Can Behavior Really Change? MOR Associates 2002-present

By: Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, Founder of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at or via LinkedIn.]
By 2002 MOR was at a crossroad. If training too often doesn’t lead to people taking the desired action, what would you offer in its place? It was more than evident during the 2nd chapter of MOR that training rarely results in observable changes in people’s behavior. Having a one-day or three-day workshop on emotional intelligence or DEIB (diversity equity, inclusion, belonging) or delegation will likely lead to greater self-awareness.  However, it is far less likely to lead to better self-management, never mind creating a new habit.
People need more than an awareness to move up on the competency scale when it comes to their leadership capability.  The challenge was to design and deliver an experience that does result in sustainable improvements in people’s leadership effectiveness.
One early realization was the spotlight needs to be on the participant and what they want to gain from this experience. As a result, one foundational building block was to create an individual track. It would be helpful for people signing up to be on this journey to first take stock of where they are starting from. What are some of their strengths and what are their potential improvement opportunities? The next step would be to put in motion a 360 survey to provide the person with a current state inventory. It was also clear most people could benefit by having a guide on this journey, so MOR provided an executive coach.  The outcome of the individual track was a customized development plan with clear goals and some early practices to start the process of building new habits.
Then the challenge was to design workshop experiences that were learner centric rather than teacher centric. The workshops needed to provide people with the concepts, frameworks, and tools they required to be more effective leaders by creating modules that were more experiential as opposed to didactic.
We learned over the years you could turn a simple activity, such as individual introductions, into an exercise on presence and presentation. It was possible to engage participants early in sharing their ideas on how leadership is differentiated from management and how anyone can lead from anywhere. These short presentations offered an opportunity for people to develop their ideas while also hearing feedback or feedforward on their ability to present a compelling message. The objective was to turn the workshops into a lab where participants could try out new behaviors and get a real time read on how this worked in a safe environment.
The individual track was followed by the workshop track which was then followed by another one called the “applied learning track.” This became a “game-changer.” What a simple concept. Yet this was missing from far too many leadership programs. The questions on the last day of each workshop and sometimes at the end of each module or coaching session were:
What did you learn?
So what?
Now what?

This was the bridge between learning and taking action to apply a new concept or tool. The point isn’t to know more about leadership.  Rather the goal is to be able to lead more effectively. The three questions were the prompts to focus people on implementing what they had learned. If you want to get better at enhancing your presence, what will you do? If you want to be more strategic, what will you do? What practices will you adopt to help you build the new capabilities?
If you want to be more strategic or do a better job focusing on the important, then as a practice you will find it helpful to do the weekly prioritization exercise – i.e., what are your top three or four priorities looking ahead at the next week or month. Once participants declared what they wanted to apply, their peer coach and MOR executive coach were to serve as their accountability partners. As one alumnus commented recently, one difference with MOR is you are actually accountable for doing what you say you will.
MOR was also an early adopter of what we have learned from neuroscience about the ability to create new neural pathways in our brains. The reason it is challenging to change our behavior is because most of us are following the patterns and habits that have been developed over our lifetime, resulting in deeply embedded pathways our brain finds easiest to follow. Creating a new behavior such as becoming more strategic or delegating rather than doing it yourself, or being more intentional about your presence, would require creating a new practice that would lead to building a new habit that would result in creating a new neural pathway. This would require both attention and repetition to have this new behavior become the preferred pathway for the brain to follow.
As MOR learned from creating practices that resulted in self-directed work teams, the practices were the bridge between our aspirations and achieving the desired changes in our behavior. Later in the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg confirmed, “the truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”
The final track, building a leadership community, was added to MOR’s design by Sean McDonald who joined the firm in 2012. What he noticed upon his early assessment of MOR’s work is that we were creating leadership communities within the program and back at the client organizations. We were developing one leader at time while engaging participants in each other’s leadership journey by building an inclusive environment. And back at our client organizations, alumni of MOR programs were coming together, with a common toolset, as a cadre of change agents to take on bigger opportunities. This is an impactful benefit of the MOR Leaders experience. We began to put a name to this so that we could purposely leverage this beneficial byproduct.
As MOR reflects on how we have evolved over these past four decades we are looking ahead at the next one.
One emerging objective for MOR is building and supporting these leadership communities back at the sponsoring organizations. There is tremendous potential for bringing together the MOR Leader Program alumni who have a common language and common toolset to enhance the collaboration across the enterprise. These leaders could become the change agents needed to help move initiatives forward at the accelerated pace needed in an ever-evolving context.
As MOR looks to the future, we would also like to be better positioned to support those who recognize becoming a more effective leader is a lifelong pursuit. Participants repeatedly ask at the end of a program; how can we sustain this engagement? We are currently exploring how MOR could best support people for their leadership journey over time.

We’ll look to Sean who as of February 1st is now the President at MOR, and the other committed leaders at MOR, to continue to innovate and ensure our organization evolves to provide greater value while developing sustainable improvements for those leaders who want to take on the challenge. 
As the Founder of MOR it is exciting to look ahead and think about the long term influence these leadership experiences can have for the next generation of leaders. The work continues to be incredibly fulfilling, and my intent is to stay engaged as we make this transition in MOR’s leadership.


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