Task Force Training Develops New Leaders, Solves Real Business Issues and Helps Cut Costs

By Patrick Kiger

May. 21, 2007

As Coca-Cola sets out to develop its next generation of executive talent, the international soft-drink maker isn’t just relying on courses and seminars. Instead, participants will also learn by doing.

    A select group of high-potential leadership candidates from various business functions and countries will soon begin working on a newly formed corporate task force that will spend four to five months tackling a list of “big thorny problems” facing the company, according to Cynthia McCague, senior vice president and human resources director.

    “We believe the vast majority of learning experiences come from doing,” McCague explains.

    Coca-Cola has picked up on what human resources consultants and academics say is a training tool with powerful, if underutilized, potential. Cross-functional corporate task forces and project teams, they say, are good for more than just accomplishing business goals. Such teams can also provide an invaluable training and development experience for high-potential candidates by compelling them to apply their functional expertise at the strategic level and develop big-picture problem-solving skills.

    Experts say that assigning up-and-coming talent to task forces is less expensive than sending them to outside leadership courses, and candidates can learn more by working on a company’s real-life business problems than they would from case studies or role-playing. To make task force assignments most effective as a development tool, companies should offer coaching and debriefing to ensure that the right lessons are reinforced. They also may want to use internal and external surveys to evaluate leadership candidates’ performance and future potential.

    “Some companies let development happen haphazardly, but the smart ones are focused,” explains John Sullivan, a human resources consultant and San Francisco State University management professor. “They’re looking at you and saying, ‘You’re in the succession planning, but you’re not going to get good at baseball by watching. We need to get you in the game.’ Task forces are a way to do that.”

    That’s why Prudential, IBM, General Electric and other forward-thinking companies have been using task forces as a development tool for years, according to Jim Walker, a La Jolla, California-based consultant and founder of the Human Resource Planning Society.

    “I really believe in it as a tool for leadership development,” Walker says. “If you’ve got a business task that needs to be done, why not get some developmental value out of it also? It’s better than sending them off to a workshop at Harvard or someplace, and it’s cheaper too.

    “Ironically, we try to simulate reality in executive training programs by introducing case studies and doing role-playing exercises. Why not just give people the chance to work on a real task with measurable outcomes? That’s the way to build up new strengths and shore up your weaknesses.”

    What makes work-based learning effective is that the projects are real and they matter to the organization, says Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

    “People learn from each other in task forces,” he says. “It’s a way of passing along the tacit knowledge of how things actually get done in the organization, as opposed to the abstractions that you might get in a formal training program.”

    Task forces are a way to prepare leadership candidates for the fluid, multi-dimensional structure that big organizations increasingly will adopt in the future, says Ed Lawler, director of the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California and a professor at the university’s Marshall School of Business.

    “More and more companies are aligning people for functional skills, but also for geography or product line or customer base, so a person might have multiple reporting matrixes,” he explains. “In that environment, you’re putting a premium on the ability to listen to other people and build from their ideas, on the ability to capture input from multiple people and synthesize that into a product that fits the group’s view. Task forces teach you to do that.”

    Beyond that, he notes: “Companies form task forces because they need to adapt to change in their environment, and to do that it’s necessary to break out of the traditional, less-responsible structure. Working on a task force is a chance to learn about managing change, and that’s something for which companies will have an increasing need.”

    Using task forces as a development tool may often require human resources executives to overcome institutional resistance—particularly from line managers who may be more worried about solving a business problem than they are about developing future talent.

    “The managers are likely to say, ‘I don’t care about growing people, particularly for some other part of the organization,’ ” Cappelli says. “Their view is, ‘Let’s get this done right, by the experts.’ “

    Those issues can be resolved, experts say, by putting the neophytes on a task force under seasoned leadership. Steve Gross, a global compensation leader for Mercer Consulting, says every task force should have a sponsor, a senior executive who can observe its work from the outside and offer guidance to the team’s leader. Walker says it sometimes may be useful to bring in an outside consultant to guide the process, though he advises companies not to lean too heavily upon their expertise.

    “Too often, project teams turn into basically a vehicle for supporting outside consultants’ work,” he says. “It’s OK to tap their expertise, but you want the potential leaders to be doing the heavy lifting themselves.”

    Before a task force is convened, experts recommend writing a charter that describes the business purpose and the developmental goal, as well as the expected time commitment and duration. The latter details are crucial, since in most instances a participant will be working on the task force in addition to his or her regular responsibilities.

    “Four to six months is good, because after that people generally start to peter out,” Walker advises. “But in the case of merger-integration task forces, those generally last up to 18 months.”

    The selection of task force members should come next. Cappelli advises companies to have a specific goal for each participant, outlining what they should learn from the experience. Other experts say it’s vital to strike a balance between the task force’s twin objectives and to choose people who have some knowledge of the subject as well as a potentially useful skill set—in addition to needing a leadership development opportunity.

    “It’s great that you’re going to get a chance to learn,” Gross says. “But at some point you also need to get something done.”

    Gross recommends taking particular care in picking the task force’s leader.

    “It can be a developmental experience for that person too,” he says. “But it’s crucial for him or her to have at least some prior leadership experience. The person has to know how to run a meeting, how to gather feedback, how to set ground rules for preparation and hold other people accountable.”

    Another important part of making a task force work as a development tool is for the leader and/or sponsor to help each team member define his or her role.

    “Otherwise, there’s a risk that a person may just become an observer,” Gross warns. “You need to actively observe, but you also need to contribute, because most of the learning will come from an apprentice model—you learn, you do, you get feedback, you learn some more.”

    The learning experience is also enhanced by providing plenty of background content on the task force’s subject for members to absorb.

    “If you’re on a task force to develop a new pay plan, you should be reading up about pay plans,” Gross says. “If it’s a new venture, you need to learn everything that you can about it.”

    University of Michigan professor and author Dave Ulrich agrees. “People need to learn the context and theory behind a task,” he says. “That way, the ideas can be applied later to another setting.”

    In evaluating the performance of a task force as a learning tool, it’s crucial to look not just at the group’s success at achieving its mission, but also at how well individual members are performing. Walker says this can be accomplished by doing external and internal evaluations.

    “You should survey the people that the task force interacts with, especially those who are reviewing their data,” he says. “But you should also survey the members to see how they perceive each other, and how well they think others perform in terms of teamwork, consensus building and sharing of information. You want to see improvement in those areas, because the task force takes people out of their old hierarchical setting, their well-defined job, and gives them a chance to blossom a bit.”

    It’s important that the learning experience continue after the task force assignment is over.

    “You need to have some coaching or debriefing afterward, to make sure that people learn what you want them to learn,” Cappelli says. “You need to get them to think through the experience. If things worked, why did they work? If they were screwed up, why did things get screwed up?”

    Ulrich agrees. “Without the reflection,” he says, “tasks may be done, but learning does not occur.”

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