By designing small cross-functional, diverse teams to solve business problems, we can accelerate innovation and harness the full potential of the best and brightest of the organization. In our book “Anti-Racist Leadership: How To Transform Corporate Culture in a Race Conscious World,” one of the key levers in initiating change at the systemic level is action learning teams (ALTs).

What Are Action Learning Teams?

Pioneered by professor Reginald Revans in the 1940’s at the U.K. Coal Board and described by Noel Tichy in “The Leadership Engine,” an ALT is a small group working on business problems, taking actions and learning as individuals, as a team and as an organization. ALTs help organizations develop creative, flexible and successful strategies for dealing with pressing business problems. In the context of transforming diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at a company, ALTs ensure diverse voices are engaged in the redesign of an organization’s culture.

How to Get Started

To assemble ALTs, a chief executive officer and/or the executive leadership team will handpick a group of 15-20 people with breakout groups of five to eight people. The CEO should create groups that are diverse and cross-functional by design, which will offer a different lens to problem-solving. It’s also key to include strong representation from middle management as these employees are the ones that touch the bulk of the company through their leadership. Middle managers can make or break a cultural transformation and should be engaged from the start.

ALTs should work closely with the CEO and other leaders, such as the chief human resources officer or chief diversity officer, who function as a steering committee for the change effort. For the most successful ALTs, the assignment needs clear bounds:

  1. One to two critical items to examine.
  2. Specific deliverables.
  3. Clear timeframe and agenda.

Typically, assignments will last 60-90 days, although the timeframe can be as short as 30-45 days. Team members should meet once a week to examine the assignment, determine objectives and priorities and to make recommendations. While you may not use the language of ALTs, other small groups focused on a targeted business issue (such as sprint teams in tech) are analogous and can be used in the same way. When used for cultural transformation, ALTs can be leveraged to drive DEI initiatives and help embed sustainable process, policy and practice changes.

ALTs in Action

Two examples of ALTs at work within cultural transformation are the Bay Club and Medallia. At the Bay Club, which operates luxury sports and fitness resorts on the west coast, I (James) work as a board member helping advise. The CEO, Matthew Stevens, launched a diversity taskforce in the summer of 2020 led by co-DEI directors Amber and Lloyd Cook, and since then company leaders in four locations have formed teams that are deploying action learning principles to answer the question, “How can we create an inclusive environment where individuals of all backgrounds are celebrated and can thrive?” Their teams have come up with multiple actions. They created a video for all employees discussing why an inclusive work environment is important, conducted an education series, had task force members lead safe-space fireside chats with employees, and started a cultural celebration space in their monthly newsletter, highlighting employees’ ethnic backgrounds. The latter, says Stevens, is a way of “learning more about the things that make us different and the things that bring us together at the same time.” They also added diversity as a board priority, audited and surveyed the organization, and created measurements for their DEI goals.

At Medallia, the workplace experience software company, CEO Leslie Stretch leveraged the Black Employee Network (BAM) for their ALTs. Stretch made a commitment to increase Black representation within the organization from 1% to 13% (matching the U.S. population) over a period of three years. Instead of just leaving that as a lofty goal and lip service, he took action by using BAM to drive change, focusing on pipeline and recruiting, community impact, and education and training. And the company overall showed great results, adding a Black director, a Black executive vice president and improving Black representation at Medallia from 1% to 6% in just 18 months.

For ALTs to be successful, especially solving big company problems like transforming company culture, is that the CEO must lead the work. The work at Medallia wouldn’t have the same impact if Stretch hadn’t also tied 100% of his leadership teams’ equity compensation to his goal of increasing Black representation at the organization. Bold leadership in combination with leveraging innovation through ALTs can lead to exponential change.