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.

Image of three professionals talking
Image of three professionals talking
Photo by monkeybusiness licensed through Envato

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 they improved how they communicated, built relationships with teammates, and handled conflicts. The project produced improvements in how their contact centers interacted with customers.

From talking with them, I found that the training department that ran the action-learning teams managed the experience effectively with no serious flaws. After completing the project, participants evaluated the program twice: at the end of the project, 60 days later, and then again after 90 days.

The program’s flaw

The flaw that the interviewees revealed had nothing to do with the project experience but with what didn’t happen afterward. When the three senior directors completed the project, they went back to doing their regular jobs. Nothing else happened.

Before the project, executives explained how important each participant was to the company. They promised that they would help them develop their leadership capabilities and prepare them to solve the future's enterprise challenges. Great!

Though since their action-learning project, the executives didn’t include them in any enterprise initiatives. Nothing.

The senior directors wanted to contribute more to the company than just their jobs, and that’s what they expected would result after completing the project.

The End sign photo is by stevanovicigor licensed through Envato

For each action-learning participant, the executives and training department should have ensured that the direct managers created leadership-development plans. After completing the program, they should have ensured that other enterprise project opportunities were available to them — projects that aren’t action learning.

Without having follow-up experiences, providing additional enterprise-related responsibilities, and creating a development roadmap, the action-learning project failed to achieve the program’s broad aim.

About the author

Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at

Gary is a speaker, author, researcher, and leadership futurist.

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