From May 15-17, 2019, I had the pleasure of attending the quarterly Future Workplace member meeting at The Kraft Heinz Company’s headquarters in Chicago. The tone of the meeting was set when it kicked off on Thursday morning with a live poll asking attendees to describe what their HR playbook would focus on for 2020. The top answer was to re-imagine learning & leadership development (41% of attendees), followed closely by “understand the future of skills and jobs” (34%). Smaller pockets indicated that they would be focusing on piloting new technologies such as AI (side note: for a great community learning journey on AI for HR, see this course), VR, and AR (9%), upskilling their HR team (3%), and other (3%).

Re-imagining learning & leadership development being identified early on as a common goal set the meeting up quite nicely for Thursday’s culminating session, “Leadership is not a thing”. Yes, you read that right — with a provocative title like that, it was the session I was most looking forward to when I received the meeting schedule earlier in the week.

The talk was delivered by Ashley Goodall, head of Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence group, and highlighted the main points of the book he recently co-authored with Marcus Buckingham: Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World. It’s a good thing all attendees received a free copy of the book, because learning how the authors support their arguments that people care which company they work for, people need feedback, and people have potential are all lies will warrant much more time for me to delve into!

I would like to share a few of these purported lies, however, as they aligned fairly well with the central themes that emerged from other sessions at the meeting. It is clear that HR and Learning leaders are beginning to implement strategies that reflect an evolving set of definitions of learning and leadership, and are challenging the prevailing notions of what the employee experience should be.

The best companies cascade goals (Lie #3)

The truth, according to the book, is that goals are only useful if we set them ourselves. This notion reverberated throughout many of the other sessions and relates to the idea that in order to create a true culture of learning, skill-building opportunities should not only be about learning the skills directly related to one’s job; rather, employees should be encouraged to break out of their boxes and not just “stay in their lane”. Employees should be allowed to tap into their curiosity, to learn whatever they want to learn so that they find it fun and exciting. This will help them to grow and be resilient to change. A learning leader at a professional services firm shared that his organization has been striving to create learning that is entirely demand-based, encouraging employees to take ownership over their learning. At IBM, a homegrown “CoachMe” tool connects employees that have a goal to develop a certain skill with other employees who are certified as coaches in that skill. This has created a sort of open marketplace for learning as opposed to a top-down “cascade” of competencies and structured learning paths.

Work/life balance matters most (Lie #8)

Another common thread throughout a few of the sessions was employee happiness and the idea of work/life balance. Goodall argued, however, that the problem with work/life balance is the term itself: work and life don’t inherently offset each other, and balance isn’t good–balance is stasis. He said that life contains work; work contains things that lift us up, and life contains things that pull us down. What we should strive for, instead of stasis and a perfect “balance” of the two, is rhythm, motion, and to love both work and life more.

In a session titled “State of Workplace Health & Wellness”, the VP of HR at View, Inc. described how some companies have begun something so simple as swapping out the windows in their building to ones that automatically tint to maximize natural light. She said that when people are asked to imagine a “happy place”, most often they envision themselves in a scenario where they are outside, enjoying the sunshine. Infusing what makes people happy outside of work into the workplace is just one way of blurring the lines between the two. Companies are beginning to undertake a host of other initiatives that may someday eliminate the notion that work and life are two opposing weights that must be balanced.

Leadership is a thing (Lie #9)

In the eponymous final point of his talk, Goodall claimed that leadership is not a definable set of qualities, as countless executive teams and HR or L&D trainers have tried to model throughout history. When you consider famous leaders throughout history, they all have very striking exceptions to the agreed-upon rules of what makes a good leader. So, what do we make of our models of leadership if all of the things in them are optional? The answer, according to Goodall, is that a leader is, quite simply, someone that people choose to follow. And, we follow people who lessen our uncertainty about the future. He argues that leadership isn’t a set of characteristics, but a set of experiences as seen through the eyes of the followers. People hook onto leaders when they see a pronounced level of ability in something that matters to them.

Though I’m sure most of the meeting attendees, being Chief Learning Officers in charge of various leadership & development initiatives, will never be heard saying that “leadership is not a thing”, the underlying point Goodall made was echoed throughout the other sessions. CLOs at Kraft Heinz and BMO Financial Group emphasized the importance of managers and coaches leading by example and modeling what it looks like to learn in the flow of work for their employees.

Look at the followers. If we want to understand leaders we have to understand followers.

– Ashley Goodall, SVP, Leadership and Team Intelligence, Cisco

In making this final point, Goodall said something that I believe was a great takeaway as attendees return to their organizations to re-imagine learning & leadership development: “Look at the followers. If we want to understand leaders we have to understand followers.” The followers are our employees, and truly understanding who they are, what motivates them, and where they want to go, will be paramount in understanding what kind of leaders we are trying to develop.

Lisa Brefini is the Senior Manager of Customer Success at NovoEd and works closely with customers including Comcast, Forrester, Nestle, PerkinElmer, and Yale. She has over 10 years of experience managing online, international, and higher education programs. Prior to joining NovoEd, Lisa advised college students and managed 30 faculty-led study abroad programs at the University of New Hampshire, and served in multiple capacities to advance internationalization as one of the university’s top-twenty strategic initiatives. She holds a master’s degree in International Education Policy from Harvard University.