Developing Leaders at Millennial Motors: Part 1

Ashok advocates a flexible approach to leadership skills development. But the L&D Head has doubts.

In previous blog posts, I have written about how L&D interventions should be, from a ‘first principles’ point of view. Now, I give all of that a concrete form. I show how a specific intervention can embody principles like objective-led design, learner engagement, implementation support and effective metrics.

I will do so over 3 parts:
Part 1: Starts at ‘learner need’ and pauses at a prototype intervention design.
Part 2: Describes testing of the prototype intervention with a pilot batch of learners.
Part 3: Moves the intervention beyond the pilot stage, to the larger organisation.

Some readers may have already discerned the Design Thinking thread (Empathise- Define- Ideate- Prototype- Test- Share), running through the 3 parts.

So here goes Part 1.


It is early afternoon, and Lilette Lalwani, Head of L&D at Millennial Motors, is already tired. She’s met two L&D partners since morning, described to them an initiative she wishes to run and winces at the thought of doing so a third time today. She hopes to choose the best proposal, the most economical proposal and wishes that these two things go together!

She walks into the spartan-looking meeting room: grey walls, white furniture, absolutely no evidence of fanciful spending whatsoever. And quickly gets to the point, “Hi Ashok. As you know, we want a leadership skills program for our business-heads, about 8 of them in all”.

Ashok: What’s the outcome you want?

Lilette: We think not everyone is playing to their potential. In terms of providing direction to the ranks, agility in approach to business, also developing a second line of leadership, I think there’s work to be done.

Ashok: And I assume some of these leaders are already good at some of these things.

Lilette: That’s right… we’re hoping to raise the bar for everybody; but also support them with an intervention which ups their abilities in these areas. We really hope for an intervention which improves each of these 3 abilities, in each of the business heads. I wonder if that’s too much to ask.

Ashok: I think if we create a one-size-fits-all intervention, maybe due to cost and time constraints, then it really is too much to ask. It’s like taking 8 people to the same movie, and expecting everyone to like it equally. But its a reasonable expectation if we go completely bespoke… like allow each one to choose their favourite genre of movie.

Lilette: You don’t seriously mean that… it sounds like 8 interventions running in parallel. I have a feeling our budget won’t allow it. But let’s see… we’d like you to present a concrete proposal.

Ashok: Right. Will do. I want to start by speaking to them. Since its a small number, I’d like to speak to all eight people. Ideally, i’d like to spend an entire day at your office, speaking to them for 30 minutes each, designing something, checking back with them to make course corrections…

Lilette: Checking back with them? You mean, check with L&D, right?

Ashok: No, I mean checking back with those eight. Unless the intervention design has their buy-in, I’d be wary of going ahead.

Lilette: That’s unusual, you know. (Frowns… Ponders…) So you’re going to present to me a proposal which already has the backing of our business heads. This could get interesting… I’d like to warn you, getting them to agree on anything is going to be tough.

Ashok: Hmmm…okay. So when do I start?



Feb 10th
Ashok marvelled at the quiet efficiency of a young intern at Millennial Motors, who stitched together back-to-back meetings between him and 6 business heads. The seventh was on personal leave and the eighth had firmly refused to meet citing more important commitments. It had been a fascinating series of conversations. Six people carrying weighty responsibilities admirably, yet each presenting a different picture of where she saw herself or where he thought he needed support.

Ashok thought about Rishika, the youngest business head in this company’s 25 year history. She had said: “I don’t think there’s any problem as far as setting goals for my team. As my business’s metrics show, we’re in tune with the customer too, so I assume we’re as agile as needed. That 3rd aspect you mentioned… developing leaders… I’m not doing it consciously, but I also think it’ll happen on the job. That’s the way I picked up things; nobody taught me. So will the 4 regional managers who report to me. Do we really need a training program for this?”

And then there was Shaan: “I’d really like a course on strategy… going global, I think. It will also tie in with our company’s ambitions to expand beyond national borders. The other 3 aspects that you mentioned… I don’t think there’s a problem there”

And so it went… Ashok recalled Lilette’s warning about the leaders not agreeing on an agenda. It also struck him that her version of what the business heads needed, and their own assessment of it were poles apart. “Back to basics. Back to first principles”, he muttered, getting a little worried. What was the ‘first principle’ here, really? To go with what the customer said!

But who was the customer? Lilette or the 8 learners? And how could common ground be found between those two? It occurred to him that the 3 abilities Lilette had outlined were all on a continuum. There’s always room for improvement; and a learner is never ‘done’. But how does one get the learners to accept that, and show enthusiasm about learning? The answer appeared quickly: establish the baseline, the truth. He needed to act on it now.


