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Craftsmanship program for developing leaders

In developing new leaders, companies perpetually face a twofold challenge: to make the right choices about investments and programs and to ensure that both the participants and to the organization benefit, in tangible results as well as esprit de corps. These decisions are informed by many considerations: What type of program, how long, and for whom? Use a university curriculum or design your own? How much theory versus practice? Should the training focus on “hard” or “soft” skills?

Here is an innovative approach to developing new leaders by guiding them through three stages of development: (1) apprentice, (2) journeyman, and (3) master craftsman. Our program focuses particular attention on the “craft” of leadership—joining its rational, aesthetic, and performative qualities.

Craftsmanship is “a quality that is honed, refined, and practiced over the course of a career. Requires a great deal of time, discipline, patience and effort.” History reveals the defining methods of training craftspeople. The weavers, dyers, glassmakers, ironworkers, goldsmiths, and bakers of medieval times learned their crafts through apprenticeship. Their master would instruct them and also serve as a mentor and role model. Apprentices worked under the direct supervision of a master until they were ready to become journeymen, working more independently and developing their skills through practice and the guidance of others. Finally, at the master-craft stage, they learned how to manage and lead a craft practice. Even mastery was not a solo undertaking: masters joined guilds and collectively regulated the quality of work and the training of future craftspeople.

How, then, can the methods of craftsmanship be applied to educating future business leaders? To develop our program, we combined the best elements from science and art approaches to leadership and leadership education, including academic theory, case studies, experiential exercises, and studio practice. We then added elements of craft education like hands-on experience, guidance from mentors and role models, and a graduated performance progression, from apprentice to master.

Our program follows the three traditional phases of craft education—apprentices, journeymen, and craftsmen—with each level building upon what came before. Sessions combine conceptual, experiential, and practical learning. Apprentices are introduced to self-awareness, different leadership styles, conflict and communication, leading a team, and so forth. As participants progress to journeyman and then craftsman, the curriculum incorporates topics like leading with presence and decision making under uncertainty. Business inputs include deeper dives into the industry, strategy, and core functions like product development, manufacturing, quality, culture, and vision. Real-life case studies, presented by company leaders, become more complex, call for more nuanced thinking and judgment, and have participants wrestle with strategic, operational, and ethical dilemmas.

Consider how all these factors contribute to the design of a leadership development program that benefits both the participants and the business.

Company diagnostic. We begin to design a program by interviewing top executives and using surveys, focus groups, or interviews to gather input from employees at every level and function. We use the resulting information to assess the company's particular development needs. This diagnostic allows us to understand the current state and future direction of the organization, including market, strategy, operations, workforce, and culture, as well as the associated performance gaps; identify the knowledge and leadership capabilities needed to fill those gaps; gauge the interest, capability, and drive of the top team to take the lead in grooming the next generation of leaders; and assess the readiness and motivation of the staff to participate in a leadership program.

Leader-Teachers. One of the distinctive features of a craft program is that executives serve as the master craftspeople of their trade and assume multiple roles:

· Teachers: Core to the program is that executives themselves teach industry and business knowledge to ensure that the content is relevant, practical, and company-specific. This means that execs must not only be experts on their subject but must also be able to communicate effectively. External faculty provide each exec with guidance and support to ensure that the material they present is digestible and includes interactive learning components.

· Mentors: Members of the top team act as mentors to participants throughout the program. All participants are assigned an executive mentor (from outside their area of responsibility) who meets with them prior to and throughout the program. Mentors offer an understanding ear and sound guidance while helping participants to design a business project and devise their own leadership development plan. Execs are given some guidance on mentoring but, for the most part, the interaction is structured and managed according to the needs of each mentee.

· Project Champions/Team coaches: In the journeyman and craftsman phases, participants tackle a cross-functional and then enterprise-wide business project. Whichever top team member “owns” the problem at hand serves as project champion. They help their team refine their mission statement, develop a project management plan, and deliver results. They also coach their team throughout the project on its technical aspects, and on dealing with interpersonal and team issues, political dynamics, resistance to proposed changes and more.

· Role Models. Finally, executives are tasked with being role-models for future leaders. They share their own leadership experiences and self-assessments, talking candidly about their successes and failures in business and beyond. They take seriously their role in shaping the future leaders of their business.

Meeting Craftspeople. Teachers come in many forms. In our quest to expand business leadership students' understanding of leading self, others and an enterprise, we have introduced them to community, civic, and spiritual leaders, masters of martial arts, yoga, and zen, and artists and inventors of all kinds. Each time we conduct the craftsmanship program, we make sure participants interact with exemplary crafters outside the company, learning how they developed their craft and even taking the first steps toward learning it. We hope our participants will not only use what they learn in their own leadership, but also gain a deeper appreciation of what it takes to master a craft by witnessing the passion and dedication of craftspeople at work.

Project Based Learning. Project-based learning is integral to developing leadership as a craft. Our participants are confronted with a problem to which there is no predetermined solution. They must conduct research, communicate with those who have a stake in the project, design and experiment with possible solutions, deal with unexpected events and errors, manage their time and relationships, and reach a solution. Each phase of the program presents a project for which participants must struggle with a practical problem on their own time. Apprentices are charged with a designing a business improvement project in their own area of responsibility. Journeymen face a cross-functional challenge as a team. Craftsmen are given an assignment for the whole group that comprises nearly every element of the business. The selection and scope of these projects is critical to the success of the program. Participants, executives and faculty cooperate in front-end project development and in periodic progress reviews. All participants receive training in project management, engaging with stakeholders, and relevant diagnostic and planning tools.

External Faculty. External faculty plays an important role, pulling together all the pieces mentioned above to ensure the integrity of the program's overall logic and content as well as its effective delivery. While the leader-teacher model is gaining popularity in development programs, few executives are schooled in designing and delivering leadership programs and most have neither the time nor the inclination to learn.



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