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Bringing the People Side of Leadership to Life through Character Archetypes

Leaders deliver results through others. How leaders work with teams, peers, direct reports, and bosses is key to driving business outcomes. Business simulations that use characters to explore how leaders interact with others create powerful opportunities for actionable learning. Intentionally building characters into a business simulation experience helps leaders practice the various types of employee development interactions that they see and encounter in the real world.

What are character archetypes?

Character archetypes present the typical behaviors and mindsets of employees back on the job. Archetypes can reflect attributes of age, tenure, gender, expertise, personality, cultural differences, and/or geographic differences.

Some common character archetypes you may recognize are:

  • Eager and confident recent college graduate;
  • Tenured employee who is resistant to change;
  • Mid-career, high-performing individual who consistently delivers results;
  • Newly promoted individual who is struggling to gain confidence in a new role.

Why are character archetypes valuable for learning?

Character archetypes enable participants to draw parallels to real-life colleagues. In each leadership program, our participants say, “I know a Jane Doe” or “I was a Jane Doe early in my career.” These parallels create experiences that are relevant and realistic for learners as they work to manage a business and team within the context of the business simulation.

Across industries and organizations, leaders tend to make strong choices about managing their high-performing employees who have proven track records of success. But what should leaders do with those who are strong in the technical sphere yet demonstrate people skills so ineffective that project team members ask not to be staffed on their projects again? Or those who are great at building team morale and making projects fun but consistently overrun the project budget? In these more challenging situations, business simulations act as a practice ground to test various leadership techniques for engaging and developing different types of individuals.

What are examples of archetypes in action?

In over 20 years of designing and developing business simulations, Insight Experience has crafted a myriad of character archetypes. A few examples are highlighted below:

In one Developing New Leaders program, teams inherit a newly promoted district leader who struggles to deliver results, while seemingly working around the clock. Throughout the simulation, there are signs that this promotion was premature. During the final round of decision-making, teams need to determine next steps with this employee: suggest a transition back to their prior role, put them on a performance development plan, put them on an emerging leader plan, or do nothing. Subject Matter Experts recommend a transition back to their prior role, yet teams almost never select this option. This leads to riveting discussions about talent development, promotion planning, and the necessity of difficult conversations with direct reports.

In an Executing Strategy program, simulation teams who choose not to assign project leaders with noticeable skill gaps to a project or who do not spend significant time coaching them in skill development will experience what it’s like to see a project leader quit. Just like in real life, if a team member has been repeatedly overlooked, they begin to seek other opportunities. We recall a business simulation team who saw the departure of a project leader; afterwards, a participant exclaimed: “No wonder he quit. I didn’t even know his name!” These kinds of realizations help leaders understand the value in investing in all their people and making intentional staffing and development plans.

In one custom business simulation, teams are confronted with a leader who is described as “not fitting in.” Subject Matter Experts assisted us in carefully crafting this character, who is designed to represent the next-generation leader the firm needs as the business continues to scale and the organizational culture evolves. Simulation teams are confronted with decisions that are categorized as: fitting this leader into the current mold, learning from this leader’s “unconventional” ways, or transitioning this leader to a role better suited to them. Teams engage in heated discussions about what to do with this leader and how their perception of this leader may be influenced by their own experiences and perceptions of what makes a strong leader.

All of these experiences prepare leaders for similar experiences and situations back on the job. Insight Experience business simulations provide the opportunity for leaders to test diverse approaches in people leadership. Leaders see comparative decisions and results to highlight the trade-offs of making one difficult leadership decision over another. Character archetypes in a business simulation environment heighten the real-life parallels and afford leaders opportunities to practice the application of various employee development strategies, the recognition and development of talent, and engagement with different types of people.

For more on leading different types of people, check out: Delegation Dilemma: Can you really delegate to every type of player?

Krista Campbell is a Senior Associate Consultant at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.