Knowing Your Participants
The ImageCenter allows you to create effective leadership development sessions because you can easily customize the exercises for your particular group. Participants are more engaged and report better outcomes when they are doing things that relate to their specific needs. Have you ever heard someone moan, “Why are we doing this?” You can avoid hearing this with some simple preparations.
There are three things to get clear about as you select your leadership development activities:
- Who is coming?
- Why are they coming to the session?
- What is their past leadership development experience?
It would be wonderful if there were a step-by-step list that guaranteed a successful outcome every time. In reality, there are many factors that contribute to success. Sometimes you have access to detailed information about the participants, and other times it is more general. Occasionally you have the opportunity to work with seasoned, successful leaders who are focused on taking their performance to new heights. More often, you will be doing leadership development with new or struggling leaders.
You can increase the success of your events by preparing as much as you can. Begin by having conversations with as many of the participants as possible.
Who is coming?
Here are some of the factors that can be helpful to ask about:
- Occupations and roles
- How long they have been in a leadership role, if applicable
- Existing leadership challenges
- How they most comfortably communicate
- Native languages
Occupations and roles
Knowing the occupations of your participants will help you decide on how to approach them with the exercises you have planned. If you are dealing with participants that are primarily linear/analytical, then you will want to spend some time at the beginning laying a theoretical foundation for what you have planned. Alternatively, if you are working with more divergent thinkers, then you are probably safe jumping right in.
It’s also important to know if the group consists of people with more or less equal job titles. If one participant ranks higher than the rest, this affects the dynamics. You can talk with that person and decide what role they want to take in the session. Participants will tend to follow the senior person unless they are offered the opportunity to make another choice.
How long they have been in a leadership role
Getting a sense of how long the participants have been in leadership roles can help in several different ways. First, if they have been in leadership positions for some time, they may not need to focus as much on the transitional focus areas, having navigated those waters already. Note that even if they have been in such positions for a while, you should not assume they have the transitional skills in place, since being in a leadership role and performing that role effectively are two very different things.
Second, in knowing how long they have been in a leadership role, you can get a sense of how engrained their current leadership behaviors may be. Although everyone has some perception of “what leaders do,” based on observation and experience, those who are brand new to a leadership position will have a much more “blank slate,” and will not have as many existing biases (both positive and negative) to work from.
Existing leadership challenges
In general, if there is a set of existing leadership challenges that participants need to address, the stated objectives of the session become secondary. If you want to help participants develop their overall skills and attitudes, deal with the present challenges ﬁrst. The presence of a current issue can act as a nag to the participant(s), distracting them from the deeper learning.
Often, you can weave any existing challenges into the context of broader leadership development activities that ﬁ t within the focus areas. In that case, there may be little disconnect between the short-term issue and the long-term goal. You may want to simply address the immediate concerns ﬁrst. If, on the other hand, the current challenges arise from a different area than what is supposed to be covered in the session, you may need to adjust the agenda more signiﬁcantly.
How they most comfortably communicate
One skill that is woven throughout virtually all aspects of leadership development is communication. So before diving too deeply into specific focus areas, it helps to know more about the participants’ communication style and ability. Do they interact well face-to-face? Is it more common in their work to interact over a distance? The timing and patterns of communication can greatly affect all of a leader’s work. If there is a potential difficulty here, you may want to begin by focusing your work in this area.
Do some participants speak the common language of the group more ﬂuently than others? You may have to adjust your time allotment depending on the language proﬁciency of the participants to allow for additional explanations or to help people verbalize their thoughts. Because of the visual nature of this tool, you should ﬁnd that it helps level the playing ﬁeld between non-native and native speakers. Images provide an additional way for people to communicate their ideas, thus helping them to feel more a part of the group. Nonetheless, some adjustments to the timing may be necessary.
Why are they coming to the session?
There is a reason that participants decided to attend (or to host) a leadership development session, so you should know why. You should also know what that person or group expects to get out of it. Th e clearer you are about the desired outcome, the more successful your design will be. It’s possible, if not likely, that there will be more than one reason, and more than one desired outcome. Try to narrow it down as much as possible, and identify what concrete indicators of the outcome(s) will be present at the end for the session to be considered a success.
Your leadership development session should have a purpose. Developing an effective leader is neither simple nor quick. Be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time available. A two-hour session is not going to make a new leader into a seasoned veteran, although it may give that person a framework for growth and some initial
tools for development. Or it might help a leader who is struggling in a single area to focus on that aspect and make real change. Regardless, it takes commitment from the participants to achieve success.
