Experience as a Leadership Tool

Getting the most from experience requires savvy, struggle, and a life-long commitment.

When it comes to developing leadership skills, nothing beats experience. It has the greatest impact; it’s readily available; and it won’t blow your budget. Decades of research and practice have reinforced this. Yet a frustrating knowing-doing gap persists. Rarely in my work as a consultant, coach, or research and development practitioner have I come across an individual leader or an organization that truly embraces the deep value that lies in experience and leverages it for maximum benefit.

Doing so requires going beyond general notions of “70-20-10” practices and delving into some deeper truths (and clarifying some misconceptions) about experience. These six insights gathered from the Center for Creative Leadership’s 47 years of research and practice will give you a fresh perspective on experience so you can apply it more effectively as a learning tool for the benefit of yourself and your organization.

1. All experiences matter. Sure, you have your classic developmental work assignments such as leading a cross-functional team, rolling out a new product, or going on international assignment.

But who said it has to be part of your job duties to have a real impact on how effectively you lead? Leadership experiences outside of work carry less risk to the organization and sometimes provide more space to step out of one’s comfort zone and take risks. Encourage employees to take a leadership role in a homeowners association, provide pro bono services to community groups, or coach a youth sports team.

When it comes to seeking developmental experiences for yourself or providing them to others, be creative. The path to becoming a better leader might be right outside your front door.

2. Some experiences matter more than others. The best developmental experiences operate similar to a crucible. You experience pressure and heat until what you are made of begins to transform into something new and stronger. To get the most out of developmental experiences, encourage employees to step outside their comfort zone. If you’re not at some point asking yourself, “What am I doing here?” then it’s questionable how much you are really learning and developing as a leader.

If you’re looking to develop yourself, be on the lookout for full- or part-time assignments that provide higher levels of novelty, challenge, visibility, and pressure. In no time, you’ll begin to feel the “heat” and start to transform.

When developing others, make sure you have a handle on the key assignments that have the potential to truly transform. Select the individuals who can benefit from these the most while also helping address key organizational needs. That way, everyone benefits.

3. Quality + Quantity + Diversity of Experience = A Well-Rounded Leader. An insightful hiring manager once quipped that a candidate “had 20 years of experience, but it was the same two years 10 times over.” In other words, one great experience, or even a few solid ones, does not a leader make. Truly great leaders have a whole string of high-quality developmental experiences. Not only that, they are diverse in nature. A turnaround, followed by a startup, followed by a cross-cultural assignment and then maybe a functional shift. And so on.

Organizations need to categorize the types of experiences they have to offer, and match those with leaders’ experience gaps. Sometimes this requires HR to play a centralized role to discourage natural impulses to hoard talent.

4. Learning from experience doesn’t follow a straight line of progress. Nobody said this was easy. Struggle and failures are a natural part of learning from experience. Performance (and confidence) often needs to take a dip before accelerating up the “learning curve” to greater skill.

Leaders need to be resilient and set their expectations accordingly. There also must be the humility to look to others for answers and to sometimes look like a fool. One leader once described a particularly trying situation as a “continuous string of failures that ended in success.”

Likewise, peers and managers need to offer support without being a crutch. On occasion, an individual may need prodding to go down the path that is ultimately best for him or her.

5. Bad experiences can teach us the most. As gut-wrenching as mistakes, crises, and career setbacks are, they offer some of the richest opportunities for learning and development. But that’s only if individuals and organizations have the courage to capitalize on the opportunity to examine and learn from failure.

This means getting past the emotional pain to objectively confront, even embrace, failures. In doing so, leaders will gain better awareness of their capabilities, compassion for others’ shortcomings, and added resilience to face future challenges.

Organizations need the wisdom and grace to use mistakes as a springboard for growth. This requires a culture of transparency and support where uncomfortable matters are dealt with constructively. Managers need the coaching skills to have conversations with their people that encourage development and drive future performance, even (especially) when things go wrong.

6. Having high-quality experiences doesn’t guarantee learning. Individuals vary widely in both their willingness and ability to learn from their experiences. Try this little experiment. In the wake of a rich and intense experience (say, launching a new corporate brand), ask team members what they learned from the experience. You’ll likely hear similar themes repeated, but others relate their insights in far greater breadth, depth, and detail and even go beyond the immediate situation to tie in lessons from other experiences.

This is demonstrating a skill called learning agility. Learning agile people are continuous learners who excel at gaining deep insight from their experiences and then leverage those insights to help them address new challenges they face later on. Learning agility is strongly tied to leadership potential.

Learning agility and three other skills (self-awareness, communication, and influence) form what CCL calls the Fundamental Four. Each is instrumental in making the most of one’s past, present, and future experiences. Make these skills a focus of your leadership development efforts. Teach managers to identify and leverage them—the earlier the better.

When it comes to developing as a leader, experience is arguably the greatest gift, but it doesn’t just land in your lap. Getting the most from experience requires savvy, struggle, and a life-long commitment. The payoff is wisdom, personal and professional growth, and knowing you impacted others as a leader.

George Hallenbeck is director of Commercialization at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), where he leads innovation projects focused on creating new DIY solutions that empower and enable CCL’s clients to deliver and experience world-class leadership development. Hallenbeck has co-authored seven books, including “Lead 4 Success: Learn the Essentials of True Leadership,” andLearning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience.” He earned his B.A. in psychology from Colby College and his MS and Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology from Colorado State University. 

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