Pursuing Executive Development? Forget The Retreat

Executive retreats are associated with getting away, reflecting on areas for personal growth, gaining perspective, and learning. While they often look more like a drawn-out meeting with a list of decisions that need to be made, even in the best of cases, they are a far cry from what is needed to truly develop and grow leaders. The reality, my four decades of research and executive education has taught me, is that executive growth requires far more than a weekend retreat; it requires building a developmental infrastructure into the flow of work.

In the early 1940s, James V. Clark, Elton Mayo, and Fritz Rothesburger redefined what we know about how humans change and produced the most well-known studies on learning and leading change in the workplace, including the Hawthorne Studies. Their findings quickly made a few nascent programs very effective—Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance—and demonstrated that significant learning and change require five criteria to be met: frequency, intensity, duration, a resource on the path, and a whole person focus.

“Executives who spend time in recurring development change how they work and produce better financial returns.”

The team determined that the requirement for creating lasting results is weekly attention to the new change or learning (e.g. a new decision-making process) at an intensity of approximately 10 percent of working hours (four hours a week) sustained for the duration of three to eight years. The duration depends on how deeply ingrained the habit is and how difficult it is to change.

The fourth requirement is to have a person who had been along the path already supporting the change—a guide who could speak from experience and serve as a resource, at the individual or organization level. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they came to call them sponsors. In Western Electric, they were called mentors. At Proctor & Gamble, who hired James V Clark to change its course, they were called resources. Whatever their title, these people put the responsibility on the person working to change.

The fifth criteria is that any change initiative has to be whole person focused. They spoke of skill, attitude and motivation. It was not enough to have skill training in what to do differently. Nor was it helpful to have interventions to work on the emotions and introspection. Plus, motivation has to be intrinsic and not stimulated from outside. There had to be internal value to the person learning.

So how do you implement these five criteria in the workplace to support meaningful leadership growth? Start by creating a developmental infrastructure that has half- to whole-day meetings every four to six weeks focused on learning and development. The executives we work with report that it makes all the other time more productive and effective, because they are changing how they work and shedding practices that are distracting and lead to conflict. It seems strange, but real change comes from doing the opposite of “best practices” for executive development—i.e. do it once and hope it sticks. Executives who spend time in recurring development (with no agenda to cover or decisions to make immediately) change how they work and produce better financial returns.

As the above-mentioned team found, the subject matter used for the learning must be based on real business activity as they work on the new practices. Key to achieving new ways to work is meeting the frequency, intensity, duration, resourcing and whole person criteria, which change how work is done and produces enlightened disruption with more meaningful results for people and better financial outcomes for the business.

Carol Sanford
Carol Sanford is the author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes (Nicholas Brealey; October 2017). For 40 years, she has worked with leaders of successful companies, such as Google, DuPont, Intel, P&G, and Seventh Generation, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Carol is currently Executive in Residence and Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at Babson College.

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