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Practise Makes Perfect

Practise is critical for senior leaders too, says Jean-Francois Manzoni


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Jean-Francois Manzoni, Professor of Management Practice, The Shell Chaired Professor of Human Resources and Organisational Development and Academic Director, INSEAD Global Leadership Centre

Professor Manzoni’s research, teaching and consulting activities are focused on leadership and the management of change at the individual and organizational levels. A citizen of Canada and France, Professor Manzoni worked with Ernst and Young in Montreal before receiving an M.B.A. from McGill University and his Doctorate from Harvard Business School. Prior to (re)joining INSEAD in 2011, he spent six years at IMD (Lausanne), where he served as Professor of Leadership and Organisational Development.

Time is never on the side of senior leaders aiming to achieve sustainable change. Leaders who have developed new ideas and new perspectives need to build confidence in their own ability to apply these in the real world. They need to practice these ideas before they have the confidence to take the decisions that will put them into action successfully.

To address this need for practise, INSEAD has made the bold move to develop a senior executive program that requires its participants to attend campus for one month, spread over three modules across the better part of half a year.

Prof Jean-Francois Manzoni has been directing senior leadership programs at top business schools for the last 12 years and has seen the limitations that even the best programs encounter. “We can develop excellent, impactful interventions [for senior executives] where people leave full of energy and new ideas – but these often get lost quickly afterwards – there is a real sustainability issue. Knowledge is not as easy to implement as it looks!” says Manzoni.

Changing behaviours is what leadership programs are about – and realistically that cannot be done in a few days. So while participants at the best programs almost always get their ‘a-ha!’ moment, when they gain a new perspective on how to deal with intransigent issues, implementing that change when back in the work-environment can be extremely challenging, and “often ends in frustration and failure”, explains Manzoni. He has explored, over the years, many different ways to improve this ‘learning-doing gap’ and is convinced that, as with learning at all levels, in order to achieve lasting change even the most senior executives need to practise what they learn.

“Senior executives are intelligent, and they get the conceptual level of the ideas – but what they need to do is then experience it. The decisions they take have wide impact on their companies, and this brings a level of risk that can prevent them from experimenting with new methodologies and processes when back at work. By practising the new concepts in the modules on campus in a safe environment, and then being encouraged to repeat and reinforce those actions between the modules in, at first, small ways is a self-improving process. When they have practised these ideas they are more likely to give them a try – and be more thoughtful about it. Having thought about it makes them clearer about what they need to do, and this, in itself, makes the process less of a risk. They will also be less anxious and that makes for better execution too.”

The critical element in this process is time. The initial experiential, role-playing and simulation activities can all be conducted in face-to-face modules – with the intervention of coaches – and plenty of senior leader programs do this. What Manzoni is now developing is a program that focuses only on the three core concepts of organizational, interpersonal and intrapersonal leadership and does not get diluted by other classic senior leader program topics such as strategy or marketing. And then stretches this across five months so that behaviours have the time and space to be changed incrementally, building confidence in doing so – to achieve lasting and therefore sustainable change.

Manzoni admits that the ‘big intervention’ element is something of an experiment. “We know that all the elements work individually, but we also know that with leadership programs the old adage ‘no pain, no gain’ can be turned on its head… ‘no gain equals pain’! We know that too much of what happens in [senior] leadership programs is not impactful – with the extended time period and the exclusive leadership focus we believe that we can make this much more impactful”.

Prof Manzoni is program director of INSEAD's LEAP (Leadership Excellence through Awareness and Practice) program.

As one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD brings together people, cultures and ideas from around the world to change lives and to transform organisations.

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