It is also important to be realistic about the limitations of a leadership development session. The leadership development process addresses individual behaviors and dynamics. Leadership development is not always the ideal solution for group culture issues. If the issues of a group are a result of leadership challenges, then such a session will certainly be beneﬁcial. If, however, the concerns are more systemic, then a group-focused intervention will be more successful. Building Great Teams is an ideal counterpart to Developing Great Leaders, and focuses on aspects of group culture and dynamics.
How does the organization view leadership?
Perceptions of leadership can vary widely in different environments. Some organizations have a culture where everyone is encouraged to use and develop leadership skills—everyone is, or can be, a leader. In others, there is a more defined hierarchical structure where the role of leader may refer to the executive level of the organization. Understanding the culture of the organization will help you align with the expectations and norms of the system you are working within.
What is their past leadership development experience?
Participants may have done a variety of leadership development sessions in the past. Some of those experiences may not have been ideal. It’s helpful to know something about what has been tried and the level of success achieved. Since there are a variety of factors that contribute to success or failure, don’t necessarily make decisions or generalizations about which interventions to choose based on participants’ past experiences.
Individuals will respond to the exact same activity differently. Leadership development exercises that work with a new leader may not work with a seasoned veteran. Use your discretion as well as the input you can gather from participants.
Be prepared for participants to make assumptions about the session and your leadership development approach, and tell them what you have done to make your session different. Ask them to help you make it more successful. Leadership development takes participation—invite people into the process. Whatever you do, if you know participants have had a bad experience, don’t totally avoid the topic. You can often dispel the anxiety and apprehension with acknowledgment. You do not have to open the topic up for complaining or revisiting in doing so, either.
You can also get additional insights into the participants by linking their past leadership development experience with their current skills and abilities as a leader. If a participant has gone through a long-term, immersive set of experiences yet is still having difficulty in a particular focus area, you can use that information to narrow your objectives and, potentially, to alter your approach. Just as the different individuals respond differently to the same activity, however, the same person can respond differently to the same activity at a different time. It is possible that the previous interventions did not appropriately consider the person’s current role or readiness to learn and adapt. Regardless, that information can help you shape your current session.
Assessing the Participants’ Current Skills
After you have gathered the initial information from participants, you will need to get a sense of each participant’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader. No matter how experienced a leader may be, each person will have areas in which she or he is particularly strong or needs more development. Your challenge is to identify those in order to make the session most effective.
Sometimes, participants will self-identify their key weakness—for instance, needing more help with effective delegation. Most often, however, you will need to elicit that information either through an evaluation tool or through some discussion.
If you opt for a more formal evaluation, you may want to use the Self-Assessment Survey located here. That survey instrument asks participants to rate their perceptions of their ability along eighteen different axes. These axes fall within the six leadership development focus areas highlighted in Developing Great Leaders.
If you opt to use the survey in the appendix, make copies for each participant and, if possible, distribute them in advance. This way, each person can complete the instrument alone, without any concern that they will be publicly demonstrating their weaknesses. You can then ask the participants to send you the totals in each of the six areas, and you can opt to direct the session to the areas with the consistently highest totals.
You can also ask the participants to use the survey as more of a 360-type of tool. Participants can make copies of the survey and give them to team members, colleagues, managers, and other stakeholders. These people then can return the surveys directly to you to tabulate (to encourage candor). This approach is more time and labor-intensive, but can net more insightful results, particularly when comparing it to a participant’s self-perceptions.
Regardless of the evaluation tool approach you take, be prepared to make some trade-offs as you settle on the focus areas for the session. If you have a divergent group of participants, they may very well need different types of interventions. You may need to focus on an area which is not everybody’s weakest area, but which is commonly weak to the most participants.
Another way to narrow the focus areas is to have a guided discussion with the participants. This can happen at a short pre-meeting, in the ﬁrst few minutes of a longer session, or even on a conference call prior to the leadership development workshop(s). We do not recommend that you hold the discussion at the beginning of a session unless you are very comfortable with the Developing Great Leaders approach, since you will have very little time to lock in the agenda based on the feedback you receive.
Whenever you choose to hold the discussion, it is often helpful to use images to frame the conversation. Using a starting prompt like, “What are your strengths as a leader?,” followed by another prompt of “Where could you improve most as a leader?” can effectively frame the work. You can use the images in the Developing Great Leaders image deck, or, for a more targeted approach, the VisualsSpeak Visual Icebreaker Kit, which also comes with a variety of icebreaker exercises.