Leaders as Explorers

Exploration happens outside the comfort zone – creating new business models, serving new markets and new customers

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” ~ Albert Einstein

When it comes to leadership development, organizations are becoming smarter by increasing the amount of resources and energy given to exploration strategies, while continuing to deliver results through exploitation strategies. What remains to be a challenge for many companies, is how to adequately prepare corporate leaders to be effective in the exploration domain. Simply put, how do leaders become explorers within their companies? And why is it so important?

For business and leadership, exploitation is the comfort zone for companies, where the business model has been tested, opportunities and strengths are crystal clear, and the customer profile is immaculately sketched out. In layman’s terms, exploitation is what pays the bills, covers the payroll and generates profit for the company.

On the other hand, exploration is what happens outside the comfort zone. It is about searching for, or creating new business models, entering new markets and developing new customer profiles to attract. By its very nature, it involves experimentation, disruption, deconstruction, risk taking and tolerance for failure.

Humans generally follow the path of least resistance. If an option is hard to attain or causes discomfort, we are likely to become discouraged and for many, the low hanging fruit will look much more appealing. To translate this notion into a business and leadership context; what is the easiest route for a company to take – exploit its strengths and what it knows how to do well or explore new opportunities? If we follow our rational minds, then exploiting current strengths provides least resistance and naturally becomes the appealing option for many organizations. However, by looking at the dim outcomes of organizations such as, Kodak, Research in Motion (Blackberry), Netscape, Nokia (mobile business) or Barnes & Noble, we know that it may not necessarily be the right option. It is for these reasons that business schools, leadership gurus and consulting houses repeatedly advise companies that to remain relevant and maintain staying power one needs to have clearly identified exploitation AND exploration strategies. Successful companies need to be able to do both.

Historically, the executive education industry has been good at helping companies to be better exploiters, but things are patchy when it comes to exploration. So, what options are available to organizations wanting to develop their leaders into explorers? For those sincerely interested in strengthening the exploration muscle of their leaders, Corporate International Service Learning (CISL) is increasingly considered a very effective route.

CISL programmes are defined by the fact that employees travel across international borders to apply their work based skills to a project or other assignment that serves a third-party constituency. Examples might include a cohort of tech executives travelling to Nairobi on a structured learning journey to collaborate with a water management social enterprise to solve issues around stakeholder alignment. Or for leaders from a Middle East oil and gas company to actively engage on a specific challenge with a London based local youth training initiative to better understand the values and preferences of millennials. Or a cross functional team from four different continents that come together for ten days in Peru to help a health clinic become a centre of excellence in cancer prevention and treatment.

To understand how CISL works from a developmental perspective, it can be broken down into three parts:

1/ Heat Experience: Participants, who are leaders in their home organizations, are taken out of their normal work routines and comfort zones and challenged to make a difference on an issue that matters. The very different but real-world context disrupts habits and thinking patterns.

2/ Colliding Perspectives: By actively collaborating on pressing challenges with a third-party constituency in a different context to that which they are familiar with, participants must confront very different ways of seeing the world. To be successful they may need to shed their expertise and embrace alternate possibilities. Their usual power dynamics shift, they learn to work with imperfect information and begin to see the same problem with multiple perspectives, which they need to internalise and reconcile.

3/ Sense Making: The placement of this kind of challenge within a learning framework, where expert coaches and facilitators stimulate reflection and surface insights helps participants make sense of the experience. Through this they gain self-awareness, and integrate the multiple perspectives to shape a solution to the challenge at hand and ultimately develop an advanced world view.

Moving beyond the classroom lecture, CISL is a transformational experience that surfaces emotional triggers and taps into the behaviours that a leader requires to start acting like an explorer. This happens as the leader ‘stretches’ to gain a sense of comfort in the environment with its accompanying sense of increased ambiguity. The context pushes leaders to collaborate with new stakeholders and only through imagination and experimentation, can they take the challenge forward.

To get a feel for how a CISL programme works in practice join Emerging World’s is open enrolment experience in May 2018.

The Immersive Global Leadership Experience, taking place in Kenya, offers interested companies the opportunity to try a CISL experience alongside their peers from other companies using a compressed design that that we have employed previously on successful programmes with global organizations including EY, Microsoft and Salesforce. To learn more about the open enrolment.

Source: https://www.iedp.com/articles/leaders-as-explorers/

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