Developing Emerging Leaders with Action Research and Action Learning

By on September 14, 2012
Developing Emerging Leaders

Action research and action learning are two related but distinctly different strategies for developing emerging leaders outside the confines of the traditional classroom. Companies who choose either of these approaches are looking for innovative, high-impact methodologies that will prepare their high potentials to tackle both current and future business challenges in the marketplace. Not only can these strategies yield a high return on invested time, money and effort, they can be significantly less expensive and more relevant to emerging leaders than other forms of leadership training and development. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of how this works. The executive team of Company X creates a list of current and upcoming challenges their business is or will be facing, and charges their emerging leadership team to do research on those challenges (action research) and to make recommendations on how to address them. If one of the recommendations shows particular promise, Company X may decide to take the additional step of asking their emerging leadership team to follow through and develop their recommendation (action learning).

How Does a Company Select Business Challenges for the Action Research/Action Learning Model?

Often these challenges emerge as the executive team does its annual strategic planning. They may be seen as the boulders that are blocking the way on the road to increased profitability, or the “pebbles in the shoes” of employees that dog them day in and day out, interfering with the smooth running of business processes. Sometimes the challenges are identified through a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis or a market survey. However the challenges are selected, the point is that the emerging leaders will be working on real marketplace issues their company is facing, which is the main value of doing action research/action learning.

What About the Structure of This Leadership Learning Model?

As far as structure is concerned, emerging leadership teams typically work both individually and as a cohort group to do research on the identified issues and to develop a plan of action. The team divides up the work to be done and assigns it to individuals and subgroups, who are responsible for reporting back to the cohort group and preparing their portion of the final product. The team prepares a presentation for their executive team reviewing their analysis and recommendations, and may also be charged with working on one of their recommendations, depending on the wishes of the executive team. The emerging leaders work on their project for approximately a quarter (3-4 months), and often work with both an outside facilitator and facilitators who emerge from within their cohort group. In some ways, the cohort group members operate as they would if they were part of an MBA program working on case studies – the difference here is, of course, the case is real. An outside facilitator can work with the executive team to tailor the program and provide materials. Depending on the culture of the company, an internal facilitator could also perform this role.

What Are the Chief Advantages of Using This Approach for Preparing Emerging Leaders?

  • Emerging leaders are usually highly challenged, motivated and inspired by being given the responsibility of working on an actual business challenge facing their company. They typically live up to the rigor of the assignment, responding positively to being seen as both competent and trustworthy by the executive team.
  • Companies often spend thousands – even millions – of dollars on leadership development programs whose chief value, according to the participant evaluations, is “having the opportunity to bond with other high potentials and get to know them better.” The action research/action learning model produces this result and so much more, as emerging leaders learn how to work with one another on real business issues in real time.

What Are Some of the Risks of Using This Approach for Preparing Emerging Leaders?

  • Executive teams who are averse to sharing vital company information outside the executive board room are generally not comfortable with this approach. Emerging leaders need real data to work with in the action research/action learning model, and only companies who trust their employees enough to provide them with bottom-line information and an up-to-date situation analysis will accept the risks involved.
  • Emerging leaders are frequently deflated and de-motivated when their executive team says, “Thanks for doing the research and preparing your report. We’ll take it from here.” Based on my experience with this approach, emerging leaders need to be allowed to follow through and develop at least one of their recommendations from start to finish. In other words, they need the opportunity to go beyond the action research phase and proceed to the action learning piece, as long as they have done a credible job of developing and presenting their recommendations in the first phase.

To learn more about how the Corporate Services team may assist you with using action research and action learning to develop emerging leaders, contact Kathie Chambers ( at 314-539-5309.

About Renee Huss

Renee has a rich background in both corporate training and post-graduate instruction at area universities. During the course of her career, Renee has trained thousands of managers and employees at Southwestern Bell Corporation’s Center for Professional Development and A.G. Edwards & Sons, Inc. At St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group - Corporate Services, Renee provides leadership and professional development training and consulting with special interest and expertise in change management, interpersonal skills, coaching/mentoring and negotiation skills.