Book Reviews

Action Learning:
How the World's Top Companies
are Re-Creating Their Leaders and Themselves      

Author               D. Botlich & J. Noel
Publisher         Jossey Bass, 1998
ISBN                   0-7879-0349-3
Reviewer          Basil P. Rouskas
                            CEO, NovAspire, Inc.
Stars                  3 ½

Stars ratings:    
1=Don’t bother  
2=Limited value
3=You should read it     
4=You should read it, buy it and revisit it often

What is this book about?

This is a fascinating book on the method of Action Learning as a holistic tool for Leadership Development. 

The authors describe Leadership Development as a process that requires Cognitive, Emotional and Business Relevance.  They contrast it with other Leadership Development practices such as Executive MBA programs, Outward Bound experiences, and Feedback Based Coaching or Developmental business assignments.  They make a very convincing case about Action Learning as a superior, holistic method that lasts, directly impacts the organization and offers the opportunity to learn leadership by doing things that contribute to the business.

Who should read it?

A must read book for:

Executives responsible for Leadership Development in enterprises committed to thriving in the global arena of the 21st century.

Executives who want to use it for their leadership development or that of their direct reports.

Coaches and Organization Development consultants who facilitate / coach Action Learning projects.

Why should he/she read it?

The book is appropriately short on theory and dedicates most of its pages to actual experiences of the authors and others on what major organizations are doing and have done to transform and develop leaders for their businesses.  Cases from GE, Citibank, Ameritech, Shell, Andersen, Nations Bank and others are very well documented.  This is a book with sound advise on how to institute Action Learning processes and it should be an indispensable tool for Executive Development practitioners, Organizational and Leadership Development consultants and Senior Executives who want to find ways to create leaders for their organization.

Specific checklists and learning summaries at the end of each chapter make the utility of the book very high.  The chapters on the need to grow internally leaders (because you can not buy them all outside), on global leadership, on breaking down functional silos and reconceptualizing the business are outstanding.

What are the main points?

The authors argue that people do not learn leadership by studying cognitive models, although these models are often useful.  People, conversely, do not learn by engaging themselves in some emotional or bonding experience with others such as white water rafting, although they may feel good immersing themselves with others in the task of completing some challenging and risky ventures.  Finally, people do not learn how to be leaders in a vacuum but in the context of their business, industry, customers and suppliers.  Action Learning is a methodology that allows the integration of all three, ergo its claim to be holistic.

The process - simply stated – is the selection of high potential managers and promising leaders to form teams which are then given specific business challenges of the enterprise and are asked to go through a process, varying from weeks to months, culminating with recommendation(s) to the CEO or the Senior Executive Committee. 

The process involves activities teaching skills on how to develop and work as a team, including extensive 360-degree feedback and coaching, and also team building activities such as outward bound or serving meals in a soup kitchen, etc.  Additionally, several experts from academia, the senior executive level, country managers, government leaders present topics relating to the task at hand.  The team then collects extensive amount of information by interviewing customers, benchmarking successful companies and other relevant parties. 

After data has been gathered, the team -- under the facilitation of coaches and applying the team work skills they have learned -- debate the data and come up with a consensus recommendation(s) that needs to be defended to the CEO.  Quite a few of the recommendations from Action Learning processes have historically been implemented, including launching of new products, penetrating new markets, going global and creating new customer service centers.