One of my key learning experiences happened over a decade ago. I had moved into a vice-president role–an increase in scope that was a stretch experience in and of itself. But the job as it unfolded held a new twist for me. A fellow vice-president, Lily Kelly, and I were together responsible for the research and educational activities at CCL. This is a diverse set of activities—social science research, classroom training, one-on-one coaching, designing and delivering customized development programs for clients, publishing, and developing new products and services. Individually, Lily and I managed separate groups in this system; however, the groups could not operate independently because they shared staff and other resources, projects often needed the efforts of multiple groups, and each group’s work had an impact on other groups. We decided that we needed to go beyond typical collaboration and act as one leadership unit, sharing leadership responsibility for the whole system.

In the beginning we weren’t quite sure how we would go about sharing leadership responsibility. We didn’t have any experience of our own to draw upon, nor did we have any role models. We had to experiment and make joint learning intentional. We quickly discovered that working in this way was demanding. Unilateral decisions and actions were rare. Instead, we had to make time for meaningful conversations to reach agreement (or compromises). Over time we learned how to work effectively in this shared leadership mode. It took building the relationship, developing routines for working together, and encouraging a greater sense of shared work in the system we managed.

But I took away new insights and skills that have served me well many years after leaving that job. I came to better understand—and thus was able to better articulate—why certain values and beliefs were important to me. I became a more intent listener, and I learned how to ask questions to understand someone else’s perspective. I have a broader perspective on the work of my organization. I’m more likely to take time out to enjoy the camaraderie of a partnership.

UPDATE! The book is now available from the CCL bookstore, Amazon & Wiley! Click this photo to go to the website!

My joint leadership experience with Lily had all the ingredients of a developmental experience. I was in unfamiliar territory—and because I knew I was, I didn’t treat it as business as usual. I had to experiment and see what worked and what did not. Lily asked me lots of questions that forced me to reflect. And to top it off, the two of us decided to write an article about what we had learned about shared leadership. This created space for an “after-action review” that brought our successes, mistakes, and lessons learned into clearer focus.

My experience is not unique. Every day leaders are learning from their on-the-job experiences. In fact, CCL’s research suggests that it is the number one way that leaders learn, grow, and change. The challenge for leadership development professionals is to support and enhance that learning by making it more intentional and conscious. Three tactics from my own story point to places to start: (1) help leaders identify their current growing edge—where challenging work is stretching their capabilities, (2) encourage experimentation to discover new ways of dealing with the challenge, and (3) make reflection on the work part of the work.

Please share your own learning experiences that have taken place outside of a classroom.

8 thoughts on “The #1 Way That Leaders Learn, Grow and Change

  1. Thanks Cindy,

    The key words for me in your piece are about making experiential learning ‘intentional and conscious’. People face challenging experiences every day, but without the opportunity to guide, support and extract learning, the experiences are left to chance. Too often this means negative experiences and disengagement, rather than learning and performance improvement.

    The challenge for HR/L&D is to recognise that it is not their role to ‘manage’ informal/workplace learning. Instead they need to create the scaffold that will guide, support and enable workplace learning for individual, team and organisational benefit. The role of line leaders in this process is critical, given they ‘manage’ the workplace and have such an important role in the development of their team members.

    I’m very much looking forward to the book!

    Andrew

    1. Andrew,

      Thanks for your insights. I agree and particularly like the image of scaffolding. The scaffold can include equipping employees so that they have the tools to be more proactive learners, teaching bosses how they can better enable on-the-job development, and designing our HR processes so that they highlight and reinforce the power of on-the-job learning. But at the end of the day, learning from experience is organic–arising from the interaction of the individual and his or her unique context. We are not “running the show” as we do in formal development programs that typically unfold according to our design and facilitation.

      Cindy

  2. Thanks Cindy,

    The key words for me in your piece are about making experiential learning ‘intentional and conscious’. People face challenging experiences every day, but without the opportunity to guide, support and extract learning, the experiences are left to chance. Too often this means negative experiences and disengagement, rather than learning and performance improvement.

    The challenge for HR/L&D is to recognise that it is not their role to ‘manage’ informal/workplace learning. Instead they need to create the scaffold that will guide, support and enable workplace learning for individual, team and organisational benefit. The role of line leaders in this process is critical, given they ‘manage’ the workplace and have such an important role in the development of their team members.

    I’m very much looking forward to the book!

    Andrew

    1. Andrew,

      Thanks for your insights. I agree and particularly like the image of scaffolding. The scaffold can include equipping employees so that they have the tools to be more proactive learners, teaching bosses how they can better enable on-the-job development, and designing our HR processes so that they highlight and reinforce the power of on-the-job learning. But at the end of the day, learning from experience is organic–arising from the interaction of the individual and his or her unique context. We are not “running the show” as we do in formal development programs that typically unfold according to our design and facilitation.

      Cindy

  3. Gail Hall says:

    Cindy,

    You asked about learning outside the classroom–years ago I went on a cycling trip to England not only for R&R, but also to find some answers to ease the relative dis-ease I was feeling about my life. I came home with none. My big ‘aha’ (after the disappointment that I was no more enlightened after my trip than before) was that I didn’t know what the questions were so how could I possibly find the answers. Sometimes at work we get into the “Ready, Shoot, Aim” approach to more forward(or so we think!) My lesson from my trip was to ask, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” That seems like a no-brainer, however, I’ve stopped being surprised when we don’t ask that question and end up down a path we didn’t agree to or think through. That path to the answers may not be easy, but at least we’re going together.

    Gail

    1. Thanks, Gail, for sharing your experience. Even though it happened years ago, you (and others) are still benefitting from the ‘aha’ it generated.

      There are two important points that your story illustrates for me. First, we can learn from disappointment (although it may take stepping back and looking at it through a different lens). Second, experiences outside of the work setting play a role in our development as leaders, too. I use the phrase “on-the-job development” a lot, but it is a limiting phrase. Experience is broader than a job.

      Cindy

  4. Gail Hall says:

    Cindy,

    You asked about learning outside the classroom–years ago I went on a cycling trip to England not only for R&R, but also to find some answers to ease the relative dis-ease I was feeling about my life. I came home with none. My big ‘aha’ (after the disappointment that I was no more enlightened after my trip than before) was that I didn’t know what the questions were so how could I possibly find the answers. Sometimes at work we get into the “Ready, Shoot, Aim” approach to more forward(or so we think!) My lesson from my trip was to ask, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” That seems like a no-brainer, however, I’ve stopped being surprised when we don’t ask that question and end up down a path we didn’t agree to or think through. That path to the answers may not be easy, but at least we’re going together.

    Gail

    1. Thanks, Gail, for sharing your experience. Even though it happened years ago, you (and others) are still benefitting from the ‘aha’ it generated.

      There are two important points that your story illustrates for me. First, we can learn from disappointment (although it may take stepping back and looking at it through a different lens). Second, experiences outside of the work setting play a role in our development as leaders, too. I use the phrase “on-the-job development” a lot, but it is a limiting phrase. Experience is broader than a job.

      Cindy

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