Biggest Mistake in Action Learning

How a company’s leadership program frustrated their rising talent


One of the services that I offer is evaluating company leadership development programs. For one client, I interviewed several mid-level managers who are experiencing or completed one of their leadership programs.

From one particular interview, I discovered a flaw in their action-learning projects. Here’s what happened.

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During a group interview with three senior directors, they explained how executives had selected them for an action learning project.

They had high praise for their action-learning experience and described how the program helped them develop their leadership capabilities.

What action learning is

Before continuing, I’ll explain action learning.

Action learning is a way to develop professionals by having them work in a team that focuses on a problem — usually at the enterprise level.

Participants benefit by developing leadership skills while working cross-functionally. The company benefits by gaining the team’s insights, recommendations, or solutions.

Projects can be broad such as analyzing ways to increase operational productivity, or specific, such as evaluating the company’s employee engagement process. Teams might even develop an intervention, such as an enterprise mentoring program.

The action-learning experience is similar to any cross-functional project but with some additions. Before starting, participants work with a coach to set specific developmental objectives. The coach then guides the team to identify project objectives and plans. Throughout the project, the coach works with the team and individuals to achieve their objectives. Sometimes, coaches have participants write journal entries about their experiences.

The interviewees’ action-learning experience

The three senior directors described their action-learning experience and explained how…