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Can CEOs learn? | IMD Business School

IMD CEO Learning Center hosts roundtable to identify the barriers
December 2016

CEOs, more than anyone, know that it can be lonely and uncomfortable at the top. The IMD CEO Learning Center recently hosted a roundtable to address this and other challenges faced by CEOs in their attempts to maintain a learning mindset.

About 60 CEOs from international Fortune 500 companies gathered to explore their triggers and disablers for learning during plenary presentations by IMD faculty as well as in small group sessions lead by experienced coaches.

IMD CEO Learning Center Director Professor Ben Bryant explained how some of the most valuable learning opportunities for senior executives come during times of ‘dissonance’, which can be experienced as a sense of discomfort. For some it is a new role or context, for others it can be a life-shaking personal event or business failure. The role of CEO can also be prone to specific learning ‘disablers’ that can inhibit learning opportunities. The extent of a CEO’s ability to take full advantage of these opportunities and overcome these disablers can have impact both personally and throughout the business they lead.

“Leaders who think that learning is something other people do are destined to repeat history, not shape it,” Professor Bryant said.

While strict confidentiality was maintained, several themes emerged from the work of the small groups (facilitated by some of IMD’s most experienced coaches). The themes related to: excessive conviction, defen­siveness, and fear of vulnerability. The roundtable also demonstrated how powerful peer dialogue can be in creating learning, especially at the most senior levels of the organisation.

“This was learning at its best, said Werner Geissler, Operating Partner at Advent International and Retired Vice Chairman of The Procter & Gamble Company. “The learning CEO and leader is absolutely essential to the long-term survival of any organization. This event helped every participant to become a better learner. I wish I had it earlier in my career.”

The IMD CEO Learning Center aims to explore, understand, and develop the capacity for learning among CEOs and senior executives. It examines their critical relationships with their organizations, their board, their executive team, and most importantly, themselves, and how these relationships can foster or inhibit learning.

Finding a personal learning space might be a solution to this – a space where a CEO can go deeper, beyond ‘cliché learning’ toward more profound insights about themselves, their projections, transferences, displace­ments and denials. For some CEOs, the roundtable provided an opportunity to start exploring some of these deeper universal human phenomena. To continue this journey, the IMD CEO Learning Center plans to host a small group of CEOs for a learning retreat in the Alps. CEOs will explore their triggers and obstacles to learning through regular reflection and by tapping into the perspectives of IMD faculty, executive coaches and their peers in small groups. This shift to deeper learning has the potential to eventually reinvent the role of CEO and the organizations they lead.

Learn more about the IMD CEO Learning Center