Lessons that last

Financial services giant Sun Life shows how leaders can put classroom learning into practice, discovers Liz Mellon.

A chasm yawns between learning in the classroom and its practical application in the real world. However talented the teachers, and however clever the ideas, changing our behaviour to put the ideas into practice can sometimes be too challenging. The busyness of daily life and the demands of an exacting job combine to deprive us of the time or space for experimentation. All the careful planning, design and expense result in too little lasting change in leadership practices at work.

Sun Life has a good reputation for developing company executives. Colleen Hutchings, director in organizational health, joined the company less than three years ago. “I targeted Sun Life because they lead learning and development in our industry,” she says. “They have a reputation for how they work with clients, an outstanding level of technical expertise, and for hiring the best and brightest in sales. And, since I started work here, they haven’t let me down at all.”

Hutchings attended the Sun Life Advancing High Performance programme for directors. This is run by Jill Reiner, director of leadership development, and Joe Anderson, senior consultant in leadership development. The programme is a five-month-long development initiative, with a variety of stages and multiple touchpoints. Directors must cover the fundamentals of leadership in another internal programme before being accepted to Advancing High Performance – so the programme can live up to its name.

There is an upfront assessment of learning needs, and the programme components are designed to address these exactly. There is preparation work ahead of the classroom time, carried out with their managers, and there is also a well-structured follow-up, with each director individually tracked against learning outcomes. Learning and development professionals reading this might agree with Reiner’s view. “We have focused on good solid fundamentals, well executed, at a point where these leaders need to step up the high performance agenda,” she says. “And we have a great faculty which doesn’t let them off the learning hook. So should a participant consider his or her role as too ‘different’, they are posed a simple question: what are you going to do about it?

“The responsibility and ownership for their own development stay with them. This is an elegant design that is highly effective in delivering the learning outcomes we’re after.”

So what is the secret of Sun Life’s success? Apart from grounded and solid professionalism, there are four aspects that make this learning initiative stand apart.

1 Manage yourself, lead others

The first is one aspect of the pre-work. Participants are asked to complete a self-assessment questionnaire related to the programme’s learning content. This is where ownership of their development first kicks in, as it helps participants think deeply about how well they are doing as leaders. Leadership guru Dr Marshall Goldsmith recommends, and indeed participates in, a similar process (see page 34). In Goldsmith’s case, he has a list of questions that he has compiled, intended to keep his goals in mind. Every day, someone calls him and poses the questions to him, so that he has external validation – or the opposite – that he is on target to achieve his goals.

Participants on Advancing High Performance are asked similar questions about their leadership development goals. They also have to sense-check their own views by getting qualitative feedback from their manager and team members. Joe Lyman, director in operational risk management, attended the programme nine months ago – he appreciated the emphasis on pre-work. “I have attended a number of development programmes, but the support for me throughout has been excellent on this one,” he says. “I particularly like that you have to come with a plan. You have to sit down and think about where you are and prepare for the event to come. I found this productive and effective.” Hutchings concurs. “The preparation work really laid the foundation for how I needed to show up,” she says. “It got me ready to implant new ideas in my brain and it also laid bare where I needed to improve and develop.” The programme design matches the old adage ‘manage yourself, lead others’.

2 Social engineering (in a good way)

The second aspect is the emphasis on relationship-building during the face-to-face part of the programme. It’s only three days, but it’s intense. Participants are told to delegate to their teams and to have their managers cover their responsibilities so that they can immerse themselves in the learning experience. They are greeted by a variety of learning methods, including a capstone simulation. But it’s the constant social mixing that impresses the participants.

Chris Schulz, director and company security officer in corporate compliance, had previously only participated in external leadership courses. “Attending a programme inside Sun Life was new to me,” he says. “We worked in groups. We weren’t just sitting, but were up and interacting. And then the environment was changed again as we were moved into new groups. The main highlight for me was connecting to other parts of the business and understanding where they fit into Sun Life. We all have our unique challenges in how we develop goals and our team members.” Hutchings agrees: “The river running underneath it all was relationships and how they are built,” she says. “Senior leadership is about how you network and build relationships: working cross-divisionally is the key to success if you can figure it out. The programme was like Hogwarts-style magic, in the way we were moved around the room.” Lyman also found this valuable. “There were rotations all the time on the programme,” he recalls. “You have to put yourself out there and, as you learn, make mistakes in front of someone – a peer – who ideally you’d like to impress! Then, in the capstone simulation, we all had to rely on each other to achieve success. In all this process, I created a bond with eight to ten people, in a way that just wouldn’t happen during a 45-minute business meeting. I have a new relationship portfolio of directors – and I’m still reaching out to them today to talk about how we are leveraging the concepts we learned in the programme.” This brings to life the well-established quote made by Lew Platt, chief executive of Hewlett Packard from 1992-1999, lamenting HP’s lack of knowledge management: “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” While developing its directors, Sun Life has also helped them to understand its own business better, providing a solid foundation for enterprise-wide leadership.

