Freer to be Me:  The Development of Executives at Mid-life

Denise Lyons

(Click here to read this article in its entirety)

Eight executives who had participated in NewLeader, a rigorous executive development process, took part in a study that had them reflect on their experience of this process and describe in detail what aspects of it contributed to or interfered with their development. The study’s purpose was to shed light on this particular method of working with executives so that consultants who practice in this field might learn more about the phenomenon of executive development and how they could enhance their effectiveness in helping executives to change. This research was the basis for a doctoral dissertation written by Denise Lyons, now a consultant with Kaplan DeVries Inc., who was then a graduate intern with the firm. The dissertation won a national award from the American Psychological Association.

As it turns out, the findings of the study are helpful not only to practitioners, but also to executives who benefit by hearing firsthand from their colleagues about what it is like to go through this kind of intensive executive development experience. Likewise, human resource professionals and others who have the role of encouraging executives to participate in such activities gain from reading the personal accounts of these executives.

What makes the study especially potent is the extensive use of the executives’ own words. Their language, which is always lively and sometimes blunt, engages the reader in the immediacy of the executives’ experience and conveys the range of emotions they experienced moving through the several phases of NewLeader. The following passage from the study illustrates this point:

Ted said it simply and powerfully: “I feel a lot better about myself.” He then went on to report how in an initial meeting with the [NewLeader] consultant he had used the word paranoid to describe himself. He clarified that he meant this “not in the clinical sense, but uncertain about how I was perceived by others despite the fact that I had moved pretty rapidly through the organization and had not had a setback.” Ted said of himself, “There was no consistency in my mind between self-perception and achievement.”

Receiving positive feedback from people all around him in the organization challenged Ted’s self-image. When he read his colleagues’ endorsements of him, he found, “it was almost as if I was reading about someone else.” But, the sheer weight of these positive data released the grip of self-doubt, and Ted, for the first time, internalized a picture of himself as competent. Ted knew that his capabilities hadn’t changed because, in his words, “all that was there before.” Instead, he understood that “it has to do with injecting it, feeling comfortable with it, not questioning myself.”