For the seasoned leader, talk of an executive team planning retreat or development activity featuring experiential learning conjures up dark thoughts about trust exercises (that’s right, the one where you fall backwards into a colleague’s arms), ropes courses or even bungy jumping!
Fear not, the world has moved on from those heady days of equating leadership development with putting your life at risk, or at least updating your health insurance plan.
Experiential learning is the new black – it’s back, and now far more sophisticated compared to the “Bear Grills days” of 10 to 20 years ago. Here at QUT (The University for the Real World) experiential learning is front and centre of our executive education offerings, whether it be with management teams from organisations such as Super Retail, Suncorp or Defence, or in our Executive MBA program (ranked number 1 in the country by the Boss Magazine, Australian Financial Review).
Dr Brett Heyward, Professor of Practice, Graduate School of Business and QUTeX, talks about why experiential learning has made such a comeback.
“For Executives to “get it” they need to feel it”, says Dr Heyward, himself, a former CEO of several large organisations, now an education leader at QUT.
“The key is to create learning activities that help executives internalise what the key elements coming out of the research on leadership and executive development – it’s learning through doing!”
“There are so many executive programs out there that treat participants as empty vessels – just bombarding people with facts on PowerPoint slides. The focus is purely on logic and rationalisation. To change and to adapt, you need to talk to the non-rational as well. Yes, the use of metaphor and stories are important, but the executive needs to feel it to believe it.”
“Every parrot in every pet shop is banging on about living in a VUCA world (a term coined by the US military to describe a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity); people get it. The trick is helping them (executives) to adapt in order to deal with this new reality. You can get swamped by the wave, or you can surf it to the shore.”
QUT brings the experience of dealing with a VUCA world to the classroom via a range of experiential learning activities. “Recently, we were able to take the top 60 executives from a large retailing group and put them through their paces, using a simulation-based on the Mars Rover Expedition.
For another executive group, we helped them understand the power of teamwork through an art-based activity, leaving them with a Rich Picture of the complicated landscape they find themselves operating in.
The exercise was so powerful, the artwork they created forms the core of their strategic plan – it has brought the whole executive team together.”