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.
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.