"" Tim Coates: Add Magnesium

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Add Magnesium

Ignore for a moment that this video is clearly fake -- it’s amazing what a little magnesium can do.

I’ve been thinking about what makes breakthrough learning experiences after a conversation this week with one of my favorite professors at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Like the magnesium sulfate in the video, what ingredient (or ingredients) deliver the explosive combination that leave participants more capable of creating their desired future?

At 21inc, we spent copious amounts of time thinking about this and, to kill the recipe metaphor, continuously looking for and mixing different ingredients to bake a better leadership program. Earlier this year I hired a researcher to comb through our survey data and match it against “better practices.”

Some of the findings were obvious. For example, content mattered. This meant ensuring the topics we covered were relevant to the motivations and aspirations of our emerging leaders. How the content is taught mattered. We were very intentional about not only who engaged with the leaders, but how they engaged. This was true for action learning, peer to peer conversations and the traditional class room model. As we became aware of effective styles we worked with speakers and guests to make sure they understood what we were learning.

Having a safe space and a supportive peer network mattered. In all similar programs and experiences that I’ve either looked at or participated in, the peer network and relationship building is usually considered one of, if not the top takeaway.

Which brings me back to Harvard. Harvard’s educational decisions often spark national trends. Recent changes to undergrad curriculum, or the business school’s adoption of the case method are good examples.

During my chat, this professor said the PAE (the capstone project for the school's Masters program) and other executive education programs are undergoing seriously reflection. Harvard's professional schools in particular are experiencing pressure from students and alumni to better prepare them for the workforce. If there was any trend, he said, the schools are turning away from traditional lectures and cases to team based experiential or action learning.  

What interested and perplexed the professor was that despite much thought and study into program design, students, even executive education students (i.e older and more experienced), weren't relying on their student peers to help overcome professional (and sometimes personal) challenges. Relationships and peer networks don't capture their potential without these conversations. 

I remember the moment I realized that simply putting smart and driven people in a room won't create the powerful learning experience we desired. One of our selected leaders was putting together a forum on economic development in her region and asked if she could use the group and larger 21inc community to help with the project. She wasn’t asking for time in the schedule, she wasn’t asking for me to do anything, she was seeking permission to have a very specific and personal conversation with her peers.

Having designed the program, the realization hit hard. I had missed a very big piece of what would make this a successful leadership experience (fortunately, it was also early in our journey). 

Creating the safe space wasn’t enough. We needed to give permission and explicitly state what the group is for. How to use their new relationships and the bigger network. This conversation can be inspiring and liberating. It can come from the group itself and have lasting impacts on the experience, deepening relationships being built. But it has to be done.

The magnesium of good leadership programming is how participants engage with one another. We learned the lesson and never forgot it. In the hospitality suite after just the first session of our last program, the Emerging Leaders Summit, one of the leaders told me that he was surprised and happy with how safe he felt and what he was sharing with his peers. He had no idea how much we needed to learn to get him there.

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