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Take a Time-out for Leadership Development

1/16/2013 --

Learning leadership on the job is great, but getting out of the day-to-day makes it ideal, says Ross professor.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Up-and-coming executives need space and time to learn leadership skills. They need experience to develop these skills and a place to try different things. While learning on the job from a mentor is great, getting out of the day-to-day grind is essential but difficult, says Professor Gretchen Spreitzer. That's why Ross Executive Education developed the Emerging Leaders Program, next offered March 18-22. Spreitzer — who brings to the program expertise on team leadership and getting buy-in for change — says taking five days to focus and reflect on leadership allows these upcoming executives to find their leadership style, experiment with new ideas, and learn from others. In this Q&A, Spreitzer talks about this process and provides insight into the Michigan Model of Leadership that guides the Emerging Leaders Program.

How do you teach people to lead, and why do you think it's something that can even be taught in a program?

Spreitzer: A lot of people ask if leadership is something you're born with or something that's developed. The truth is, it's a little bit of both. Everyone has certain inherent traits. As a business school, we focus on how to help leverage those traits to grow, learn, and develop leadership tools. We want participants to be away from their work for the week to help them develop what we call "mindful engagement," which was initially developed by Ross Professors Scott DeRue and Sue Ashford. We give them experiences that will help them grow, and when they leave, we want them to know how to seek out new experiences when they return to work so they can keep growing. Fifteen years ago, many companies had well-defined career paths for people, and they offered training and development along the way to help employees develop in prescribed ways. Now most organizations don't offer that kind of development, and most people wouldn't stay with the same organization for very long even if they did. So in the ELP program, we help people think about their goals and what they want to achieve as a leader. Second, we want them to think about the kinds of experiences they need to create, the kinds of things that make them stretch. They also need to know how to engage with others when they do that. Finally, we want them to learn from those experiences. Not everything you do is going to be an unqualified success. Figuring out how to learn from mishaps and mistakes is critical.

What backs up these teachings?

Spreitzer: When Scott DeRue and I became co-directors of the Ross Leadership Initiative, we looked at our faculty, the leadership research they were doing, and how that would together integrate into a comprehensive model of leadership. We synthesized the research into what we call the Michigan Model of Leadership. It's based on the competing values model, which is something Ross Professors Bob Quinn and Kim Cameron developed. It is grounded in four key values — empathy, integrity, courage, and drive. Leaders deal with the tension between these values all the time. In fact, people often view leadership as a series of tradeoffs between these competing values. But in today's complex world, you have to transcend boundaries and do some of all of these. We help participants become aware of and manage those competing tensions in their organization. For example, if you're taking risks and encouraging people to stretch in new ways, but not at the same time giving them the structure and support they need to stretch, then you just create chaos and anxiety.

In this program, students are introduced to the model at the start of the week, and then we introduce different concepts, frameworks, and exercises to bring it to life.

You mentioned experiences — giving emerging leaders a safe place to experiment and fail. How do you accomplish that?

Spreitzer: We don't just stand up there and teach academic theory, although that informs our activities. We create a lot of experiences where students can try out their new skills and get feedback so they're not doing it for the first time when they get back in the real world. My part of the program addresses navigating change and how to manage that process. I have a very sophisticated simulation where they work on developing and launching a change plan in teams. They diagnose a given situation, interview the key stakeholders, and create and implement their change plan. They get immediate feedback as they implement each step, and we talk about the reactions of key stakeholders in the organization. They get a chance to do all this where the stakes are low and they can learn from their mistakes. In this way, when they return to work, they've already had some experiences leading change.

Talk about some of the leadership research you've done and how it informs what you teach in this program.

Spreitzer: One of the big themes in the research I've done is embedded in my book, co-authored with Professor Bob Quinn, A Company of Leaders. In order to create effective, adaptable organizations, you need people that have a voice, that are empowered, proactive, and take initiative. Yes, you need a senior leadership team that develops the vision, but that team shouldn't direct how the vision is implemented. People in the organization should have a voice in the implementation process because they often have the best ideas about how to get there. If people have input into how that change happens, it creates much higher engagement. We know that about 70 percent of change initiatives in the workplace don't meet expectations. That's not because of poor ideas, but because organizations are notoriously bad at getting buy-in from stakeholders like employees. My work is about getting people motivated to be a part of that vision to make it a reality.

The program begins with a self-assessment. Why does this matter for an aspiring leader?

Spreitzer: First, finding out for themselves who they are and who they want to be is important. While we use the Michigan Model of Leadership as a framework, there is not only one way to be a leader. More importantly, they need to learn about how others see them. Often the way they see themselves is very different than the way people in their organizations see them. Sometimes it's a matter of overconfidence. They think they are a tremendous leader, and they get feedback telling them that they need to work on a number of things. That's very eye-opening. We also get the opposite — people who are very hard on themselves. They need to hear about the strengths other people see in them. That will lead them to the areas where they can make a contribution.

Once they have this new self-awareness, we help them with action planning — how they use what they have learned about themselves. Often people immediately focus on their shortcomings and seek to address them. That's important, but just as important is understanding the unique strengths you have and how you can leverage them. Overcoming weaknesses is what gets you to good or very good. But what gets you to great is being able to leverage your strengths. We help emerging leaders do both of those.

— Terry Kosdrosky



For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502, terrykos@umich.edu