A learning lab for leaders

What happens when you have an organisation that’s growing quickly and finds themselves under pressure to both sustain and extend their services as well as develop their leadership capability on the fly?

This is the dilemma faced by the leadership team in Child Bereavement UK (CBUK) and by many leadership teams in the world today.

Traditional expert leadership required leaders to provide answers and lead from the front so expert leadership development focuses on imparting sector knowledge, leadership theory, and developing skills in presenting and influencing others.

In the modern and emerging world, where many organisations are far more complex and too fast-changing for this type of leadership to be effective, the solution to leadership dilemmas lies in creating learning environments aimed at helping groups of leaders explore their challenges together and develop their own mindset, skillset and toolkit for their specific context.

So, in response to a request for developmental support, we created a leadership learning lab and the CBUK leaders showed up – in every sense!

In search of both individual and collective learning, they dedicated two days of their time, energy and enthusiasm to exploring how to evolve, in-flight, as leaders.

The key dilemmas that emerged:

  • How they stay centrally connected while maintaining local autonomy in an ever-changing context?
  • How to be agile in their decision-making within a hierarchy, whilst claiming their leadership agency wherever they sit in that structure – not being inhibited by the traditional norms of hierarchy and expertise?
  • How to move beyond being a group of individuals and ‘team’ (v.) when necessary so that they can collaborate and support each other, and by extension their clients, better?
  • How to prioritise care for themselves so that they can care for others, keeping a human focus both internally and externally?

We created a series of experiential learning opportunities, providing the team time to truly collaborate on these questions, with theoretical stimulus and provocative reflective space, from which they were able to:

  • Get to know each other better, appreciate the breadth and richness of their collective experience and diversity, and build their relationships of trust and respect.
  • Test and challenge both their thinking about and practice of leadership, and support each other through some of the discomfort of what came to light.
  • Consider practical ways for how they might work together in future to build on this learning.

Two days later, after multiple shared experiences and some candid conversations, they sat in a circle and, expressed how they’d found:

  • A true sense of being there for each other.
  • Some different ways of thinking about what leadership means for them, individually and as a team.
  • A commitment to some stretch in their own behaviours as leaders that they will take back and continue to experiment with in their day jobs.

Great results we’re sure you’ll agree. And, it’s also worth acknowledging the keen discomfort that they all felt at various points on the two-day journey!

Learning lab development is very different from training, which focusses primarily on the cognitive intake of theory & skills. Behavioural learning requires us, in addition, to confront ourselves: how we see the world, how we see ourselves and how others see us.

To do this quality of work requires a willingness to not only set aside the time but also bring the courage to engage in a fully supported but disruptive experience. One participant summed it up well:

‘Discomfort, challenge and support – a brilliant two days, thank you!’