Feb 15th, 10 AM

Shaan: So you’re telling me, I fare poorly in setting a direction for my troops?

Ashok: What do you make of this data, Shaan? I simply asked 15 of the 38 people in your team ‘What’s the team’s goal? How is the team going to achieve it?’ Now, we’ve got their responses. What is your interpretation of this data?

Shaan: I can see that the answers vary widely. But it could very well be their inability to understand, rather than my inability to communicate.

Ashok: The question is: would you like to enhance your ability to communicate so that your entire team gets the message?

Shaan: No, but they… there’s been some miscommunication midway. I can simply pull up those who directly report to me and ensure future messages from me get transmitted without distortion.

Ashok: The data from your direct reports (5 of them) also shows great variance. What do you make of that?

Shaan: (Pauses. Looks at responses from his direct reports). I’ll tell you what. Let me give this a thought.

Feb 15th, 11 AM

Ashok: The attrition numbers in your business are higher than usual. Would you like to revisit your thoughts about developing leaders in the ranks?

Rishika: Our business is tough, not everyone’s cup of tea. My business especially is in a formative stage, so higher attrition is to be expected. I think it will settle down soon.

Ashok: How about this: If you could have lower attrition, even at this stage of business, would you like it?

Rishika: Of course, who wouldn’t? Attrition is always a spanner in the works. But it isn’t up to me, is it?

Ashok: Oh, then I have good news for you. I think in your position as leader of this team of 50, you can influence attrition significantly, whatever the state of your business. One good way to do it is to focus on developing leadership abilities of your people, so they see value in continuing here. And it is something that can be learnt.

Rishika: Really… I’m not so sure. If someone gets a plum salary outside, won’t they leave?
And so on it went for a while…

Feb 15th, 4 pm (Back at Ashok’s office, with Ashok’s colleague, Rita)

Rita: So how did it go today at Millennial Motors?

Ashok: I don’t see any buy-in yet. Lets give it a little time, and ask them again in a week. But there’s also something else I want to talk about.

Rita: Go ahead.

Ashok: I think we should drop agility of approach from the agenda for this intervention.

Rita: Drop it ?!? But the client needs it. (Rita thinks: And we need this business!)

Ashok: I have 2 reasons why we should drop it. One, the business units headed by the 8 BU heads are all doing fine right now. The numbers show it. Each business is number 1 or number 2 in its market. So its possible to argue that the business heads are agile enough for the competition.

Rita: But they could still be better, no? Lilette thinks that they should be. Dropping it from the agenda is like leaving money on the table, a bit defeatist, if I may say?

Ashok: Sure, they could still get better, and there’s no end to it. But here’s my second argument… I don’t think I’ll be able to get their buy-in for this. I don’t have any data which will convince them that their business agility is flagging. Is there a point teaching them?

Rita: Look, I see your point about willing learners being more receptive to new concepts. But you see, it is a business need, identified by L&D. We can’t just wish it away because the learners won’t have it.

Ashok: So, what do you suggest?

Rita: I think we should include it, and maybe they will see the point when we get going.

Feb 24th: A phone conversation.

Lilette: Hi Ashok, I heard from the business heads. They want to go ahead with the intervention. Except that they don’t want the same agenda. Rishika, Srinivas, Mohd. Shahid want to work on the “setting direction” piece. Shaan, Advika and Zubair want the “developing leaders” bit. And the other 2 want both components. You said you would like to cater to this diversity… so there you have it now”

Ashok: And do we include the agility piece?

Lilette: Now I’m thinking, maybe not. When I spoke to them, I could sense they’re just so closed-off to it. It didn’t even figure in the discussion, as if its fallen off their charts already. With all this customising, I’m already expecting us to go over budget… lets compensate by reducing the agenda where we can.

Ashok: Honestly, this is music to my ears, Lilette. Thank you for being flexible about this.

Lilette: C’mon on now. I’m not being flexible… it’s more like our resources are limited and we want to have an intervention that works.

Ashok: I’ll visit soon, run the design by the learners as planned and then lets finalise.

Lilette: OK, I’ll get Roopak, our intern, to set up the meetings. Just 10 minutes with each leader, like you said.


Ashok: Here’s the design. I made a few changes after speaking to everyone this morning.

Lilette: You still work with paper? Kind of old fashioned, huh?

Ashok: Yes, er… just helps me think better, when I see the whole thing at one glance.

Lilette: Okay. I see 2 sections here… titled AS-IS and TO-BE. That’s pretty self explanatory. On the left, you’ve listed how current status of the learners.

Ashok: Yes, I’m happy that they were quite candid about this, once they agreed to have the intervention.

Lilette: And on the right: the knowledge, attitudes, skills or habits we’d like them to develop.

