Organizational Learning and Leadership

Organizational Learning INTERGENERATION is a dynamic intergenerational group of funders, organizational development practitioners, and nonprofit leaders working to transform thinking and practice about leadership and leadership development. Since 2011, we have been finding, elevating and strengthening examples of collaborative leadership in the Philadelphia region, making connections between collaborative leadership and enhanced impact to communities and sharing these tools and examples with the broader community. The Philadelphia chapter of EPIP and The Philadelphia Foundation were founding partners in this initiative.

We are intentional about modeling collaboration in the work we do. We also value growing our own knowledge, supporting shared leadership and experiencing a cycle of sharing, reflection and application. We engage with each other and the larger nonprofit community and support each other’s advocacy and outreach through this group. In August of 2014, INTERGENERATION convened for a session on cross-generational learning and leadership.

Where Good Ideas Come From

We began our workshop by each offering one word on what we think about “learning” and then watched  “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Stephen Johnson. It underscored the reality that good ideas take time to develop and involve networks of different people coming together to share smaller ideas that eventually mature into larger innovations. Chris Bartlett, Executive Director of the William Way Community Center, makes the connection to spaces like those in his organization where new ways of thinking to “bump into each other.” He notes “the challenge is bringing together people who think differently because we’re often more comfortable with people who think like us.” An important question we can ask when problem-solving is, “Who’s missing from this conversation?”

This raised the question: How do we create the environment for collaboration across differences and celebrate the organic nature of innovation?  We tend to celebrate the individual accomplishments over collective accomplishments and we assume that innovation happens when one brilliant person has an epiphany that changes the way we live.  Our infatuation with “self-made” innovators like Steve Jobs, Ted Turner and Walt Disney belies an assumption that all good ideas are delivered to us through the thinking of an individual genius. But Johnson’s video offers another view; that real innovation is just a series of different individuals having small ideas or “hunches,” which may take up to 10, or 20, or 100 years of contribution and reflection to evolve into a full-blown innovation. Kelly Kroehle, Director of the Bryson Institute at the Attic Youth Center, points out that “real-time change favors connected minds.”  “There is a whole generation on Facebook who are often thought of as isolated, yet when vigils or protests happen, thousands of people connected through Facebook and Twitter will show up.

How do we think strategically about this notion of connection? ” Johnson’s piece also affirms the value of having time for people to reflect on their ideas together, which contradicts our perceptions about the paramount importance of efficiency (i.e. achieving a certain number of outputs in a given amount of time with as little overhead expended as possible) . It also affirms much of the emerging thinking around how we support people who do the work (i.e. Dan Palotta’s 2013 TED Talk, The Overhead Myth, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ research on unrestricted support and The Talent Philanthropy Project. )These movements stress a new way of thinking about how we invest in nonprofits to make positive social change. They suggest that fewer restrictions on support, more support overall for individuals and increased dedication to outcomes over outputs will make nonprofits more sustainable and drive lasting systems change. 


Intergenerational Spaces at Work

Pivotal Moments in Our Leadership and Learning

During the next part of the workshop, we paired up cross-generationally and went on walks to discuss some of our own pivotal learning moments. We were asked to share what life events shaped our leadership, what we learned from those moments and what we learned about how we learn as leaders.

I shared an early lesson of my own on the importance of communication and collaboration. Several years ago I was organizing a volunteer group of “rock star” Millennial professionals to learn more about community needs in Philadelphia, advocate for organizations making and impact and of course, fundraise for those organizations. I was so invested in making sure the project didn’t seem overly-cumbersome for my accomplished “rock star Millennials” that I neglected to involve any of them in the planning process for the initiative. I planned an entire year’s worth of meetings and fundraising activities before the group ever met for the first time. The consequences of that oversight were felt immediately in first meeting with this group.  One person said “You asked me to be part of this because I would contribute something meaningful. It doesn’t seem like I’m being asked to contribute anything.” Nevertheless, I continue to hear from others about this same mistake being made over again in countless incarnations, across all levels of different organizations.

A pivotal learning moment for many was discovering that our teams needed us to share some responsibility with them, but as leaders we were sometimes afraid that we would seem incompetent if we didn’t come up with all the answers on our own. There was a great deal of common ground in our learning and leadership across our diverse group. Below are the highlights of our learning.

  •  Messages we received very early on in life still haunt our leadership today. Our family of origin or early career experience influences our leadership style.
  • Even as we strive to lead our organizations with confidence and the trust of our stakeholders, it is also important to be able to be vulnerable. Showing some vulnerability is a hallmark of emotional intelligence.
  • Our maturity, responsibility and leadership grow over time. It’s not something that can be learned in a week.
  • To be a truly dynamic leader, we have to let go of some of our expectations about outcomes and have faith in the process.
  • The quality of the intervention is directly correlated with the internal condition of the intervener. Our personal health dictates how we “show up” in a group and the quality of our leadership.   

Organizational Learning—Taking in and Utilizing New Knowledge  

The Learning Organization concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge. According to the literature, a learning organization facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. A learning organization has five main features: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. Organizational learning encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking. We asked ourselves “How do we create a learning organization culture within the organizations we support?” Or in other words, how do we learn and take in new knowledge in our own organizations?

Staff meetings, professional development trainings for all staff, after action reviews, strategic planning and community meetings are all examples of ways that we connect the learning and experiences of individuals across systems to and cultivate systems where people learn collectively. Across all these methods for learning we find common formulas for successful learning. First, simply having the opportunity for staff to choose a training and a commitment to try it is a not common across all organizations. Where opportunities exist, staff feel encouraged to try new things, feel open to making mistakes and have more opportunity to grow as a team.  Also, encouraging “improbable pairs,” or pairing staff at different levels of the organization or in different departments, to attend trainings and share what they learned is an effective way of disseminating information across more areas of the organization and building communication across departments. Additionally, the framing or the “set up” for making a shift toward a culture of organizational learning is important. It can be helpful to talk about “trying something new” and being open to learning from it.  One easy way to kick-start a culture of organizational learning is  at the end of any meeting, give people the time to reflect on what they have learned and how they will apply it in their work. It should not be taken for granted that having a physical environment that allows for creative opportunities is critical for bringing people together. The size of the organization naturally impacts all communication and the physical environment – or the space that the organization has also matters. If a nonprofit doesn’t have a conference room, the opportunity for folks to meet collectively is limited!

Toward the end of the meeting we reflected more on how we learn best. Conversations like the ones we have at INTERGENERATION actually help us become experts in exploring and explaining our own leadership. Similarly, opportunities for staff to teach a skill or lesson or story are opportunities to learn it even better. It’s important to dispel the notion that, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Instead, let’s think about how, “Those who learn best teach.”

INTERGENERATION is intentional about modeling collaboration in the work we do. Meetings are led and organized all by members of the group. We convene quarterly and our next session will be focused on leadership transition. For more information about INTERGENERATION or to sign up to attend our next meeting- please contact Chrissie Bonner at

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