An Open Question

Rick Sellers, Director of Global Learning & Leadership Development, oversees the education and development for LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier plc.  Reed Elsevier is a world leading publisher and information provider with its principal operations in North America and Europe.

Jake Breeden: Rick, as you plan for the development of leaders at LexisNexis, you sometimes decide to build custom, in-house programs, and other times you prefer to send leaders to open programs in which they work with leaders from other companies. How do you think about making that decision – custom versus open? What are the tradeoffs, and how do you think about building or selecting the right combination of programs?

Rick Sellers: Hi Jake,

Thanks for the question about what we consider in choosing a leadership development program approach. There are lots of considerations in selecting what kind of programs will best meet the need.  Some are tangible, like program content and cost. Some are intangible, like providing opportunities for networking and relationship-building. 

The most important consideration is how to best ensure that the desired outcome will be achieved.  Learning in the corporate environment is undertaken to drive better business results through improved performance of an individual or of some organizational unit. 

When focus is on performance of an individual leader, we are looking to change that leader’s behavior by giving him or her new knowledge and new perspectives that he or she didn’t have before. This might be accomplished through coaching, mentoring, formal learning program or some combination of the three. For the formal learning program, I will look for a public program that delivers the right content and has a target audience that is at the same level of responsibility. 

I’m currently working on just such an issue with a senior leader within one of the business units. The leader has demonstrated strong operational skills, but her own view of her role is strategically narrow and that is limiting her contribution to the performance of her business unit. There are other facets to the challenge, but my recommendation to her is to attend the best public executive education program that we can find – one that is geared specifically to her function and elevated level in the organization.  She needs to accomplish first, a better understanding of what her role could and should be, and second, she needs to create an external and professional support network to turn to when she needs to get a non-political viewpoint on issues that she faces in her work. I believe that the best hope for this is the external program with excellent targeted content attended by individuals of like responsibility in other organizations. 

Then the other kind of desired learning outcome is improved organizational unit performance. I think in a recent conversation you called this improved strategy execution. Besides delivering content, in this situation a learning event is also used to align the vision, strategy or tactics that are seen as central to the improved performance. A bespoke (custom) program is almost always a better choice for this because we can manage the content to our specific needs and we can ensure that many people from the organization can have the same learning and experience needed to sustain the learning after the program ends. Another advantage is that we can draw on our own leaders to facilitate the learning program in combination with external experts.

Of course any given situation presents conditions that might require something other than an ideal approach. The major caution with compromise is that we must remain focused on achieving the desired outcomes.

JB: Thanks for a thoughtful response, Rick. I liked your closing point: compromise can indeed be dangerous. Have you seen any examples of mistakes made in trying to reach a compromise? Any nightmares come to mind, in which well-meaning managers tried to get everything just right, and ended up getting it all wrong?

RS: I'm not sure this is an example of a bad compromise, but I staged a "global leadership" program for middle managers a few years back that was created mainly from the input of their bosses. I had people leaving the program in droves and the whole thing (deservedly) collapsed. If I had spent more time with the managers, I would have approached the solution much differently. Listen to the learners first.