Executive Development Best Practices

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are really excited because we are talking about leadership development today with Dr. Lynne Thompson. The focus of today is Executive Development Best Practices.

Dr. Lynne Thompson the course director for the Industrial College of the Armed Forces Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University. He is in the business of training folks in the military to be better leaders. He brings extensive experience to the position having been an educational administrator in three colleges as well as having practical experience in leadership in organizational change.

Professor Thompson’s, which I’m sure they call him at times, primary research interest is in leadership development in terms of both one’s personal development and growth as facilitated by executive development programs. Dr. Thompson holds a Bachelor’s Degree in communication from The College of the Ozarks, a Master’s Degree in Sociology from Pepperdine, and a doctorate in Human and Organizational Learning from the George Washington University. Additionally, he is a retired US Air Force Colonel.

He had been in the business of training leaders to actually go out and be part of our defense systems with the Armed Forces Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University.

Lynne, welcome to the call.

Dr. Lynne Thompson: It’s great to be here, thank you.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: One of the things we love to know about all of the people who come on our show, Lynne, is who have been the most influential people and thinkers in your life and your career and how have they shaped your thinking about your work today?

Dr. Lynne Thompson: Interesting question. I think that there is really two groups of people. I have been very fortunate throughout my Air Force career to have a large number of excellent leaders that I have worked for and worked with. Unfortunately, I have also had a few folks that were, shall we say, painful. Rather than pointing out some names, the thing that I take away from them is really more the how-to-do-it stuff. The day-to-day, face-to-face almost a tactical level leadership.

The second group of folks kind of took that beginning perspective and greatly expanded it. They are the conceptual people that really showed me how complex leadership is and how it goes way beyond individual influence. Specifically, those individuals are Marshall Sashkin, Theo N. Jacobs, and Cynthia McCauley. Not only did they take my individual experiences and cast them into much more complex framework, but they showed me the importance of linking research with practice. So often our students want kind of an easy fix; tell me the answer.

Our approach is much more—what does the research say and then what plays out in the real world.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s great Lynne. We are really glad to have you being such a researcher and expert in leadership development, here on Leadership Development News. To help our listeners position that; tell us about what actually happens at the Industrial College of the Armed Services and what kind of students you work with today, and then what the mission is?

Dr. Lynne Thompson: We are a Department of Defense, Senior Level Professional Military Education Institution that helps our students prepare for strategic leadership positions in a national security environment. A key aspect of our mission is helping students understand the links between national security and the U.S. Industrial base as set in a global context.

Our students are all fairly senior and high performing. They are a mix of U.S. Government civilians, U.S. military officers, foreign military officers, as well as some managers from national and international corporations.

Dr. Relly Nadler: For all of these folks, I’d be interested to know what the mean age is. It sounds like the are coming in already with a lot of experience in leadership.

Dr. Lynne Thompson: Absolutely. The average age is probably 42. To get to our institution they pretty much have to have already been a very successful leader at a tactical level.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So why would they come? Do they get another degree or what do they get out of it.

Dr. Lynne Thompson: Yes, they end up with a Master’s Degree in National Resource Management, but that’s not really the primary motivation. The military officers also end up with some joint, professional military certification. But the real goal is to help them prepare for working in a strategic level environment. The challenges of the strategic level are more complex, are different, more challenging than what they have faced in the past. So we hope to expand their understanding, expand the way that they are thinking, expand their frames of reference, so that they are better able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Now this is an interesting word that you and I both have history with, this complexity and ambiguity. I don’t want to jump ahead, but there is a whole language set like VUCA, that contains two of those words that maybe you want to set the stage with to help our listeners understand the difference.

Dr. Lynne Thompson: A term that we use quite often is VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It’s an acronym that describes the nature of the external environment. When you combine those four factors with the types of decisions that strategic leaders need to make, you begin to understand the challenges that are unique to that level of an individual.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: We were talking about the program that you are particularly associated with regarding our national defense, and you were going to talk a little bit about how this program operates and what it does for the students that go through it.

Dr. Lynne Thompson: Okay. Our program has about 310 students annually. They are pulled out of their regular full-time job and so this program becomes a full-time commitment for 10 months and as I mentioned earlier, they walk away with a Master’s Degree. But the program itself consists of a mix of core courses, multiple distinguished speakers, as well as individual choices in terms of electives and research.

Our core curriculum has multiple courses going on at the same time. For example, students will be taking national security strategy, strategic leadership, military strategy and logistics, economics; all at the same time. So what that does is even if the same issues are being discussed, they are being discussed from very different perspectives which in turn expands our student’s frames of reference and perspective.

