Does Your Leadership Program Pack Heat?

Modern office group

How do we develop our future executives? As we saw in a previous post in this series, Jeff Immelt, former CEO of GE, challenges his potential C-Suite leaders to answer these questions: ‘How fast can you learn, how much can you take, and how much do you want to give back?’ These questions can guide the design of an impactful development intervention.  

On the question of ‘how fast can you learn’ we can help our future executives learn like an expert by ensuring there is enough well-supported ‘heat’ or challenge in the program design.  

Heat experiences  

A learning strategy with ‘heat’ will have the right amount of challenge to get our future executives out of their comfort zones and disrupt their habitual way of thinking. Nick Petrie, from the Centre in Creative Leadership says that learners will know that they are in a heat experience when they face three or more of the following conditions:  

  • It is a first-time experience  
  • Results matter 
  • There is a chance of success and failure  
  • Important people are watching  
  • It is extremely uncomfortable 

Petrie observes that while most people try to avoid the heat, the price of development is that you often need to ‘seek the heat.’   

Packing heat in the seminar room 

Research tells us that the kind of heat our future executives need can best be found in the workplace: challenging assignments scaffolded by supportive managers, mentors, or an external coach. However, just as future pilots benefit from a flight simulator before they take the controls, our future leaders can also accelerate their learning through well-designed experiential challenges. These include Petrie’s conditions, and can be: 

  • Context-relevant case studies and simulations which require adaptive decision making and defence of decisions to a critical audience 
  • Presentation of a business case for change to a panel of organisational leaders; answering tough questions about their business or policy logic  
  • Competitive innovation pitches with expert feedback after each round 
  • Debate challenges and hypotheticals requiring participants to understand and respond to multiple perspectives and worldviews. 

These are just a few of the strategies for developing learning agility. They are not for the faint-hearted or those who want their executive development to be a series of cosy fireside chats. They will suit those organisations and sectors who want vertical development and growth to be the return on their executive development investment.  

In the next post in the series on Designing Your High Potential Leadership Program we will look at program evaluation. 


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Petrie, N. (2020).  Heat experiences: The fuel of growth. LinkedIn. 


Dr Kate Joyner is the Interim Director, Corporate Programs and Learning Innovation in the Graduate School of Business, QUT. Kate provides academic leadership for the Public Sector Management Program and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership, systems thinking and strategy. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century.

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