3 Linking behaviour to outcomes

The third differentiator for Advancing High Performance is how specifically it’s tailored to the participants’ current and pressing development needs. Sun Life seems to have managed to hit the exact spot where its directors are ready to learn and know that they need to develop. They want these leaders to build on the foundation of their current performance and support them in doing so by using a variety of aids, such as a visual map to take away as a reminder of key content, and bullet points with ideas for implementing new practices. In this way, they are following John Kotter’s seminal advice on how to make change happen – they are giving each participant a direct link between behaviour and outcome, so it is crystal clear exactly how success can be achieved. Hutchings was impressed by the content. “The programme was dynamic and exciting, and it still makes me smile when I think of it,” she says. “Every day I use the tips and techniques – because I need them. I navigate hard conversations much better through the simple tip I learnt – think of everything someone says to you as a gift, and think ‘thank you’. It’s changed my whole perspective.” Schulz has learnt to plan ahead. “I really think about my audience, whoever I’ll be speaking to, and try to understand them better, to deliver messages in a way that motivates. Sometimes I change my tone of voice, or even sit quietly and stop driving the conversation. I catch myself – I think more about what and how I am saying something in the moment. The one thing I found about this programme is that they didn’t ask you to wipe away all your experience, as has happened to me before on other programmes. They built on where I came from and helped me to adapt from where I am.” Joe Lyman adds: “I learnt concepts and exercises that I can use every day – things I could take back to my team to improve engagement and performance, and show the value of the time I have spent on this.”

4 Keep the learning alive

The fourth and final aspect of the programme’s success lies in the follow-up. So very often, despite expending lots of energy, devices such as peer-coaching groups and learning reminders wither quickly after the excitement of the face-to-face session. Yet Sun Life has been successful in keeping the spirit of the programme alive. It has achieved this through pursuing multiple methods: learning partners, post-programme debrief with a direct manager, faculty audio files summarizing content, post-programme self-assessment, giving participants a visual map of the content to take back to work, and launching elective programmes to deepen specific skills. Sun Life can measure across-the-board performance enhancement, but can also identify the one or two areas where performance has not lifted as high. It then uses this information to make continuous improvements to the programme design. “The self-assessments also add tremendous value to the participant experience,” says Joe Anderson. “The before-and-after view into their personal leadership strengths, and the growth that’s occurred over time, can serve as a great tool to foster further development conversations with
their leaders.”

Sustaining performance improvement is the hardest aspect – not letting new skills fade. The evidence suggests real change. Hutchings explains how the programme helped her at a crossroads in her career. “I wanted to move laterally, away from my area of technical expertise, but I felt vulnerable,” she says. “The programme reassured me that I had the resilience and confidence to make the move in order to gain more breadth and depth. The experience has changed the way I look at my own leadership potential, and has shown me that the possibilities are endless. Sun Life is exceptional in the way it invests in talent.” Schulz appreciated the partnership with Duke Corporate Education. “I really enjoyed the programme, it was well set up and the timing was great,” he says. “It was short but well-paced, and I have nothing but praise for the programme. I think differently about things now – I analyse situations ahead of time and reflect on them afterwards to see what I can learn. And, on the practical side, my learning partner and I continue to share our many and daily challenges and how we address them.” It has also helped Lyman’s career. “I recently moved to a new role with a much larger, multi-site team,” he says. “I realize that the programme has helped me to be a better people leader. With over 13 years in the company, I know the answers to most questions. But I have learnt to coach rather than ‘tell’, so that I can help my team members to develop. Following the programme, I really debriefed with my leaders and they spoke with my reports to gather feedback. I think this played a big part in the opportunity for me to take on a new role.”

Learning for real life

There is no magic bullet to enhancing leadership performance. The fundamentals still apply and have to be implemented with rigorous attention to detail. The whole experience, from preparation through designed experimentation and on to sustained support, has to be planned for what it is – a development journey with memorable experiences closely linked to real life and its demands back at work. Solid, professional and grounded development, allied with an emphasis on continuous improvement to keep up with the needs of the evolving business: if you can put all that together, you achieve ‘Hogwarts-style’ magic.