In 2017, we set out to deconstruct what we believe are the most effective ways to achieve meaningful change. To that end, we have presented series focused on Collective Creativity and The Power of Immersive Experience. Below is our fourth installment in our final series, “Learning in a Modern Age,” in which we shift our attention to learning and development.

Collective Next’s leadership and development programs embrace a model of twenty-first century leadership development that maximizes the potential of self-directed learning. Leadership skills develop and thrive most effectively under conditions of autonomy, the pursuit of mastery and a well-defined purpose. Collective Next-ers Kris Henry and Mason Smith are here to discuss the challenges and benefits of approaching leadership development in these ways.

Marsha Dunn: Several of our clients have adopted our Leadership and Development Laboratory model in their organizations. What’s the high-level structure of these programs?

Kris Henry: Our core program, the Leadership and Development Laboratory, is designed to run for about six months. Participants self-nominate, and selection is driven primarily by the desire to reflect the diversity within an organization. We avoid labels like “high potential” or “emerging leader,” and focus on an individual’s aspirations and desire to participate.

The program begins by gathering the 40-person cohort for a two-day workshop. The full group reconvenes in person at the mid-point and conclusion of the program. In between, the participants are organized into small co-located teams working independently towards specific deliverables.

Mason Smith: The final deliverablesa TED-style talk or a master classare presented to senior leadership at a culminating one-day Leadership Summit. On the way to creating these deliverables, participants are guided through a three-step process of researching, reflecting, and refining their ideas on a specific aspect of leadership. Each team is assigned a coach from our team to work with them, but they are in the driver’s seat. It is participant-led, not instructor-led. Having a high-stakes deliverable at the end inspires ownership, depth, and quality of thinking.

Kris: With the deliverables set up as clear goal posts, you can allow participants freedom along the way to shape their own learning experience. We encourage them to pursue the content they are most passionate about, to form their own opinions, and to learn from one another.

Mason: That’s right. Lev Vygotsky’s model of the Zone of Proximal Development asserts that the role of the instructor is to create “scaffolding” for learners to move from their comfort zone into their development zone. Our job is to provide scaffolding in the form of high-level learning objectives, check-in points, guidelines for final deliverables, and a safe space for experimentation. Then, it’s up to the participants to identify their own development needs—and to deliver.

Marsha: How does this approach form leaders best suited to run twenty-first century organizations?

Mason: MIT’s Vice President of Open Learning, Sanjay Sarma argues that the current employee must dedicate two to three hours a week to learning new skills just to keep up with his or her job. This magnitude of change requires leaders who can handle ambiguity, define their own learning agenda, proactively scan the world, and incorporate new ideas into their personal practices. The ability to reflect, to ask the right questions, and to put the information you glean into the context of organizational and business needs is at the heart of a learning organization. A defining characteristic of our Leadership Learning and Development Laboratories is the focus on self-determination rather than predetermined content.

Marsha: What is the initial response from participants when faced with the self-directed nature of the program, including the ambiguities they have to navigate?

Kris: When participants arrive at the program kick-off they are all dressed up and ready to “perform the role of leader.” They expect to sit in a classroom and be given giant binders containing all the Important Things. When we then present our self-directed program model, you see their genuine excitement. This is quickly followed by trepidation as they grasp the fact that they will be pushed outside of their comfort zone. It’s more interesting for them, and more daunting, to learn they’ll be developing independent points of view on their topic areas, asking each other for help, giving and receiving feedback, and presenting their work to senior leadership.

Marsha: And how do you support them in overcoming this trepidation?

Kris: You create a safe space and then introduce a “trial by fire approach.” Participants get used to being in—and supporting others through—challenging and potentially awkward situations. We do things like asking participants to present without enough time to fully prepare, or to work in teams with people they just met, or to develop a compelling point of view on brand new content in a limited period of time, etc. This approach creates the space for leaders to not feel like they have to immediately be always perfect. We demystify the process of trying out new things and refining through iteration.

Mason: We are building leadership skills without explicitly saying, “If you do X it will lead to Y capability.”

Kris: I always think of Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel to “sand the floor,” “wax on, wax off,” “paint the fence.” The Kid doesn’t know until the end how all of these experiences will come together to create mastery.

Mason: I am not sure what I can add to such an epic metaphor!

Marsha: Fair enough!  Can you both speak to the element of collaboration in the program?

Mason: The program is designed to create a sense of connection to others in the cohort, to more senior leaders, and to the larger organization and its mission. Within this cohort, the team-based nature of the work fosters strong relationships. Participants are given opportunities to interact with and present to senior leaders, which helps them expand their network and begin to see themselves as players in a broader organization with collective goals, rather than as associates in specific business units.

Marsha: The deliverables are a crucial ingredient in all of this.

Kris: I often work with the team tasked with delivering a “master class” to senior leadership. They develop the content for the presentation and lab-style activity based on their own research. We require them to develop a point of view on the material (no book reports!). Presentation skills and gaining confidence in asserting opinions and expertise are two of the things we often work on the most.

Marsha: How do you work on these?

Kris: First, we focus on crafting a message that is interesting. I push them to answer the question, “Why should people care?” I give pep talks around the idea of owning the knowledge that they “know they know.” We work on speaking with authority and eliminating qualifiers.

Second, we talk about delivery and about how people often respond best to a conversational, seemingly improvisational style. We start by creating a fully scripted presentation. They distill this down to notecards, then to an outline. Then, they eliminate all notes to arrive at an authentic—but fully prepared—delivery style.

Mason: When I work with the teams assigned to develop TED-style talks, I often focus on the skill of the critique—giving and receiving meaningful feedback. We adopt a mindset of “this is good, now how can I push it further?” This approach keeps you digging deeper. The goal is to shape leaders who proactively reach out to get feedback to make their ideas better.

Kris: Because presenting to senior leaders really puts you on the hook, participants know they have to fully own their deliverables. But they also learn that you can own something without going it alone. For example, one woman who stumbled in formal presentation mode, paired with another participant whose delivery style was more informal. At the summit, they perfectly complemented each other and helped one another deliver a great presentation. They learn that good leadership isn’t always about being the shining star.

Marsha: So after running a number of these self-directed programs, what have emerged for you as the most essential ingredients for their success?

Mason: It is essential to put participants on the hook for a deliverable that is a reach and to provide the scaffolding necessary to help them reach beyond their comfort zone safely. When this is in place, you can initiate the process of pushing them to push themselves.

Kris: Yes, and keep in mind: just as important as the learning that takes place in our program is the work we do with organizations to ready them to embrace the growth, and the new perspective that the leaders have gained when they return from a program like this. This holistic approach pays off every time. We are always amazed by how much participants embrace the opportunity to own their development and push themselves and their organizations forward.