Bluegreen Learning

Learning Live: How GE leaders learnt about leadership by helping a Kenyan school

A two day programme, aimed at high-potential leaders, took an innovative approach fuelled by the collaborative mindset of three business partners. When there is enough trust between people to take risks, the results can be exciting.

Who was involved?

James Waithaka and Karen Waithaka Ngugi are the proprietors and directors of Summit Schools, Maragua, Kenya. (We got to know them through our contacts at Extraordinary Leadership.) This primary and secondary school has a vision to grow the number of pupils to around double the current size. Growing the school capacity has implications for school facilities and infrastructure, including needing more water.

GE Healthcare has built a reputation for excellence in leadership development over decades. Their leaders demand learning approaches that are challenging, relevant and credible. Our GE client – Mary Ellen Rogahn – was also open to experimenting with evolving new approaches.

The course tutors were Rob Sheffield, from Bluegreen Learning, and Anne Stenbom from ASK Coaching. They had worked together since 2004 and built trust through working on difficult assignments. They had also learnt to welcome each other’s willingness to try new approaches.

The challenge

The challenge was how to engage 135 leaders from over twenty countries in four cohorts on a two day leadership programme. It was to be run, at different times, in Istanbul (Turkey), Waukesha (USA) and Uppsala (Sweden). The formal learning aims for participants covered leadership effectiveness, cross-cultural intelligence and personal accountability – all based on a model of understanding and applying emotional intelligence.

The Big Idea: open innovation applied to leadership learning

Our solution was to design an experiential two‐dayprogramme that invited the GEHC leaders to work on real challenges to aid Summit Schools‘ plans for growth. It was a type of live open innovation event, with James and Karen as the clients, GEHC leaders using their talents and skills as a resource group, and Rob and Anne being custodians of the learning process.

Designing the case study

With the client

We agreed with James the five specific challenges for his school that were timely, relevant and most impactful. We also agreed that James would brief the group by phone during the programme and be available at the end of the event, to receive a Skype presentation on the group’s work and give them immediate feedback.

The learning process

It is possible to become absorbed in an interesting project and learn very little! We planned for learning to be a central part of the experience: 

  • Participants were required to demonstrate personal accountability by considering the skills they wanted to practice over the two days. They were then able to receive feedback from fellow participants on their individual learning goals.
  • We anticipated that teams would form around the five specific challenge areas, though we gave the whole group the decision about how to organise themselves.
  • A representative from each challenge team was nominated for the “senior leadership team’. This team’s role was to provide overall direction and ensure that learning needs were being met.
  • A “media team” was established, with members from the challenge teams, to capture the learning from the overall group on video. This team presented their findings to the overall group after the client presentation on Day 2.

The results

Across the four programmes and in total 135 participants, the great majority found the experience unusual, relevant and exciting. One participant said that in all training in his 10 years with the corporation it was by far the best (because of the case study).  Another participant said that he had been on many training courses with case studies, “but never a live one and never one like this. It was so inspiring, and very timely, given what the company is currently trying to achieve.”

Participants’ learning

By the end of day 1, teams had formed and had defined and shared their personal learning goals. Most reported a strong task focus on the challenge set and rapid idea generation. Participants quickly got into problem–solving mode, and there was a high level of energy and excitement. At the same time the teams realised they needed to manage their time, focus on their learning goals and connect with others to avoid duplication and benefit from what each team was generating.  

Some participants from the first cohort donated their efforts and time to communicate their learning to participants in the following programmes. Post‐class they were able to practice working across the boundaries of cultures, cross­generational issues and time zones. They were also confronted with the difficulty of focusing on this project when every day work and family life takes precedence.  

The beauty of the case‐study challenge was that it provided a way for leaders to put their energy for learning at the service of a greater cause – a form of sustainable learning! It also mirrored one of the daily challenges of their working lives: how to extract meaningful learning about leadership while completing an absorbing, purposeful task.

Tutors’ learning

  • The design helped make the learning ‘stick’. The immediacy of the case design brought emotions to the fore: hope, pride, frustration, anxiety, empathy, excitement. The presence of these emotions helped participants identify, regulate and utilise them for the benefit of project and learning goals.
  • It aids the corporate social responsibility agenda of a company and individuals.
  • The programme gave more realistic and deeper learning for participants because they negotiated with each other, ‘live’ on real work.  
  • It provided tangible benefits to the case study client, in a number of ways (immediate and longer term).  

A longer version of this can be downloaded here.