A View From INSEAD

Practice, Practice, Practice… Makes Perfect Leadership

Professor Jean-François Manzoni

Former programme director of LEAP: Leadership Excellence through Awareness and Practice

March 2012

It really is tough at the top, but INSEAD’s innovative programme, LEAP: Leadership Excellence through Awareness and Practice, has been created to make life a whole lot easier for senior executives. The following interview with former programme director, Professor Jean-François Manzoni, explains how LEAP could help you meet your leadership challenges.

Jean-François, you have been working with senior executives for over twenty years.  How have senior executives’ jobs changed over that time?

They have changed beyond recognition. In a nutshell, senior executives are facing increasingly demanding challenges, such as more work conducted from a distance and more ambiguous authority patterns, including two- or three-dimensional “matrix” organisations and “virtual teams”. All this is happening in a volatile, uncertain complex and ambiguous world – politically and socio-economically. As a result senior executives are placed under enormous stress, even before you add the more obvious challenges: ever-increasing performance pressure; information overload; an increasingly demanding and mobile workforce; shrinking time scales; and pressures from society at large for business to be more responsible. It’s tougher than it’s ever been to be a senior manager.

Why did you create the programme, LEAP: Leadership Excellence through Awareness and Practice?

The short answer is that we created LEAP to help senior executives face their challenges of today and tomorrow more effectively. This implies two major aspects. First, the knowledge acquired during the programme should be implemented in practice, unlike too many cases where executives end a programme with strong intentions but do not manage to put them into long-term practice. Second, our participants should also become more reflective leaders, more willing and able to continue to learn in the months and years following the programme. That’s important because in a fast-changing world, leaders’ ability to continue to learn throughout their career may be their best asset and the best predictor of their future success.

Is it particularly difficult for senior leaders to become learners?

Research shows it is possible for leaders to develop new skills and capabilities, provided they are willing to devote enough time and attention to the process. But experience also shows that for senior leaders at or near the top of their organisation, continuing to learn and integrate new ways is not easy. Senior leaders are typically in their forties and fifties, an age where habits are more deeply ingrained than they were two decades earlier. These habits and capabilities also have clear advantages as they helped the people concerned to reach their current positions. Still, most senior executives today know and accept that “what got them here will not necessarily get them there”, and many of them are eager to keep learning.

So what do they have to do in order to learn at the top?

First, learning new ways requires self-monitoring and deliberate action, which in turn require time, attention and energy – resources that are already stretched very thin by the challenges of life at the top today. But simply applying the new knowledge – putting it into practice – is often much harder than it seems; the gap between theory and practice is often deceptively high. It didn’t look so high when the executive was sitting in the auditorium or reading the book – the concept made sense, the executive agreed with the objective, application seemed to be relatively straightforward. But back at work in real time and under real life performance pressures, application often turns out to require a lot more conditions and enablers than it appeared at first.

Can you give an example?

One of the best-accepted and most easily understood managerial concepts to have emerged over the last few years is the notion of fair process. Senior executives very quickly buy the idea that if people find a process (such as change) fair, they will be more likely to accept the outcomes – even if these outcomes have negative consequences for them. Executives also have very little difficulty identifying the major requirements of fair process, all of which look reasonable enough. For example, giving people some degree of involvement in the change process and establishing clearly that the outcome is the least bad for the organisation and all concerned all sound appealing and simple enough.

So where does it go wrong?

Involving people can require considerable patience and non-trivial skill, especially around the extent to which people will be consulted. It can’t be too little, but it can’t be too much either. At some point a consensus will have to emerge. This requires from the leader (a) significant confidence – both in his or her capabilities and (b) solid process management skills. As for establishing clearly that the outcome is the least bad for the organisation and its members, leaders need enough honesty and transparency to appear credible, but also enough cleverness to influence the process in the right direction! Finding the right balance on all these dimensions is not impossible, but it requires judgement, skill, and – maybe even more difficult to muster – time and perspective. And these two commodities are bound to be in short supply in conditions where fair process is most useful (that is, difficult conditions where harsh outcomes have become necessary)!

