Shaping Executive Leadership From 20 Years At The Flipchart

Shaping Executive Leadership From 20 Years At The Flipchart
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In this guest post, Marcus Crow (pictured above), co-founder of 10,000 HOURS, reflects on his 20 years in executive coaching and group facilitation.

This month I began my 21st year in the glorious craft I adore of executive education and group facilitation. When I began in this trade in 1997, teaching presentation skills as a plucky, naive 25-year old at a communication skills consultancy, I remember being worried about the business of training, thinking that surely at some point everyone will be trained and there will no more market for our services. I got that wrong.

In the past 20 years I have been an employed consultant to sell and train, a contract facilitator, an employed facilitator, and a co-founder/facilitator twice. I have delivered around 3,000 days of front-of-room facilitation to a wide yet narrow set of audiences. Wide because they come from all levels, functions and roles in all types of organisational life. Narrow because they belonged to organisations that chose to invest in these premium offerings for their executive education and group facilitation.

 It would be tempting to continue this article as a ‘remember when’ archive of overhead transparencies, CD storage folders, and encountering a VGA plug for the first time. More interesting is how much hasn’t changed.

What hasn’t changed in 20 years is: most people still don’t enjoy presenting; there is no science of selling; innovation in established organisations is hard; leaders are making it up as they go along; and life in groups at work is where many of us experience some of our greatest joys and some of our deepest frustrations.

What has changed is the elusiveness of growth.

In the first decade of my practice, times were pretty good (or good enough). Growing revenues papered over the cracks of interpersonal performance. The CMO and CSO may not be able to stand each other, but nothing that 112 per cent of the annual target, a Christmas party and a tidy bonus couldn’t deal with. Not so now. Those interpersonal tensions cannot be concealed behind discretionary spend. Hence, the work of facilitating an offsite in this new environment has evolved from running a ‘fun’ team building game that is book-ended by management PowerPoint slides, to sitting with seasoned leaders wrestling with unprecedented problems and convening a conversation in pursuit of progress.

Executive presence is still a thing

The likes of TEDx have both elevated and destroyed the craft of oration. Now ‘doing a speech’ is conflated with ‘being a speaker’, as if singing Kids at karaoke makes me Robbie Williams. It is time to move on from the formulaic ‘tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em – tell ‘em – tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em’ fantasy of great oration and start focusing on presence and connection with the room. What do we mean when we talk about presence? It is about commanding the room, not relying on other gimmicks to make what you’re saying interesting; relying on your own sense of confidence and awareness of the audience to present to them what they need. Now, when we practice this aspect of our craft, the work becomes about the relationship created with the audience. The audience is now more savvy and they are tired of being fed lifeless presentations lacking this relationship in a world often lacking interpersonal connection and they will tune out.

In our daily lives we have more webinars, more AI, self-serve and automation. Less connection. Less presence.

Sales professionals need to be a lot fitter these days

A human sales force is expensive, and for that investment to pay, they need to do something a video tutorial and chat bot can’t. That something is context. In 20 years, what is asked of a sales professional has climbed sharply from a rapport-building product expert, via a solution-seller and insight-led seller, to something that might be better described as a socially-aware management consultant. The amount of smarts and awareness needed on the belt of a modern sales professional to be able to generate an insightful, provocative dialogue with their clients that might point to a commercial result for them is huge. What we train sales professionals in these days eclipses entirely the this-then-that sales sequences we can thank Henry Ford and Xerox for bringing into the world in the 1920s and 80s respectively.

Innovation training has boomed – the bust is just ahead

This space often ignores the knotty political constraints engulfing the professionals trying to make a go of it after the workshop. So, from the tasty nugget that was six-thinking-hats more than 20 years ago, we are now slavishly worshipping the ideas coming out of principally one university campus in one West Coast American city. The irony of the whole world copying and pasting one methodology on generating new and novel ideas fascinates me. What’s changed is that these methods often picked up from 10-year-old tech organisations with nary a tangible asset anywhere on their balance sheet are slamming into the brick walls of factories and stores in organisations with legacy assets, and incumbent hard-to-shift practices. Ignoring the histories and constraints wrapped around established enterprise is the blind spot in the typical content being taught as innovation training.

Where to from here?

We are an un-curated industry in organisational development. No bar association. No Royal College of Surgery. No Medicines Australia policing access and ability to practice. No educational hurdle to clear. That means anyone can turn up and have a go. This is a weakness of our practice area. It allows a few poorly-informed, yet vocal, practitioners to win a popularity contest and gain a foothold with ideas and methods that wither on any examination of their efficacy. This is why our audiences often contain a tribe of cynics who justifiably have heard, and been disappointed by, the big promises before. We need to cut through the ‘celebrity culture’ some industries, including our own, can lend themselves to, in order to reveal the scholar practitioners with deep expertise who can effect real change and cultivate the leaders of the next generations.

After 20 years, I now realise management is not a science. It has more in common with a fashion, not unlike Zara and Coco Chanel. They declare proudly what is in this season, implicitly telling us that it will be something else next season and last years looks are no longer in vogue. Management ideas are exactly the same but we rarely vocalise it. I am reminded of the speech Tom Cruise’s Maverick receives before going to Top Gun – “your management idea is writing cheques your applied reality can’t cash”.

From the earliest days, I wondered about the whether the value in the craft was the song or the singer. The content or the facilitator. My then-employer was firmly of the view it was the content, but I watched asymmetry play out in facilitators that were busier than others, meaning the talent at the front of the room must be playing some sort of role in the value experienced by participants. I have since witnessed great facilitators deliver questionable content to great effect. I have also seen good content murdered by incompetent practitioners at the front of the room. So, while I know we would all rather see Adele sing ‘Happy Birthday’ than see me sing Hello, Adele singing Hello is where the magic happens. That quest for mastery of the craft of group facilitation in the presence of wonderful content is the search that continues to animate my every day.

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