Ashok: … that they would like to develop. I showed them a list of capabilities and let them choose. We’re addressing two broad capabilities here: “setting direction” and “developing leaders”. People will attend whichever they’re interested in. So Rishika, Srinivas, Mohd. Shahid the “setting direction” piece only, and so on.

Lilette: That’s the unusual bit … like ordering food from a restaurant menu. Aren’t we stretching the customisation too much?

Ashok: Well, we want them to eagerly eat what’s on their plate. I mean, really imbibe it, learn it. And to get them to choose what they want to learn seems to be the way to go.

Lilette: Fair enough, at least in theory. Now I’m curious to see how you’re catering to everyone’s whims through the design of the intervention. Is that on the second sheet of paper over there?

Ashok: This is the design of the “developing leaders” bit. Let me lay out the big picture here. As we move from left to right, we’re moving across time, across 4-plus months of this intervention.

Lilette: And I can see the 4 familiar tracks here too.

Ashok: Yes, the recipe for each is different.

Lilette: Let’s take one example and run through with it. How do we tackle the attitude bit?

Ashok: We first get people to question old attitudes, like “Leaders will develop on their own”. This we do by showing them counter-evidence. In this case, we’re giving them anonymous feedback from their teams, which says clearly: ‘We don’t feel we’re developing as leaders’. After a while, when they’ve had some practice, we go to the second step: examine incoming, fresh data from their teams, which hopefully affirms their new attitude, that consciously developing their people pays off.

Lilette: Is it any different for the knowledge component?

Ashok: There are 2 steps again, but we handle them differently. The knowledge we’re talking about here is the Situational Leadership model. For any piece of knowledge to be retained, we need two things: first understanding it and later revisiting it. Those are the 2 events you see in the knowledge row.

Lilette: I see. And the third row, “skills” seems to be about a lot of repeated practice.

Ashok: Practice which is frequently done, and also supported by a coach. We’ll have them either audio-record or journal their development conversations with team members. That becomes the basis for feedback from the coach. It’s not a one-time affair… there are several cycles of practice and feedback.

Lilette: How did you decide whats the right amount of practice?

Ashok: There’s of course no way to precisely ascertain it. But simpler skills like delivering a monologue develop faster… if you look at the other band “giving directions to team”, I’ve budgeted only 3 rounds of monitored practice. But the skill of implementing a Situational Leadership model is a very long term game… there are several moving parts like the follower’s developmental level, the task at hand, business context, time available etc. That’s why I’ve chosen a 4-month time-frame. It will give a fair opportunity for various situations to appear along the way; and for our leaders to feel confident about handling whatever their 2nd line throws at them.

Ashok: Moving on, the 4th row is Habits. Our leaders have to remember to apply their newfound knowledge and skills. Its no use having the capability and not using it. Habits require a rhythm so we’re nudging the learners every week through a quick phone call. We will remind them to have developmental conversations that week, and avoid this agenda get washed away by regular work pressures. We really don’t want to hear them say, “Oh, I meant to practise, but something else came up, and I simply forgot”. After a while, we’ll expect them to set up their own reminders on their calendars.


Lilette (walks around the room, thinking): You know, I would describe this intervention as… as… (clenches her fists)

Ashok: Intense?

Lilette: Right! Intense. We haven’t done an intervention like this, ever. It’s usually been the typical 2-day workshop, with a few coaching sessions post that.

Ashok: And have those worked for you?

Lilette: Well… we both know the answer to that! But tell me, isn’t there an easier… lighter way for our people to pick up these skills?

Ashok: Learning on one’s own, on the job, is surely lighter and self paced too. That will work for people who are diligent enough to keep observing, reflecting, changing themselves week after week. If everyone did that, we wouldn’t need organised L&D interventions.

Lilette: Hmmm… I see what you mean. So how much time is each participant investing?

Ashok: There’s a 1-day workshop which they attend as a group, face to face. After that, it’s just a couple of hours of telephonic conversation every week, scheduled at the participant’s convenience. A large part of the intervention is learning on-the-job. Very little of it is ‘teaching’ or in a classroom. It seems heavy on paper because you’re seeing the entire 4-month journey on a single sheet. When this is spread across 4 months, its actually not very heavy.

Lilette: I can see the budgets here… this will take up more money than I planned for, but let’s give it a go. What’s the next step?

Ashok (smiles): The boring part… dates, logistics etcetera.

Lilette: Thankfully, that’s a breeze for Roopak. By the way, who’s going to be the faculty or coach for this?

Ashok: A very capable lady called Pemba. I haven’t spoken to her in a while, but a visit is due now!

Next fortnight: Pemba!

Header Image by aitoff on Pixabay