By Kevin D. Wilde
June 7, 2023

My executive MBA students are surprised that the end of the semester isn’t the end of the leadership course. In fact, a grade of ‘K’ is issued rather than a passing grade. ‘K’ is the university designation of ‘course in progress.’

Now they’ve done all the work assigned during the semester, completing papers, readings, case studies, and group exercises. All were graded and now that the semester is over, the usual final academic step is summing up the assignment grades for the total grade. But leadership development isn’t academic or usual.

Instead, each student is asked to identify a personal development goal for the next semester and lay out an action plan, plus creating a draft survey of four questions that will be used at the end of the semester to check on progress.

The intent is to move beyond the academic view of leadership to a personal development routine of the habits of a life-long learner – yes, a coachable leader.

Enter The Activators

To increase the odds of success in the follow-up semester, many of the ACT principles and tools covered in my book, Coachability, are explained before students create their action plan. In particular, a review of the notion of setting in place a solid set of ‘activators’ – those tactics that bring a well-intending improvement plan to life. Research is shared that past students achieve the most progress – and higher improvement ratings – by applying at least five of the dozen+ activators, such as:

  • Ask others for support in achieving plan goals.
  • Build frequent reminders and periodic checks.
  • Schedule specific time to work on your plan.

One of the students, Kendra, is an up-and-coming leader in a mid-size medical technology firm. Her aspirational leadership brand is to be seen as a thoughtful and collaborative technical leader. In order to achieve her ‘collaborative brand,’ she crafted a development plan to excel at building stronger working relationships with her peers from other departments. She didn’t receive high marks from her colleagues in the previous leadership survey, so she knew this was a critical focus area for her advancement.

Kendra’s plan included a number of specific steps and actions:

  • She committed to scheduling regular meetings with her top five colleagues on a monthly basis to understand more of their priorities and areas of common interest.
  • She began seeking advice from these peers as she was crafting new projects and proposals. “Shopping ideas around” and seeking input was new to her as in the past she felt she had to only communicate when her plans were set. Her new approach signaled valuing input from others and even if she didn’t incorporate all the suggestions offered, it signaled her valuing their perspective.
  • She recruited a coach to help her improve her conflict management skills.

In those first meetings with peers, she shared her goal of wishing to improve her collaborative behavior with peers and asked for any tips or advice. Not only was she practicing her coachability ‘seek and respond’ habit, but she was also inviting her colleagues to serve as her coach and not critic. Remember, many of those peers gave her low ratings on her prior leadership survey.

A Learning Partnership

Kendra took one other step to increase her odds of sustaining momentum. She partnered with another executive MBA student to support each other’s plan follow-through. She met monthly with Greg, who was well regarded as a collaborative leader but needed to show more strategic thought-leadership to advance in his career. It was a perfect peer-coaching match as Kendra scored high in strategic thinking and could offer much to help Greg. In turn, Greg provided an insightful sounding board as Kenda navigated the feedback and challenges to working better with her peers.

After five months, it was time to administer the follow-up survey. Kendra selected a handful of survey items well aligned with her action plan, including:

  • Achieves objectives requiring a high level of cooperation from people in other parts of the organization.
  • Promotes a high level of cooperation between all members of the workgroup.
  • Resolves conflict within the workgroup.
  • Stays in touch with issues and concerns of others.

A week before graduation, a progress survey debrief class was held and final grades were issued. A review of the cumulative survey results for the cohort showed encouraging improvement overall, with 90% of the students rated as “improved” to “significantly improved” with their leadership development efforts. Kendra was no exception and her report showed positive scores on most of her collaborative leadership survey items. The open-ended comments reinforced that others saw growth as well, including:

  • “She has become more aware of her impact on others and now takes the initiative to ensure others are engaged and being heard.”
  • “Very active now seeking feedback, and she demonstrates a strong commitment to improve as a leader.”
  • “She is more willing to listen to input from others before making decisions that affect them.”

My final advice to the class was to follow-up one more time with their raters. Thank them for their feedback and let them know you are open to ongoing observations as you continue to grow. Kendra would agree, the follow-up is never ending for someone open to see themselves as a works-in-progress, a coachable leader
whose report card will always show a “K” for lifelong learning.