Magazine article People & Strategy

Fast-Cycling Self-Awareness to Develop Better Leaders

Magazine article People & Strategy

Fast-Cycling Self-Awareness to Develop Better Leaders

Article excerpt

The importance of application in executive learning is well-known, and there are many wonderful innovations today that marry classroom learning to action-oriented initiatives. But the importance of self-awareness and insight in executive development deserves more attention. Understanding oneself is a crucial development path to growing executives who can make decisions that will grow healthy businesses in the long and the short term. In fact, some research suggests that self-awareness may be the single most important characteristic a leader can develop (George, 2007). More can be done to find ways to create intense, fast-cycle learning experiences that produce real insight about how one's personality, beliefs, social needs and thinking skills interact to drive the conclusions individuals reach on complex issues.

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Books that explore the irrational side of decision making are popular today, given the recent string of debacles in financial markets. Long ago, Herbert Simon argued in his seminal book on management (Simon, 1947) that executives sometimes approach decision making in rational ways, and sometimes not. Complete rationality is not possible, he argued, because rationality requires complete knowledge and anticipation of consequences that will follow on each choice. Years later, psychologist Irving Janis peeled the onion further, demonstrating that decisions flow from complex relationships among a) personality factors (like high need for social approval or perpetual optimism), b) cognitive beliefs (like ideology and political views), and c) skill levels (Janis, 1989). But while we cannot expect fully rational outcomes from executives (who are human, after all), Janis argued we should expect a rational approach.

Today we might ask, how can we develop executives who will avoid defective, simplistic, irrational approaches to making decisions? If leaders were more self-aware, wouldn't they make better decisions? Isn't self-awareness and insight the right place to start?

Self-awareness Through Simulation

Computer-based management simulations are not typically considered among best practices in the development of C-suite executive potential. But a $17 billion, global manufacturer found real value in the process of prepping a dozen future, senior leaders for top-executive responsibility--by expecting more self-awareness and insight generated through a highly active learning event. The participants and their bosses learned about the ways they were and were not prepared to take on the heavy responsibilities of enterprise decision making.

The target participants included vice-presidents and senior vice presidents from four countries. They represented senior operational roles and functional roles including finance, marketing, and legal affairs. They selected these participants because of their potential for being promoted within the next couple of years to a C-Suite position, and each knew it.

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The Goal

The objective of the overall executive program was to prepare executives for top-leadership by:

1. Enhancing their ability to make strategic decisions to meet short-term and long-term goals in a complex and dynamic organization.

2. Developing and applying financial acumen to create value.

3. Building cross-functional and international teamwork and collaboration with their peers.

The simulation was part of a developmental experience embedded within a five-day executive education program. The first three days of the program focused on strategy, finance and influence skills. The simulation was on the fourth day of the program. It was designed to integrate the three previous day's work on strategy, finance and influence skills by applying new tools and frameworks in complex decisions on issues that interacted over time to produce results both anticipated and unanticipated. It was designed to produce self-awareness and insight into how they make decisions as members of a top-executive team. …

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