Nupur Todi, Ed.M., Harvard University; Head Learning and Leadership Development, Providence India
In this section I will share insights from my experiences in converting the leadership development strategy to action by designing initiatives in partnership with multiple stakeholders. In my work with clients, I apply the “Appreciative Inquiry” framework—a strengths-based approach, first introduced to the business world by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in 1987. This framework focuses on what’s working rather than what’s not working. Using open dialogue, it helps organizations to create a shared vision for the future and a mission for operating in the present.
I was consulting a leading global technology product company to design a twelve-month journey for twenty-seven senior level talent in India, all belonging to different functions, including sales, engineering, research, finance, and HR. The organization’s purpose for this initiative was to build a “community” or platform through which this talent could reach beyond their siloed functions and leverage each other’s strengths. Thus building their networks and collaborating without the formal structure of a team. The larger goal was to allow the organization to tap more effectively into the market potential of India, while at the same time having a beneficial societal impact on the country. The initiative was an experiment, and I was ecstatic to serve as a partner in a test that would lay the groundwork for future leadership development work.
The four stages of carrying out the initiative using the appreciative inquiry framework can be referred to as the Four Ds: Discover, Dream, Design, and Deliver.
Step 1: Discover. The first step is to gather data from across a broad spectrum of stakeholders in order to identify current best practices, positive experiences, and uncovering strengths that enabled past successes. My team and I engaged in multiple conversations with various stakeholders, including HR and the core leadership team for the company. We spoke with both the participants in the program and their managers to discover the key strategic levers of the organization, the current business landscape, possible future opportunities and challenges, and gaps in their strategy for reaching their goals. Rather than holding structured interviews, we engaged in open dialogue and let curiosity direct the conversations, using questions like these: “Describe a time when the organization was at its peak performance. What conditions were present at these moments, and what organizational changes would allow more of these conditions to prevail? When you consider your values and aspirations, what do you feel most passionate about?” This strategy invited people to reflect on their work and sowed important seeds for the community of leaders that the company hoped to create.
Step 2: Dream. This stage involves envisioning future possibilities without the baggage of past or present conditions. It entails clearly articulating the purpose or vision of the initiative, and describing the desired outcomes in as detailed a manner as possible. In leadership development, this is a critical phase that helps to define the parameters of success for participants, programs, and organization alike.
We summarized the insights from the discovery phase and presented them to the organization’s core leadership and the participants in the program. We invited them to ‘describe their vision of success for this initiative,’ what will your new community of leaders create for the organization and for India?” Each individual described his or her dream through stories, images, and metaphors, and the room filled with hope, excitement, and the energy of creating something together. We helped to form the collective vision by guiding their dreams to align with the company’s expectations. The vision chartered was the community of leaders would serve as ambassadors, operating across businesses and regions and leveraging the power of their collective wisdom and skills to create positive change for the organization and the country as a whole.
Step 3: Design. The emphasis is on collaboratively identifying the steps to be taken to transition from the present state to achieve the vision created. It involves deciding and finalizing systems, devising processes, and clarifying the methodology you will use to implement your dream. When planning out the details of the initiative’s design, we kept the learners themselves in mind, as well as their various learning styles. Among other elements, we formed a design council with representatives from the organization’s leadership, HR, and the program’s participants; this council convened twice during the twelve-month journey to give feedback and discuss the learning tools that would best help the initiative succeed. We also strove to create learning sessions that would nurture the strengths of the group and bring out the potential of each individual, including (a) in-person experiential workshops that introduced new concepts and encouraged the participants to learn from each other; (b) social-innovation projects led by small groups that leveraged their collective power, technology, and skills; (c) group coaching to support these small teams; (d) virtual networking sessions with experts, practitioners, and entrepreneurs who could offer outside perspectives; and (e) individual coaching for self-development.
Step 4: Deliver. The goal of the final stage is to implement the agreed design with a continuous focus on learning and innovation. It also emphasizes on measuring impact. Many organizations neglect to measure the impact of their leadership development projects accurately, and as a result they end the year with heavy investments and no clear understanding of how the initiatives have helped their business. At regular intervals during the twelve-month journey, we made sure to request feedback from the design council in order to tweak the design for maximal impact. The outcome of this initiative were primarily measured in two aspects: (1) whether the social-innovation projects that the participants designed found sponsors; and (2) whether the participants had learned how to understand other functions within the company and built a community that could help them make an impact in the organization. Largely because we followed the “Appreciative Inquiry” approach, the participants and the organization overall hugely appreciated the program we designed. They applauded our understanding of their business’s specific context and our willingness to work with them in creating an innovative journey through which their dreams could come alive.
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