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How Learning Circles are Key to Leadership Success

Learning circles allow your people to discuss and reflect on successes and challenges in the organization. Read this blog to learn the benefits of learning circles and how to organize one.

At the start of 2021, our team expanded from a primarily UK to pan-European focus. In addition to increasing the diversity of the team, this transformation has also enabled a broader diversity of thoughts, perspectives, ideas, and an enhanced sense of personal growth and purpose. To integrate all these various ideas and development, it is important for organizations to have solid leadership.

Josh Bersin said that leadership success today was about networking, influencing, including, empowering, and developing others. The ‘developing others’ bit is interesting, as it takes me back to a McKinsey article about why leadership development fails. The article highlighted 4 main reasons:

  • Context that is overlooked
  • Decoupling reflection from real work
  • Underestimating mindsets
  • Failure to measure results

So, how can we overcome these drawbacks, while at the same time enhance those areas Bersin says are key to leadership success? Are learning circles the answer?

The next paragraphs will explain what a learning circle is, the benefits of a learning circle, and how you can organize a learning circle in your organization.

What is a learning circle?

The term “learning circle” is used to describe a process where a group of people comes together to gather ideas, plan, structure, and learn continuously. This mechanism encourages each person to have equal participation and to develop a sense of ownership of his/ her ideas and actions.

Learning circles provide a forum for participants to discuss and reflect on successes and challenges, which will hopefully spark ideas for any ongoing development. They are straightforward to run, easy to set up and work both virtually and face-to-face.

The benefits of learning circles

  • It shows the link between development activities and delivering organizational goals – learning circles are an excellent vehicle to help participants understand how their own personal growth is linked to the growth of the organization—this addresses “decoupling reflection from real work”.
  • Alignment to evolving and changing business context – the ongoing nature of learning circles provides an opportunity to regularly refocus and take an agile approach to development—this overcomes context being overlooked.
  • Maintains development momentum – the ongoing process of learning circles helps sustain development growth, allowing participants to understand what has worked well, what the challenges have been, and what the collective group insight says about the achievement of results.
  • Encourages the sharing of ideas and feedback – this helps shift mindsets, empowers others, and encourages inclusivity.
  • Opportunity to increase transparency within the team and align cross-team goals and objectives – this addresses many of the factors highlighted by Bersin and also aligns with McKinsey’s point of underestimating mindsets.
  • Drive internal networks and senior stakeholder involvement in the development of your talent – this links directly to Bersin’s networking and inclusivity elements, and addresses the underestimating mindsets challenge.
  • Builds inclusion and a sense of belonging – the approach is ideal for encouraging a diversity of thought and making people feel valued.

Learning circles provide a forum for participants to discuss and reflect on successes and challenges, which will hopefully spark ideas for any ongoing development.

How to run a 1-hour learning circle with your team or colleagues

1. Set a strategic direction for the circle

This ensures there is a strategic focus, creates a message which emphasizes that development is future-focused, contextualized to the organization, and linked directly to individual’s own roles. What really works is bringing in a senior-level stakeholder to provide strategic perspective and discuss challenges for the organization going forward.

This process brings purpose to the session and addresses the issue of organizational context being overlooked. That strategic focus also encourages a one-organization view rather than siloed perspective.

2. Focus on development success achieved and challenges faced

The group needs to discuss respective development successes – What was it that A did to successfully achieve that objective? Was it his/ her behavior, knowledge, or skills? Maybe there was a key person or team A connected with? What can the rest of the team leverage from A’s approach?

In terms of challenges faced, on the other hand, focus on the area of potential development – B has faced particular challenges influencing senior stakeholders – what would the team do differently? What perspectives could they provide B?

This approach provides transparency, enhances collaboration, supports networking, helps change mindsets, and provides that important balance between performance and development.

And to make the sharing process more interactive, organizations can also use online collaborative tools such as Beekast or Miro.

3. Agree on development actions to take forward

After you and your team have identified several points, agree on what development actions participants need to take forward and set some measures that can help indicate if these actions have been successful—you need to understand what value these actions will bring to us individually and to the organization. Moreover, think of how you will provide each other challenges and support to ensure you are set up for success. This includes thinking about what development focus the participants can provide their own teams to support each of their personal growth. All of these considerations will help organizations drive a development momentum.

Finally, I just want to say that learning circles help shift mindsets, engage others, bring development to life, and help encourage personal growth. They are also easy to run and fun to participate in. Taking this forward, try to organize your next team meeting as a learning circle—it could be a pleasant surprise.

Listen to our podcast where we discussed how learning circles can help your organizations boost ongoing development, drive collaboration, and reduce siloes.

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Andrew Geake

In his 20+ years at SHL, Andrew has supported a wide range of organizations in the delivery of a range of activities including leadership development, organizational development, high potential identification, competency design, training, data analytics, solutions development. Andrew’s interest in how transformation impacts people and organizations, in particular leadership and D&I, is borne out of his experience of working with a diverse range of clients in North America, Africa, Europe, Middle East and Asia. Away from work, Andy enjoys creative writing, reading, eating out, travel, and watching his young daughter perform in various musical productions!

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