In the Spring, our students also do courses in government acquisition, an in-depth study of international regions and a field study of U.S. Industry in a global context.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Now Lynne, as you are speaking, I can’t help but think of the key skills and competencies that are part and parcel of this program that leaders need. I just want to check in with you on a couple of these things. One of the things I’m hearing is that you teach people how to make sense of external information in their environment and how it might impact on an organization. Is that fairly accurate?

Dr. Lynn Thompson: Yes.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Also, how to lead and manage some kind of a change program and then to build relationships and rapport with people and exercise influence in an environment that may be much different than one they are used to coming from.

Dr. Lynn Thompson: Exactly, and building trust. I mean there is also one’s personal, moral development; where are they in terms of their own ethics and how does that play out not only in terms of their potential future, but in terms of the organizational context.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Maybe what you can do is tell us a little bit about the distinction between education and training, especially for people in the field, that would be interesting to know.

Dr. Lynn Thompson: We like to make a distinction between education and training even though it’s totally impossible to divorce the two. So if you have a venn diagram, they overlap. But training to us is really focused on skill development in preparation for known job competencies.

For example, if I’m going to start a job where negotiation is important, I may go take a class on how to be a negotiator. Education on the other hand is preparation for dealing with the unknown. In other words, at the end of the process, we want our students to see the world differently and think differently than when they came in.

So certainly, there are some aspects of skill development, but the bigger picture is helping them to think strategically, think creatively, improve their critical thinking, and use multiple frames of reference rather than just improve specific skills.

The big difference; job competencies are excellent for the here and now. But over time, job competency requirements in an environment change. So someone has to be looking out for what is changing and what are the new job competencies that are required, and what are the ones that are no longer at the top of the list.

To do that ladder piece requires education.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I think it’s a really important distinction, not only because it’s a practical distinction, but because people need to understand that you learn something and that prepares you to apply it. That’s the education part. The training and skill development part is where you practice it and you hone it and you get to experience it, and in the language of the military, you do an after action review on it so that you really know it and feel it before you go try it.

For me it’s really important and I can hear and feel the distinctions. Can you Relly?

Dr. Relly Nadler: Yes, that’s why I really liked it. I think the education is deeper, and then the people can retrieve it easier with the training. It sounds like when we get more into the VUCA, it’s really around being prepared because you don’t know which skills you need to pull out.

Let me ask you a little bit about one of the things that I know you had done was a big research benchmarking study on developing leaders. I think this is really important for us on Leadership Development News. We have a lot of people in leadership programs. Tell us about the study and then why the study, and what the study entailed and we can then talk about some of the key findings of it.

Dr. Lynne Thompson: In the 2005-2006 timeframe, we wanted to do a benchmarking study to compare what we were doing in our leadership development program with what other executive development programs; how they are designed what they are attempting to do.

The goal for us was seeing that there were ways that we could improve. So what we did over the period of those two years is that we interviewed about 35 organizations. They were a variety of organizations. Some other government agencies, university MBA programs, university public administration programs, some corporate providers who provide executive development as part of their business model, and some corporations that do it in house.

We compared all of those approaches and drew out some conclusions. I would be glad to share some of those with you.

Three outcome themes kind of emerged as we looked at all of these programs.

Dr. Relly Nadler:  So these are going to be as you were thinking, the three things that came from this benchmark study with 35 organizations and what’s the best we know about how to develop leaders?

Dr. Lynne Thompson: There are a couple of things. One is in terms of the themes that we identified which are just broad themes. Another was idea components of what we thought the idea program would be. Another aspect was individual assessment. I’m going to back up a sec. It’s a 2006-2007 timeframe.

In terms of desired program outcomes, the three things that emerged were every program wanted their students to gain insight into personal strengths and weaknesses. They had some development of core leadership competencies for whatever they thought was important in their environment.

The other piece of it was that they wanted to ensure core functional competencies, kind of like business acumen. Because there is different business competencies for public administration than there are from MBA’s.

In terms of components of the idea program, we thought it should have strategic environment focus. In other words, building and maintaining competitive advantage both domestically and globally. How do you translate the strategic environment to something practical and implementable in terms of your business model or organization?

Approach to strengthening strategic leadership competencies, leading change, dealing with organizational culture, shaping it, emotional intelligence and coaching skills, fostering collaboration and teamwork, negotiation, actual learning projects based on real challenges, communication and building trust, business acumen, and translating strategy into action. The final piece is ethics.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So those components would what would really be set up as the key curriculum topic that people would cover.

Dr. Lynne Thompson: Exactly. Then the other piece of this was every program that we investigated had some sort of assessment instrument. Whether the program was one week or one year, everybody did something in assessment. But what they did with that, varied greatly. In some cases, the students would take an assessment, they would turn it in and they’d get back written feedback and that was it.

To us, the ideal situation was one-on-one feedback and elements of the assessment program integrated into the curriculum so students could go in depth into what they were learning about in terms of their own self-assessment.

Join us for the complete interview, above.


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