Corporate leadership – 4 learning opportunities

How do we make the decisions we make? In this article, I want to invite the top management to reflect on their own leadership and develop a critical competency: second-order learning.

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How do we make the decisions we make? In this article, I want to invite the top management to reflect on their own leadership and develop a critical competency: second-order learning.


In the past months, I have been asked this question several times: “When is a company autonomous enough to continue its path toward transformation and continuous improvement without external support?”

My best answer is “when they have managed to acquire second-order learning skills”.

What does this mean? In terms of coaching, second-order learning implies being able to reflect on the point of view from which one is observing.

Put in terms of transformation, “when management has acquired the ability to question, rethink and act more on its own skills than on those of its collaborators”.

second-order learning – the ability to self-reflect on one’s own leadership – is a core competency of the C-Suite and corporate governance. In this article, I will explain the importance of this competency and bring to the table some critical opportunities where it should definitely be applied.

Learning models

The traditional model of learning – first-order learning – involves doing something differently in order to achieve improvement.

The goal of second-order learning, instead, is to reflect on why I did what I did. It is about emphasizing my own skills and seeking improvement in leadership.

The comparative table below shows the main differences between learning models:

Second-order leadership and learning

Except in the cases of directors or managers who are new to their role, the current state of affairs – and thus the resulting dissatisfaction – is a consequence of their leadership and decisions.

Of course, it is also necessary to work on the rest of the staff. But the starting point – the decisions that will have the greatest impact on the operation and culture – come from the top management and the corporate governance.

For this reason, it is essential that the leaders who form part of the organization’s management acquire second-order skills that allow them to understand why they make the decisions they make and the impact of those decisions.

I’d like to share four examples of second-order learning opportunities that I think every organization could capitalize on.

4 second-order learning opportunities

The opportunities for second-order learning are many. Below, I will share four that I consider critical when developing top management.

  1. Leadership training

Leadership courses are widely extended in organizations. But, unfortunately, it often happens that the senior management does not participate in them. Or even when a member of the corporate government does present the course to managers, this person does not join the course to reflect on his/her own leadership competencies.

How can we ask middle managers to reflect on their leadership skills if their superiors do not?

Related: Training Without Learning Is No Training

  1. Selection of managers and middle managers

How do we choose leaders? Do we use the same criteria as always for the selection and promotion of personnel and then intend to change their profile so that they acquire teamwork, continuous improvement, and delegation skills, among others? It doesn’t seem consistent to me.

It is essential to think about the talent we choose, how we choose it and what we can do to improve this process.

  1. Indicators of performance

Performance indicators are extremely valuable. We promote and request these types of indicators from management and middle managers, but senior management and the board of directors do not measure their own added value.

It is necessary to develop and establish indicators that assess the contribution and value of all levels.

  1. Strategic plans

Do we have medium-term plans and strategies? How do we develop them?

It often happens that top management asks managers for work plans – improvement and development roadmaps – ​​but they, conversely, do not have strategies and tactics for the future.

Having a master strategy from which all other plans cascade is crucial. This strategy should be focused on a few work areas related to the following:

  • the business you want to be in
  • the customer groups and markets you want to target
  • the products and services you want to offer
  • competencies to be developed for the future

Source: Lean Enterprise Institute

The Lean method of hoshin planning helps define a strategy while ensuring horizontal and vertical alignment.

This implies the existence of three elements:

  • Strategy: Defined by top management.
  • Total communication: A leadership system that ensures vertical and horizontal communication, and that allows levels to be connected in real-time.
  • Co-creation of a plan: There should be a back and forth in which the upper levels clarify their idea, and the operational areas review its feasibility. It is about bringing the strategic idea down to earth.


Second-order learning is a core competency of top management. The C-level and corporate governments need to reflect on their own leadership, the way they make decisions, and how they add value.

But in order to develop second-order leadership and learning skills, there must be integration between various areas – horizontally and vertically – and teamwork skills that help polish, agree upon, clarify, communicate, and execute the strategic vision.

Corporate governance and senior management must first transform themselves if they want to be able to transform the organization.

Author: Raúl Molteni

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