Learning to lead

The challenge lies in making use of on-the-job experiences. This means finding better ways to identify developmentally significant jobs, to move the right people to them and to help talented people learn from them. How well these things are done is far more important than how formal or elegant the procedures are.

The Lessons of Experience by McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison, 1988

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In 1988, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) published an important study. Important because of the insights it contained, and important because it has largely been ignored for the past 25 years. CCL interviewed successful executives to better understand how they got better at leading. These were in-depth interviews, the kind that allow participants to tell stories about their experiences and reveal what they had learned.

The researchers found that the primary way successful executives learned was from on-the-job experience. Not training, not books, but the work itself. Hence the title of their book, The Lessons of Experience.

Now you may be thinking, Of course, Amiel, what’s so surprising about that?

There is more. The researchers found that not all experiences produced the same amount of learning. In fact, a small number of experiences produced the bulk of learning. These included starting something from scratch, turning a business around, managing an operation of larger scope, line-to-staff or staff-to-line switch, hardships, or exceptionally good or exceptionally bad bosses.

Now this, too, makes a lot of sense. If you want to develop better leaders, give them the “right” experiences and help them learn from these experiences. Think about yourself. Isn’t this precisely how you got good at almost everything you are good at today?

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, organizations across the board have ignored this research. Leadership development typically means coursework combined with reading and, if you’re lucky, a sprinkling of action learning or coaching. Rarely do development plans for leaders recommend experiences that will provide learning. When they do, these experiences typically involve stepwise progression on a single path, rotation across functional or business lines, or international assignments. If these experiences provide the challenges identified by CCL, it is a matter of luck, not intent. (For the full story on how this came to be, check out Morgan McCall’s writings. One of the the original CCL researchers, McCall provides a frank and often humorous appraisal of why organizations largely ignored his research and where they placed their resources instead. Hint: competencies.)

Fortunately there are exceptions to this rule, and they are worth studying. The Talent Masters by Ram Charan and Bill Conaty highlights companies whose executives personally own leadership development, build it around pivotal experiences, and integrate it into core business processes. If you want to see what’s possible, take a look at this book. Make Talent Your Business by Wendy Axelrod and my friend, Jeannie Coyle, shows how exceptional development managers develop people while getting results.

In a future post, I’ll explore how these insights have affected my view of executive coaching, both its benefits and its limit, and the surprising opportunity this presents for leaders in clean technology and sustainability.