote work and relying extensively on technology to keep the lights on, the events that shook the world also served as a wake-up call for many businesses.
This led to a realisation that there is value to collective wisdom and continuous learning. There is renewed focus on areas like leading with empathy and compassion, building organisational resilience, reinforcing values and purpose and leading during crises in today’s VUCA world. Long-term adaptability and people-focused leadership are the governing principles that will shape the future of work.
Fortunately, the L&D sector stepped up to the challenges presented by a disrupted world and created models that minimise friction and encourage flexibility. The classroom, as we know it, has been redesigned to suit a range of virtual learning options such as online learning, blended classrooms, live-online classes led by top academic experts, etc.
So the changes are three-fold: One in content and context, curricula have been redesigned to fit this new reality to include more relevant and broader themes. Secondly, there is a massive transformation in terms of digitisation, and in the tools and technology that are being leveraged to impart learning, and last but not the least, edtech platforms and players like XED have made it possible to democratise learning, offering world-class education to leaders as they learn from anywhere.
With the great resignation and more recently, quiet quitting taking centre stage, one thing that is usually said is: employees usually leave managers, not organisations. How can leaders avoid this pitfall that creates toxic culture in the organisation?
These trends are indicative of a larger shift in the employee mindset. As companies and leaders struggle to address these trends, many still don’t focus on the heart of the matter. Why are employees leaving or quitting quietly as it were? Many organisations have implemented quick-fixes such as bumping up pay or perks or bonuses instead of making real efforts to strengthen relational ties or employee engagement.
This has shifted the spotlight to organisational culture, policies, and ‘bad managers’. A large part of workplace dynamics is guided by emotion-driven decisions rather than rational and well thought-out actions. With great power comes great responsibility. The manager, especially mid-to-senior managers can make or break a company’s morale, motivation, and productivity.
If employees are not getting the growth and development they want at your organisation, they will seek it elsewhere. The importance of communication and transparency cannot be overstated, especially in the current hybrid, remote context.
Unfortunately, there are no tips or quick solutions to fix a toxic work environment. Rebuilding the environment requires a significant amount of work, starting from the top and extensive introspection and ownership. It is hard work but it can be done with the right tools, audits and coaching or mentoring.
What are some of the skills and practices that senior leaders should master to be good leaders to their team, as they build a culture of learning?
In our experience in the executive learning space, we have worked with leaders and executives from all manners of enterprise. Some of the core skills that stand out as we interact with leaders and managers include a high degree of self-awareness as leaders, strategic and critical thinking, effective communication, accountability, the ability to influence and agility.
Some of the best leaders have learning agility and they are able to course correct, knowing when to adapt, and how to use new and existing tools and empowering their teams to do the same. It is important that leaders make continuous learning a core organisational value and not something they can tick-off a box. From designing personalised learning plans to offering leading by example, encouraging knowledge sharing and inculcating learning in the hiring process, there are multiple ways to make learning and development a priority for your teams and leaders.
Additionally, the way learning happens in the workplace is also undergoing a sea change. There are now tailor-made programs from global universities and Ivy Leagues that identify and address the need gap, tailored for each organisation.
How can senior leadership learning programs help in understanding, and ultimately, addressing the skills gap?
The traditional ways of leading and managing no longer suffice in the post-pandemic era. Leaders need to navigate a strange new world where everything from rapid digitisation to intense competition, hybrid models of work to quiet quitting and moonlighting, employees present previously unseen challenges. There is great emphasis on emotional intelligence and some of the ‘softer’ skills such as critical thinking, power and influence, negotiation, leading from the front, change management, decision-making and executive presence.
Some of the new-age senior leadership learning programs such as Cornell’s ESenior Executive Leadership Program, Brown University’s postgraduate program in Innovation Leadership and Chicago Booth’s Executive Program in Finance Strategy dig deeper into the challenges of leading in the contemporary landscape with focus on operational and strategic skills from a global perspective. The waves of disruption and a rapidly evolving business model mean that leaders need to realign their approach and prepare for the future with relevant skills in digital leadership, strategic thinking and business transformation.
What are the silent killers that block systemic changes to take place in an organisation leading to unsuccessful senior leadership learning programs and training?
Senior leadership learning programs gain the most traction where there is buy-in at the top level. Before you sow the seeds, you need fertile soil and the right climate. If the system does not align with the key goals of training programs, then individuals may benefit personally from these initiatives but the organisation will fail.
Businesses often struggle with lack of real context, unclear priority on strategy and values, lack of cohesion across business, leaders and functions due to poor organisational design, poor leadership time and attention to resource issues and a hostile environment where employees fear speaking out about the real problems that plague them.
These barriers are the silent killers and they block the systemic change required to make learning and development programs effective.
Finally, what advice/approach do you suggest for leaders eager to upskill their leadership skills as they gear up for the new world of business?
Leadership is going to be radically different from how we perceive it. Business leaders will need to learn new approaches to support their team, and their organisational goals. Proactively identifying what is happening internally and externally and how it impacts your business can help anticipate the skills of the future. Ensure that the learning process is intuitive and exciting, and presents an opportunity to connect with high-net-worth individuals, top academic faculty, etc.
Leverage virtual classrooms, digital platforms, and more personalised and customised content that addresses your specific domain, organisational and personal challenges. Focus on employee development at all levels as you grow into the organisation. Understand the expectations from your superiors, teams as well as customers to learn the right traits and behaviours for a forward-thinking organisation. Finally, plan ahead and don’t wait for the wave of disruption to reach you before you act. The more proactively we seek learning and development, the better equipped we will be to face an increasingly uncertain future.
After an insightful conversation, we believe that John Kallelil is a man with a plan and delivering high-impact educational programs to individuals and organisations is what he thrives on. A disruptive leader, he is eager to change the learning and development landscape, with technology at the heart of his initiatives.