Corporate Education, Design Strategy, Design Thinking, Education, Technology

Training Leaders: Rewiring Old Habits

We’re excited to bring in new perspectives from friends of Modernist who are joining our conversation about what adult learners need to succeed in the current professional—and personal—landscape.

Suzi Sosa is the ambitious and optimistic CEO and Co-Founder of Verb, a learning and development platform that combines mentorship with leadership skills development and peer learning to focus on “whole person development for the whole team.” Suzi describes herself as a “serial social entrepreneur who is passionate about solving societal challenges with scalable solutions.” Prior to founding Verb, Suzi co-created the Social Entrepreneurship Program at UT Austin. When thinking about the Future of Education—new ways of combining employment with evolving models of education—we immediately thought of Suzi’s work.

Read about Suzi’s approach to leadership as a way of being—and watch the full roundtable discussion for a broader look at new possibilities for adult education.

In Her Own Words:

In Modernist Studio’s roundtable on the Future of Education, I spoke about the importance of soft skills in our personal and professional lives. Through my work at Verb, I’ve found that one of the most significant determinants of the wealth and impact a person has in their professional lifetime is their leadership capability. Those who can lead effectively have both much greater earning potential, and much greater influence in the world.

Unfortunately, most people never receive formal leadership training at school or at work. For students, leadership training is almost always embedded into extracurricular activities, not formal coursework. For adults in the workplace who receive ongoing professional development, training most often focuses on deepening their knowledge of industry expertise, not soft skills.

Leadership Training Needs to Evolve

Through our work at Verb, we’ve identified three opportunities to improve leadership training:

  • We must upgrade leadership content
  • We should focus on new audiences
  • We should teach leadership differently
Upgrading Leadership Content: Being vs. Doing

When most people think about what it takes to be a great leader, the first things that come to mind are skills like prioritization, delegation, negotiation, communication. These are necessary tactical abilities, but what unlocks potential and creates transformation in the world isn’t skills. It’s ways of being. Great leaders have mastery over powerful ways of being, like being calm, being open, being intuitive, being inclusive, being curious, being collaborative, being challenging, and being wholehearted.

When I ask people to tell me a story of a great leader who impacted them and how they did it, they never say, “She was a ruthless prioritizer.” Instead, they say, “She saw something in me and believed in me in a way that no one else did.” Or, “She was open minded and listened to me in a way no one had ever done before.” In the heat of a crisis, great leaders are known for being calm, clear, and decisive. They are the ones who find a way out when others are lost or in despair. These capabilities are about ways of being, not about skills, and yet most leadership training has historically focused on training “leadership skills,” not “leaderly ways of being.”

It’s likely that leadership training has traditionally focused on skills because they seem so much more tangible and fit more comfortably into our Western notions of what “education” and training should be about. With skills there’s a framework, a rubric or a worksheet on which the teacher can rely. When it comes to teaching ways of being, this work has historically been left to religion, spirituality, or psychotherapy. Where can you go to learn to be more open-minded? More curious? More inclusive? What about learning to be more flexible and patient?

People today are seeking this kind of personal evolution—and they find it in programs and courses for personal development and transformation. They learn how to manage their thoughts and feelings to create positive and productive ways of being vs. being unconsciously driven by whatever chatter is dominating their mind. They learn how to utilize breath work to detach from the grips of intense emotions, creating space for new ways of being like calm and openness. They learn how to tap into mindfulness to discover new levels of presence and listening. Unfortunately, too little of this content has made its way into leadership development programs where it can be combined with the arsenal of skills to create someone with mastery over both the doing and being of great leadership.

Expanding Audiences: Not Just Those at the Top

Historically, in the professional world, the word “leader” was understood to mean manager, or someone who supervises others. It’s time to change that definition. To be a leader is to take responsibility—for yourself and for others—regardless of your position or rank. Leaders make a difference in the world around them. A leader stoops down to pick up a piece of trash and throw it away. A leader admits and takes action when they make a mistake. A leader reaches out to check in on a colleague who was crying at work.

Being a leader is a mindset combined with action, and it can be practiced by anyone.

In the workplace, millennial employees expect to be developed as leaders from the get-go, whether they manage anyone or not. According to Deloitte’s Millennial Survey, millennials “…are questioning whether they have the capabilities to compete in Industry 4.0, and they are increasingly looking to their employers to give them the skills they need to succeed. While technical skills are always necessary, respondents are especially interested in building interpersonal skills, confidence and ethical behavior—all of which they consider essential for a business to be successful.”

Companies and organizations greatly benefit from expanding their definition of “leader” beyond those who are managers or who are at the top of the organization and by expanding the audience for leadership training, too. By investing in leadership development across an organization—for all employees—companies can build a culture of leadership that will enhance individual performance, employee and customer retention, and overall business results. According to the Deloitte 2018 Millennial Survey, “…73% of [millennials] who plan to stay with their employers more than five years say their organizations are strong providers of education and training.”

Training Leaders: Rewiring Old Habits

The third evolution that is needed in leadership development is how the training takes place. Historically leadership development has happened in one of two environments: ad hoc on the fly training with a nearby manager or mentor, or completely away from the work environment at a course, workshop, or coaching session. Neither of these approaches produces lasting results.

So, how do we go about training leaders in a way that will stick? First, we must acknowledge that becoming a great leader is not about mastery over a set of knowledge. To develop leadership capability relies on practice—of both the skills and ways of being that make great leaders.

Think about learning to ride a bike. Imagine you start with reading a book on how to ride the bike. You will certainly learn some useful things, like where the brakes are, how to shift gears, or how to pedal efficiently. But you won’t really know how to ride a bike until you get on it, and you fall off a few times. When you first sit on the bike, it’s incredibly disorienting and what sounded straightforward in the book—pedaling, steering, keeping it all upright, turning—is suddenly very complicated and potentially overwhelming. It’s not intuitive at all. It takes a long time to discover, through practice, what it means to successfully ride the bike. And after lots and lots and lots of practice, you may reach a stage of mastery where you can pedal without holding the handlebars or you can navigate the rough terrain of a mountain path.

The same goes for leadership development. What one can learn in a lecture or a classroom is as limiting as the book description of riding the bike. It’s not until you attempt to utilize your new skills or ways of being that you discover it’s not as easy as it sounded. And there are likely to be many failures, especially as you start to practice the new ways of being of leadership.

The first step to designing more effective leadership training is to recognize that great leaders are the product of great habits. This applies both to the skills and to the ways of being of leadership. To transform into a great leader is to create a life full of new habits—from dawn until dusk, at work and at home. As we know from thought leaders, habits are cemented day after day as an ongoing practice that never really ends. It is radically different from the model of education we used in technical training at university—it’s much more akin to working out and maintaining fitness than it is to learning algebra.

For leadership training to be effective, it must be designed in a way that is ongoing over long periods of time. It must include multiple modes of training—individual discovery and reflection, group discussions and experiential exercises, feedback and assessments, and coaching. It must have safe spaces to try new things, to fail, and to admit where one is stuck.

Through more effective leadership development, we have an opportunity to impact the wealth and wellbeing of millions of individuals, while transforming our companies, organizations, and society. There is no doubt that we need more and better leadership at all levels. To make that possible, we must expand our definition of who is a leader, and we must create new practice-based training that builds leadership skills alongside the leaderly ways of being that make a difference.

The Modernist team finds continual inspiration in imagining how to use design and technology that truly have a positive impact on people’s lives. As we sketch out new possibilities we also turn to leaders across industries that are showing us ways to evolve old models with innovative startups, products, and services.

Watch our full roundtable discussion with Suzi and other leaders in education.