Leaders Teaching Leaders: An Important Element of Leadership Development


Over the last couple of weeks I have had multiple discussions about the topic of “leaders as teachers” approach for leadership development.  This is an important concept and can be very powerful.  Companies that want to maintain a competitive edge in their industry must move from a purely training organization to a learning organization – one that continuously shares new skills throughout its workforce.

At Textron, executives teach modules of senior level programs.  This approach has been highly regarded by participants as a sign that they “care” and believe in the messages they are transmitting.  Participants can have immediate discussions with executives.  And not only is it unique opportunity for an executive to get “the ears” of so many of the company’s leaders at one time, but most participants would never have the opportunity to talk with a senior executive in this type of forum otherwise.  Over time this practice has become embedded in the company’s culture and executives now expect to be invited each year to participate as a “facilitator.” If they are not asked, they are disappointed and question why not.  

At TSYS, a large global provider of call center and telecommunication solutions, the approach has become so popular that leaders have to “apply” to teach.  If they are selected, they must commit to a full year’s worth of teaching.    This strategy has been very successful in creating continuity of courses, and has become a highly-valued learning experience for the leader-teachers as well.  According to TSYS’s director of learning and development, the leaders who are teaching have increased their skill levels in presenting, facilitating, coaching, problem solving, and developing others. 

This model works particularly well in companies that are going through a major transformation (e.g., their business strategy is changing, they are restructuring, and there is a need to rebuild core competencies across the workforce).  Consider the tremendous changes which have taken place at HP:

HP has utilized the leaders teaching leaders approach in the implementation of a new “transformational” program that touches all of their employees.  The CEO, Mark Hurd, led the charge by teaching the top 200-plus leaders at HP and set the expectations that these leaders do the same; and then the next level, and so on.  Leaders customize content at each level to incorporate both corporate-level and local-level messaging, to make the program highly relevant and localized for participants.  The program at HP was meant to deliver core messages of business strategy and values consistently while allowing business leaders to integrate business-specific information.

Our research clearly shows that “leaders teaching leaders” offers many benefits:

  • It enables a company to build a culture;
  • It demonstrates to employees that learning is valued; and,
  • It provides leaders with a forum to consistently demonstrate company values, share business strategy, and set expectations of what it means to manage and lead effectively in the company.  

Some considerations before using this approach:

  • There must be a commitment and accountability at the most senior level.
  • Leaders should be trained in facilitation and coaching. (For some this may come naturally, but there will definitely be pockets of this skill gap.)
  • Program content may need to be tweaked for each successive cohort or organizational level in order to align with scope of responsibilities.
  • While the approach is cost effective, it takes a great deal of coordination across the company; for example, the timing and scheduling of courses requires may require additional administrative support.
  • The role of the leader should be clarified.  How much do they need to be involved outside the classroom (i.e. coaching?  How should HR support the leaders and the program?
  • The consistency and quality of content delivery must be monitored.  With so many different people delivering the program, you should audit the program and make sure leaders are prepared for feedback.

In today’s tight economy, we believe “leaders teaching leaders” is one of the most important elements to consider in your leadership strategy.

Are you implementing a “Leaders as Teachers” delivery model? If so, tell us about it.

Andrea Derler

Andrea Derler, Ph.D., joined Bersin by Deloitte in March 2015 and leads the Leadership & Succession Management research practice. She brings international work experience as leadership trainer & coach and a solid academic background to this role. Prior to joining Bersin, she collaborated closely with organizations in the USA as well as Europe in order to pursue practice-oriented leadership research. Andrea studied international management, organizational culture and integral leadership and facilitated leadership development efforts in a variety of industries. She holds a doctoral degree in Economics (Leadership & Organization), and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. Her work about leaders’ Ideal Employee recently received wide-spread media attention in Europe and was published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal

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