Executive Development: Beyond Skills

August 19, 2019 Joe Britto

Reading time: about 2.5 minutes.

In this week’s blog I’d like to share part of a recent conversation I had with a HR professional. The topic was executive development and the question was this: why are executives are the hardest people to source professional development for?

The HR professional, let’s call her Hannah, made this point: “executives hold senior roles because they have a lot of experience. They’ve seen a lot and survived to tell the tale. In terms of skills, they know all the models, and all the techniques. So what is there to offer them?”

A Time & A Place

Over the course of our conversation Hannah, was trying to answer that question through the lens of skills-based training. That tends to be how we think about development questions. If someone needs or wants to improve, the natural thing to ask is, what skill do you want to develop, or what gap are you trying to fill?

Ask that question of independent contributors, first line managers, or even middle managers and they’d have an answer for you: coaching skills, better meetings, negotiation, presenting, maybe even a communication course.

What Hannah Knew

But asking that question of an executive seems odd. Mostly because we already know that through their careers executives have done all the courses, read the books, and know the techniques and models. But more than that, what Hannah also knew is that courses and models aren’t what executives need anyway.

Skills-based training is based on the notion that a model or technique can be used in a similar way in a narrow range of situations. That’s their value. There’s a time and place for skills-based work and it’s the reason they work for independent contributors, first line managers, and middle managers. But are they likely to work in a role that encounters very different situations? In a role that develops long-term strategy? In roles where there are many unknowns? Or to put it slightly differently, ask yourself this: do models, formulas, and techniques help executives grow the flexibility to navigate a fast-changing business landscape?

If you’re thinking “Not likely,” then you know where Hannah’s coming from.

The Mindset Alternative

All this matters because navigating and delivering in a shifting business environment is the concern of today’s executives. Recently the business landscape has been impacted by issues like digital transformation, political changes, the intergenerational workplace, gender roles, and economic shifts – and that’s to name a few. Addressing challenges like these require executive leaders to pivot quickly, adapt, and search out new ways of working. Beyond that, nurturing future leaders that are equally capable of operating in a shifting terrain ensures a leadership legacy, and the future growth of a business.

Of course qualities like flexibility of mind, and genuine curiosity, strategic and enterprise thinking, aren’t skills to learn – they’re ways of being – so skills training has a limited ability to help executives embody those behaviours. And if that sounds too Zen for you, then how about this: the way we think is determined by the view we take of the world.

And that means the only way we can develop the qualities I’ve just mentioned is by being willing to see the world differently.

Enter mindset. Because challenging the way we see the world means allowing space for other ways of thinking and others ways of working to inform our thinking. When executives embody a shift in mindset, they’re equipped to address today’s challenges and prepared for the unknown challenges coming down the pipeline. and that’s because along with that shift in mindset comes flexibility, and a willingness to ask the tough questions.

Growing Mindset

Rather than a skills-based approach, mindset work has proved useful in the executive development projects we’ve delivered. Mindset work is a two-stage process – flexible because we’re all unique. First we help to grow a shift in thinking, and then use that shift to address the real-world challenges the team or business is facing.

And if you’re wondering how we prove mindset work is effective, all we need do is look at that real-world challenge and ask ourselves if it was solved. The cut and dry answer to that question means mindset development doesn’t live in the hard-to-measure territory that skills-based training often inhabits.

 

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