And how do you make sure it starts to go right?

The challenge is to internalise the new way, in other words, to go from conscious competence – which requires self-monitoring and deliberate behaviour and is hence attention consuming – to unconscious competence – at which point the new behaviour can be displayed as needed and with limited effort.  This internalisation process requires practice, practice and practice – as well as some fine-tuning of conceptual understanding along the way. Without this conscious practice, executives back in their normal environment typically quickly lose their desire and/or their ability to implement the new knowledge.

Is this where LEAP comes in?

Yes, the argument so far is that we – the people who care about executives’ continuing development and how they can face their challenges – need to create conditions where executives are going to be helped to (a) put new knowledge into practice and (b) practice it enough, so that it really becomes part of their toolkit. The design and delivery of LEAP involves five distinctive characteristics aimed at reaching these two objectives.

And the five distinctive characteristics of LEAP are…?

First, it’s focused on all aspects of leadership – organisational, interpersonal, intra-personal. That is, it’s broader than a typical leadership programme but more focused than a typical general management programme.

Second, it’s a long programme. LEAP takes about a month of the participant’s life over the course of a year – because it takes time to integrate new knowledge and develop new habits

Third, sessions will alternate between plenary and group work – to foster a seamless integration between concepts and practice. Group work will be facilitated by top executive coaches.

Fourth, the three modules break up the investment into manageable components and allow for practice, reinforcement and fine-tuning throughout the year.

Fifth, regular (weekly) contacts between modules help participants to remain connected to their development agenda, to formalise (and share) the learning opportunities offered by their work and personal environments, and to reinforce the reflection practice/discipline that participants enjoy so much during our programmes but have so much difficulty maintaining back at work. 

The combination of these characteristics is truly innovative. As far as we know, no other major business school offers such a package. 

Who is the target audience for LEAP?

This programme is designed for senior executives who already occupy significant leadership positions, including: top managers (such as, CEO, Managing Director, Executive Vice-President) in large and medium-size corporations; senior partners in professional firms; senior executives in not-for-profit organisations; entrepreneurs; owners of large family businesses; and board members of any such organisations. Our goal is to constitute a rich and diverse group of leaders willing and able to make a significant investment in their own – and their classmates’ – learning and development.

Is this a programme particularly for Asian leaders?

This is a programme for leaders wherever they work and live, delivered in Asia. We aim at gathering a group of leaders that will come from all over the world, representing a rich variety of industries and types of organisation. But we will also leverage our Asian location, for example, by inviting outstanding leaders operating in the region to speak and participate.

How will candidates know if they’re ready for LEAP?

We think that LEAP participants will recognise themselves in one or more of the following situations.

You have been running and progressing for years. You have done well, and now you want to take some time to reflect on what you really want to get from the next stage of your career and/or your life

You are clear on what you want to do and achieve in the next stages, and you realise that these challenges will require you to develop new skills and capabilities – “what got you here won’t get you there”.

You have done well, but somehow success has come at a high personal cost and you wonder “is there an easier way to do this?”

You have just started a new phase/career/job and you would like to be accompanied/supported through the coming year by a group of peers

You have come to a stage in your life and career where you realise that your daily behaviour is by now deeply ingrained. On a number of occasions you have tried to change some of these patterns and you have found it very difficult to do so sustainably. Yet you would really like to improve on some dimensions…

Or simply, you’re doing well and you feel very much on track, but you’d like to take some time away from the daily grind to improve your understanding of human behaviour and organisational dynamics, reflect and recharge with a group of peers – senior executives who, like you, want to make an investment in themselves and in their development. 

If you recognise yourself in one of Professor Manzoni’s scenarios, click here to find out more or to download an application form.

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