Learning to lead in a transforming world

This summer I had the privilege of taking an online course. Usually you don’t hear the term “privilege” and “online course” in the same sentence, because online courses have such dismal completion rates. But my experience was so good I felt I should share.

3 charts showing course completion rates for Coursera in 2018: for non-degree consumer completion is 4% for unpaid, 50% for paid. For Enterprise learners 44% completion. For Degree consumers 89% completion.
Coursera course completions can be as low as 4% — from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2019 report

The course was a five week Executive Education program from INSEAD called Leading Organisations in Disruptive Times. I was lucky that my company paid for the experience. I was pretty wary. The course is the first in a 3 course sequence to get online certification for “Leading in a Transforming World.” However, since my experience with the first course was so good, I intend to continue on with the program and obtain the certificate.

I have spent the last 7 years working on change initiatives in various companies, and INSEAD is a world-class business school, so it makes sense to brush up on some of the established frameworks and get better at this thing I do.

Leading Organisations in Disruptive Times was great for introducing tools for leading change. The course focused on the high-level factors involving change, rather than the on-the-ground tools and processes of change management that a program/project manager would employee. It covered decision-making, political challenges, and cultural impacts from a leadership perspective. I will give a bit of a summary of the course content, but first I would like to talk about how they approached the assignments, including the final project.

Since this is “executive education” and most of the participants are elbows-deep in their roles, INSEAD had each participant use a change initiative they are currently working on to be their case study. This meant by merely doing the course work each week you were pushing your “real” work forward. Each week we were given valuable “reflection time” to think about how things have been done and how they could be done; the opportunity to fit your initiative into the frameworks presented that week; and for the final project you were to develop a deck for moving your initiative further, something you could ideally use as-is at your company.

This approach kept the course very engaging. Often we are too busy drinking from the firehose and then quickly moving on to the next thing that we don’t get enough time for reflection. This method made the course immediately practical. Secondly, each participant was assigned a “learning coach” — a professional business coach engaged by INSEAD to give personalized feedback on your progress each week. My coach was excellent, she challenged me each week… I admit my ego was a little bruised! Besides giving practical reflection time and coaching, we also had study groups. My study group was a handful of participants from different backgrounds across Europe. We met 3 times on Zoom and had a number of email exchanges. All these steps made the course much more engaging, and gave it a classroom atmosphere.

The content was delivered by mostly video lectures featuring two very charismatic profs: Jose-Luis Alvarez and Charles Galunic. These two were great on screen, and during the course did a live call-in to answer questions, and also answered forum questions on video. This also added to the classroom atmosphere.

I know a thing or two about online courses (ahem… employer), and I think INSEAD did an excellent job, not only with the curriculum, but more importantly with the execution. It is no wonder they have a 95% completion rate.

What was covered

The course was split into four sections. The first covered topics of justice, and the 5 step cycle of Fair Process Leadership. This is a very helpful little tool that can be used for decision-making small or large. The big takeaway for myself was how important it is to spend more time on the first two steps — to frontload the cycle to gain appropriate buy-in. I am a solutions-oriented guy, so I often jump to decision-making too quickly.

The second week we worked on the 10 Pillars of Change, which included strategies on communication, mobilizing people, and dealing with resistors to change. Change is not a linear process. Some of you might be familiar with s-curves (or double s-curves!) for product dev. However, my big realization while in the course was how to consider multiple change s-curves — one for each stakeholder. Each party will get their payoff at a different time, so it is important to communicate the various timelines clearly (expectation management!) so that one party does not feel left behind and becomes dissatisfied with the whole change initiative, and turn into a Resistor.

The third section was on politics and understanding the various sources of soft power that leaders can use to get a desired outcome without having to force or threaten people with their authority. There was a very interesting Social Network Analysis exercise during that week that had me reaching out to other tech leaders in town.

The final week of content focused on culture. I had already been thinking about company culture and we talked about it at #StartupCoffeeKL in the context of Netflix. This section provided some tools for analyzing and influencing corporate culture.

For the final project we had to create a deck using all of the frameworks we have learned and submit it for peer-review and final marking. I am still waiting on the final score, but I went into the project tied at the top of the class, so I am really hoping for distinction. I spent quite a bit of time evenings and weekends working on the content, but it was very enjoyable and totally worth it. If you have privilege, I would recommend taking this course.

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