Organizations today have to be agile. Change has become the new normal, and traditional learning strategies are no longer effective in helping leaders deal with turbulent times. To provide real, lasting leadership, they must adapt and respond to these external changes, even when there are unpredictable events or forces of nature in play. So companies are responding to these constant changes with a more hands-on approach to executive training — one that combines experiential learning with focused business facilitation.
Experiential learning isn’t all that new. On its own, however, this method is rarely sufficient to drive effective change in leaders. Participants may feel disconnected from the immediate challenges of the workplace and revert back to old habits or strategies.
According to Robert Miles’ January 2010 article in Harvard Business Review, “Accelerating Corporate Transformations (Don’t Lose Your Nerve!),” corporate transformation requires “getting organizations to execute their bold new ideas quickly,” and in many cases this requires a departure from the norm. The most valuable executive leadership training programs not only take people outside of their comfort zone but go a bit deeper — incorporating an emotional component and hands-on experience that translates directly back to the workplace.
For example, after conquering a physical and daunting task such as helping team members successfully cross high wires 25 feet in the air, even the largest business challenge can seem manageable. Despite the unpredictable environments in which they are operating, leaders from organizations of all sizes and across industries are finding that an integrated, adaptive approach to learning can help teams endorse change, apply new behaviors on the job and achieve strategic goals.
The following is a look at three companies, briefly exploring their specific challenges and the learning programs that helped them break new ground, launch a new strategy or expand into a new market. The methodologies they used combined experiential learning with highly focused business facilitation to accomplish the desired changes rapidly.
Legal Sea Foods Fishes for Leadership Guidance
Successful individuals and teams tend to repeat the behaviors that have worked for them in the past, even when the circumstances or goals have changed significantly.
Last February, Legal Sea Foods, which operates 30 restaurants across the country, prepared to open its first mega seafood restaurant on the historic Boston Harbor waterfront. Some would think this would be old hat for an experienced company that has grown over several decades from a small one-store operation to a major operator in the industry.
But the challenge in 2011 was different. The new restaurant concept was a complete departure from what Legal Sea Foods had done in the past. For one, the new restaurant was significantly larger — more than four times bigger — and more upscale than previous locations.
To quickly bring Legal Sea Foods’ top dozen executives up to speed to successfully launch the 24,000-square-foot facility, the company had them participate in an extensive adaptive leadership program — a two-day offsite in New Hampshire. The integrated learning program, which included exercises like high-rope challenges followed by structured group meetings, kept the team engaged and aligned throughout the launch process and reaffirmed the need for employees from various areas to be aware and informed of how each department operates.
Before the program, Legal Sea Foods had identified a few of its top concerns, and each exercise in the program, whether physical activities or dialogue, worked to address these issues. For example, communication throughout the organization needed improvement. So during learning exercises, the restaurant’s seating area’s leader was paired with its head chef, as they needed to become more collaborative. By the end of the two days, the team had clearly defined roles and come up with reachable goals to be carried out at the launch of the new restaurant.
“What my team accomplished in two days would have taken months otherwise,” said Roger Berkowitz, president of Legal Sea Foods. Legal Harborside Restaurant opened its doors in May with few surprises, exceeded initial profit forecasts and remained on budget.
In this case, the Legal Sea Foods executives learned about new strategies for a specific event — the launch of the new restaurant. But there are times when leaders are faced with even deeper challenges, like shifting from old modes of operating to new approaches of flexibility. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. This is magnified when a company seeks expansion into other markets.
Ridemakerz Toys with Growth Potential
Ridemakerz, a custom toy company that works with Disney/Pixar, Dodge, Ford, General Motors and NASCAR, faced this issue head on. The organization was growing dramatically, primarily distributing its toy cars — everything from mini-monster cars to Disney/Pixar’s Lightning McQueen cars — through a few specialty stores such as Disney outlets.
After a fast start, growth stalled, and executives were not sure why. Ridemakerz was progressing much slower toward its objective to double sales by rapidly penetrating other major retail outlets. To reach this ambitious goal, the whole organization needed to be aligned behind significant shifts, all in the midst of some unknowns like where it would end up and how much it would grow.
The Ridemakerz executive team of 10 people participated in a highly focused off-site retreat, which spanned a two-day period, where it engaged in outdoor team-building exercises and even cooked dinners together between intense facilitated sessions.
During this two-day process, the company was able to pinpoint weak areas that may have been preventing it from growing. It identified gaps in how the team was functioning and in the abilities of some team members. For instance, one member in particular was not pulling his or her weight, leading to a host of other problems. Once Ridemakerz identified this as one of its barriers, it was able to work together as a team to reassign work and develop a detailed action plan moving forward.
“This was a critical step to build and proactively transform our business for the next level,” said Larry Andreini, chief executive officer of Ridemakerz. As a result, the company has already penetrated one of the world’s largest retail outlets and is on track to grow by 50 percent this year, while also breaking into additional distribution chains.
Another specific challenge in the learning space is effecting change across multiple departments and ensuring it’s not just one business unit that’s benefiting from learning programs. When the business is large, this issue can become even more complex.
Grand Circle Travel’s Grand Challenge
Grand Circle Travel, a privately held tour operator of international vacations for older Americans with more than 2,000 employees based in more than 30 countries, experienced this challenge when shifting to a new marketing model. The company had historically depended on direct mail marketing to generate business, but the environment had changed, and loyal customers now expected more, such as highly personalized contact through Web, phone and mail.
Alan Lewis, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, recognized the issue extended well beyond a single team or department. To shift the organization’s focus from the old marketing model there needed to be more communication across department lines. Lewis brought together more than 40 executives in the company’s marketing, IT and operations departments who engaged in a number of facilitated off-site programs and a series of retreats.
Employees left the learning sessions equipped with specific short-term objectives and energized to move the company in a new direction. As a first step, the company recently launched a new highly interactive website and is working collaboratively on other deliverables that were mapped out with a clear-cut 90-day action plan.
People and organizations naturally resist change. For any program to be successful there must be a structured process that aligns people on common ground and appeals to them on a meaningful, more emotional level. It’s hard work and will not happen overnight, but does
facilitate change when the following are present:
• Engaged, authentic leadership.
• Commitment to developing people.
• Ability to learn from crises and mistakes.
• Clear, measurable 90-day plans.
Executive learning is no easy task, and sustaining change is even more complicated. There are countless adventure programs where learning is paired with physical activities, but what many of these fail to incorporate is the larger tie to specific business challenges. When done properly, the learning process can be life-changing and have great results, but only inasmuch as the company is able to tap into the participants’ emotions — their fears, strengths and weaknesses — and then link them directly to business challenges.
Andrew Snider is managing director of off-site training program provider Grand Circle Leadership, a division of Grand Circle Corp. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.