Custom programs are, by definition, designed to fit the exact needs of the client organization. The reality is that in many cases clients’ needs are quite similar. They struggle with the same challenges and issues, whether that is in developing leadership skills, fostering creativity and innovation, building resilience or other frequently encountered management issues.
The temptation for the provider is to then roll out a pick’n’mix of previous modules to fit the client’s requirements – and in many cases, if the diagnostics have been done well, this is actually entirely sufficient. Clients should feel under no obligation to reinvent the wheel – at significant cost – just because they can. In truth, it is difficult to create entirely original programs for any significant numbers of people in a cohort. Where real value can be added, and the detailed tailoring has the greatest impact, is in designing programs that meet the individual needs of each of the participants.
GAIA Insights’ ASPIRE program takes this approach. Being a smaller provider than the best-known brands, it does not need to attract large numbers of participants to a program to cover costs, and this gives it an instant head-start in that the program is capped at a maximum of 30 participants, and has an optimal number of between 16 and 24 per cohort. This allows the program to be very tightly tailored both to the client organization’s business requirements and current challenges, and the individual participant’s specific needs. For Martina Mangelsdorf, Founder and CEO of GAIA Insights, having a manageable number in a cohort is key to ASPIRE’s success, “the client can choose from the menu for the standard elements, and then we offer add-ons depending on whatever their learning objectives are for the participants” – so far so familiar, but she continues “every cohort has at least two external mentors, who are the lead facilitators, specifically trained to take the participants through the journey. They take participants through all the webinars and live modules, throughout the entire program. They can relate content and context from earlier sessions back to the participants to make the connections – they are the red threads of the program. And because our programs are long-term, the shortest is spread over nine months, the longest twice that, we really get to know the participants and closely engineer their individual learning experiences.”
A central part of most ASPIRE programs are live modules in a unique location. These have varied over the years from Brazil to Costa Rica to Ghana, India or Vietnam, though can equally be in more developed locations in Europe or North America. Here participants are tasked with using their skills to improve local challenges and deal with ambiguity. Mangelsdorf sees that senior executives, while often having to make business decisions based on little or insufficient evidence, actually rarely experience ambiguity in their daily lives themselves. They have their diaries minutely plotted out for months in advance, with flights and tickets handed to them as they leave by their assistants. “They are so protected where they are as leaders” she observes. So not announcing what happens on the program is a significant element. “For instance, recently in Ghana, the participants knew where they were flying to, and they knew they would be working with local NGOs on some projects on the ground but they had no idea how they would be split up. They had no idea what the projects were. They had no idea what would be asked from them, it was challenging – and it was on purpose that they didn’t know.”
Similarly, with the peer coaching, the program mentors may put people together who they know will not get on with each other – and then monitor that very closely, and facilitate any fallout that may arise. “We foresee the conflict and we want it to happen; we know that they will butt heads and we want to use that as a learning opportunity and then debrief that with them.”
We tend to modify our behaviours most significantly when we have experienced both a negative emotion and then understood or had revealed how we can avoid that situation again. Engaging in unfamiliar tasks in unfamiliar locations, and perhaps with a team that you are not at your most comfortable with, clearly fosters a higher stress – but carefully managed – environment, where tensions can arise. That is the experience, but really the learning happens in the facilitated discussions that unpack that experience and highlight how it could be better handled in the future. These experiences really build resilience and sustained behavioural change.
Due to the duration of the program over several months, the ASPIRE journey is grounded in its online connections between the live modules to keep participants connected and engaged in the learning and with each other. GAIA Insights either uses clients’ existing online platforms for facilitating discussion forums and hosting the knowledge libraries, or they offer their own bespoke platform. “These are the basic elements of what the program needs to work – a social platform, personalized mentoring and the portal as a web-based backbone where we have the knowledge library and homework assignments, where content is carefully curated to match the learning themes of that program, to make sure it is easily accessible to them. In addition, we have, ideally, bi-weekly webinars – that provide content delivered by subject matter experts and are mandatory. Mandatory is critical, as we know all our participants are extraordinarily busy, and skipping a webinar is so easy. But if you don’t make the time then you will not have these incremental, small step changes – and real change only happens over time if you actually keep doing it. These webinars are very interactive, they are not lectures, participants are brought in and need to be able to respond – so you really need to listen and speak up.”
Similarly, the program participants have assignments to complete between the webinars – which are facilitated by the mentors and subject matter experts. Frequently this will be keeping a journal of their behaviours with specific focus on the program themes and the participants’ individual learning objectives, which might be influencing or intrapreneurship or political intelligence, whatever the client has selected. The learning methodology here is that the themes are repeated throughout the program. “It’s very deliberate, where and when through the journey a topic comes back. It is engineered repetition – and it’s always intentional” stresses Mangelsdorf.
Learn more about GAIA Insights’ ASPIRE Program