Leadership development programs contain multiple learning methods, but none impact growth and development to the same degree as experiential learning. When leaders directly address their most common challenges by actually making the tough decisions in real time and reflecting upon the results, they begin to forge behaviors and a long-lasting leadership skills at rapid rates.
That’s not to say experiential learning is easy — far from it. Experiential learning isn’t simply going through the motions, nor is it leaders reflecting on their decisions in a silo by themselves. Rather, it is conscious decision making in scenarios tied to business objectives, coupled with active review and discussion of results. A program integrating an experiential learning style correctly is hugely beneficial for organizations seeking a quick ramp-up of leadership capabilities to meet their objectives.
For organizations interested in the potential of experiential learning, these are a few reasons why experiential learning delivers impact.
Emphasizes Experience and Reflection to Meet Objectives
Successful experiential learning involves experiences, yes, but the process doesn’t end when the experience does.
Experiential learning programs thrust leaders into scenarios that test their limits, often presenting them with challenges that might be commonplace in their normal work environment, but are nevertheless difficult to navigate. A group of leaders at one organization is often tasked to address the same challenging scenario simultaneously, so they can later share their insights and explain why they made a certain decision in addition to the results.
The reflection aspect of experiential learning is as essential as the actual experience in a business simulation. Reflection in this setting is often a group exercise; leaders engage their peers to collectively reflect and learn different perspectives. This group discussion is especially valuable when teams disagree about which paths to pursue in the simulation. This leads to engaging and interesting conversations — an environment conducive to rapid learning. By considering different approaches to the same problem, leaders converge on better solutions tied to their business objectives.
Quickly Finds Balance Between “Directive” and “Empowering” Styles
While personal leadership styles are cultivated and will, in part, reflect the personality of the leader, experiential learning teaches a fundamental lesson — a leadership approach or style can’t be strictly determined by what’s most comfortable.
Leadership approaches land on a spectrum between “directive” (telling someone what to do) and “empowering” (giving someone the tools to make their own decisions). Leaders often default to either a more micro-managing or laissez-faire style, but the truth is each side of the spectrum is more (or less) useful based on the circumstance, not the leader.
Experiential learning offers real-time insight as to why this is the case. For instance, leaders attempting to onboard a new employee will find it challenging if they default to the “empowering” side of the spectrum when the new person requires a more “directive” style as they learn the ropes. By contrast, a seasoned software developer might just need a nudge in the right direction for a project, in which case a “directive” style might be suffocating.
By experimenting with both sides of the spectrum, leaders leverage experiential learning to quickly find what does and doesn’t work in different scenarios.
Reframes Challenges in New Ways
Metaphors are highly effective tools in leadership development, and experiential learning brings out the full power of metaphorical learning.
As part of an Insight Experience learning simulation for a construction firm, an analogy was drawn to a skin care manufacturing company. Though skin care manufacturing and construction appear remote, they are strikingly similar in their approach to project management. The analogy allowed leaders in the firm to rethink their current challenges and recurring roadblocks, likening hold-ups with sub-contractors to push back from regulators in the skin care industry.
By reframing the challenges leaders in construction face, but still staying true to the business objectives, the leaders of the construction company came to conclusions they might not otherwise have drawn when thinking about their roadblocks in a construction context.
Leadership Skills Stick, Causing Long-Term Impact
Reflection, metaphor, and real-time experimentation with leadership approaches all contribute greatly to long-term leadership development. While theory imprints new ideas in leaders’ minds, experiencing and reflecting on decisions in business simulations immediately transforms abstract concepts into very real and useful tools.
While there are cases to be made for different passive and active learning approaches, experiential learning offers a combination of skill development and business objective tie-back that other methods are hard-pressed to deliver.