Not too long ago TomorrowToday was invited to throw our hat into the ring for the procurement of an Executive Leadership Development Programme for an International Developmental Agency that falls under the auspices of the United Nations. I had done some work for this organization in the Dominican Republic as part of another leadership development programme, a programme coordinated through a prominent South African business school. It had gone very well and an offline conversation with the person who was responsible for leadership development within the Agency, led to TomorrowToday being invited to submit a proposal for this other, more senior, programme.  It was exciting stuff and a dream opportunity to flex our muscle,  our imagination and to further leverage our experience in this area. The deadline was tight and in fact was extended in order to accommodate our submission as well as cast the net wider with the Agency having been disappointed with the submissions in round one. I for one was confident and as I saw our proposal take shape, that confidence grew.

Some of the features that formed the DNA of our proposal and that provided the basis for my confidence included:

  • The core architecture or design team of five included three PhD’s in disciplines such as, cultural anthropology, psychology and future studies.
  • The core team spanned locations including Africa, Asia and the UK  – thereby providing a truly ‘global perspective’
  • Residual expertise (within the core team) including extensive experience in both subject matter and leadership programme development that had been tried and tested in settings such as: Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, the UK, Europe and Africa
  • Serious subject expertise and cutting edge thinking in areas such as leadership education, diversity, strategy, global trends, futures, organizational design, generational theory, talent management, emotional intelligence, social technology / media and innovation – notwithstanding direct links to a host of other subject expertise relevant to a leadership development programme – including yet another ‘PhD’ – this time in leadership education.
  • Extensive international corporate experience which would span over 70 countries and include several Fortune 500 and many blue chip companies
  • The unusual mix of not merely corporate experience but also extensive non-profit experience, specifically that of the youth sector (which was the focus of the Agency in question). The core team alone offered over 40 years experience in this area. This was the one aspect that made me very confident – our ability to create and deliver in what was something of a unique context and do so, in a manner that would exceed expectations.
  • Globally recognized skills in presenting and consulting with the core group also responsible for numerous books, publications and white papers
  • An impressive list of references, endorsements and recommendations from those with whom we had worked in the past
  • A unique mix that would bring together the best of both East and West, the first-world and two-thirds world, the developed economies and developing economies. This coupled with an extensive network through the renowned East West Center that could be called on.

…and so I could go on.

Really, it was impressive stuff. However, the exciting thing was the ability to take the very best of what business schools have to offer (given that this core group are repeatedly called on to teach within various business schools globally), shake it up, add some flair and creativity (and the necessary risk needed for authentic learning), give far greater attention to process and relationship (elements missing from most leadership development programmes where it is predominantly about the curriculum and subject matter), and put together something that would truly make a difference. Something that would add value in terms of leadership for those tasked with making a difference (directly or indirectly) in lives of children in crisis hotspots around the Globe. That was something to get excited about; something to be passionate about…this wasn’t to be the standard leadership fare.

Having submitted the pre-proposal work we waited expectantly convinced that we would at least ‘qualify for the next round’ where the real proposal work and creativity would start. We didn’t hear anything. Eventually, I probed the black hole that confronted us only to be told that we hadn’t been considered as, “we were not a business school”. We hadn’t even made it to the line before the starting line because we ‘weren’t a business school’. I was also informed that unsuccessful applicants were not informed of their lack of success, a politeness that I would have expected from the recipient. Of course I understand the ‘logic’ that underpins such thinking but it is a ‘logic’ that doesn’t hold sway in today’s information based context and one where a simple, polite “thank you but no thank you” would not be out of place. Inexcusable really…but this is another story.

“You are not a business school”. Overlooking that our lack of such status was something that had been, in good faith, overlooked in the invitation for us to submit an application (or pre-proposal), it did show up the absurdity that suggests that only business schools can deliver on such programming. The thing is that when a business school does ‘land such a deal’ they immediately turn to those outside of the school to deliver on the content! What business schools tend to deliver are well-oiled programmes underpinned by a flawed measurement system that keeps everybody happy. However, more often than not, real sustainable learning and behavioral change fails to occur.

What we have today is a matured and extremely successful ‘model’ for leadership education and development that has worked in the past but one that is now showing increasing signs of wear and tear. It is not one that will be sustainable into the future for one main reason: when the next generation of decision-makers arrive in the corner office (that too might not be there!) they won’t be willing to spend the current amounts that are being spent on the entrenched models of learning leadership. It is that simple. They will insist on changes to the ‘classroom’ knowing that content is now the easy part of the equation and so will expect and look for a leadership development process more in line with their understanding of the world and what it will take to keep it going round. This pressure is being experienced currently within many large companies; it is only a matter of time before it knocks on the door of the business school itself.

My disappointment in not getting to the next round in the leadership development programme for the Agency in question was intense. Not because we had not met the mark, but because the reason given for not even considering our offer was so shortsighted. In the real world of change, challenge, pain and conflict that is the context in which this agency operates, I know we could have made a real difference to the strategic leadership in both the theory and practice of those within this agency.

I for one would have loved the opportunity to have been able to deliver on our promise – as after all, theirs is a cause and vocation, close to my heart. This was more than just a leadership development opportunity…another client for a ‘business school’. What a pity they couldn’t see that…or that we are not a ‘business school’!

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