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Thought Leadership Development
in Organizational Networks

Insights and lessons learned.

Rockefeller Foundation staff take part in an Emerging Leadership Development Program.

Leaders flourish when they have dedicated space to learn. Building networks that convene leaders from across global organizations not only develops individuals’ talent and expertise, but also supercharges that network and its impact. As we learned in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, “When there is collective leadership, there is power to make changes.”

The Rockefeller Foundation employed this philosophy for change leadership by investing in two custom leadership development programs over the past three years: one for emerging leaders and the other for executives. Our evaluations revealed three key insights for how to carry out thought-leadership development that can be applied at any organization.

Ambitions for Program Design

Our internal Organizational Development and Learning team was challenged with creating a learning environment where authenticity was welcomed and expected. The ambition was to invest not only in the leadership of our own talent at The Rockefeller Foundation, but to expand and deepen our impact by bringing along partners from key organizations within our network. We believed an inter-organizational learning approach would stretch our colleagues beyond their comfortable ways of working and enable critical reflection and creativity. So that participants could have the most organic interactions possible within a meticulously designed itinerary, we needed to find ways to rapidly establish trust.

Rockefeller Foundation staff from across our NY, DC, Nairobi, and Bangkok offices gather at Pocantico, New York for the Emerging Leadership Development Program.

The composition of the learning cohorts was crucial to an exceptional experience. The executive leadership training was comprised of internal leaders, alongside the Foundation’s grantee and partner leaders from diverse geographies and subject matters. The emerging leader’s cohort was comprised of mid-career level staff across our global offices and departments, selected through an internal open application process.

Three key lessons learned

  1. Collective approaches to leadership development are most powerful when designed to elicit purposeful interaction. Research, data-driven techniques, and engagement survey feedback were leveraged to build the itinerary, comprised of simulations, case studies, and expert facilitation. Action Learning approaches were incorporated throughout the programs, making sure that exercises were real and not hypothetical. Participants learned from contemporary challenges that reflect the real complexity and problems of organizational life. This created a tension in the programs that exposes not only learnings, but an opportunity to make real change.

The programs equipped participants with skills to “help them to address complex social, economic and environmental challenges,” said participant Kennith Misiga in Nation Africa.

  1. Thought leadership is grounded in expertise and field-authority, but can flourish through a leader’s authenticity and originality.
    Intentionally bringing your personality to the table in addition to your expertise makes for stronger leadership. This requires advanced self-awareness. Participants learned to balance their personal and professional identities.
    In one exercise, leaders underwent a series of leadership-style and personality-type assessments, and then analyzed their own influence approaches and how to adapt styles to communicate more effectively with those across the table.
    These exercises necessitated participants’ full commitment—and at times vulnerability—while avoiding overly contrived trust-building exercises. This intentionality was essential to ensuring the network of participants would reach their full collective potential. The participants gained insight about themselves, how they show up at work, and how to engage with colleagues more authentically to communicate with greater impact.

Being around RF colleagues and partners has had an immediate impact on my day-to-day,” said Andrew Sweet, Vice President for Innovation at The Rockefeller Foundation. “Our team has already started to take action on improving how meetings are run and building a common understanding for how to build and re-build trust.”

  1. Learned leadership traits can be shaped through inter-organizational learning approaches, multi-dimensional feedback and relationship-building. Opening up to a diversity of mindsets, data, personality types, expertise, and leadership styles makes us more informed and experienced leaders and can trigger creative problem-solving for collective good. Just because someone may have a personality type where confrontation is more difficult does not mean they will never be able to voice a strong opinion in a meeting. Development learning should enable leaders to stretch their capacity and equip them with strategies for how to thrive in their work environment. This can be done by offering and requesting feedback and having partners in accountability for practicing new behaviors and applications.

The bottom line: Profound progress is accelerated at the intersection of authenticity, collective learning, and deep expertise. Strategic networks can be a catalyst for positive change.