All posts by Brad Borland

Brad Borland
Brad Borland is a coach, consultant, facilitator, and author and leads Bandbox Advisory. He is a lifelong learner and practitioner in the areas of human and organization development—with a focus on talent, transition, and leadership development. He regularly coaches leaders through the planned and applied use of job-based experience to spur personal and professional growth.

Experience as a Retirement-Transition Enabler

man-in-mirrorBaby boomers are an enormous and historically unique population. They have wide-ranging views of and aspirations for retirement. Including whether to retire at all. Given the general wealth, health, and longer life expectancies that retirement-eligible leaders may enjoy, many have new factors and options to consider as retirement “looms” or “beckons.”

As an executive coach and retirement transition coach, and a staunch believer in experience-based leader development, I work with retirement-eligible leaders to thoughtfully engage in their transition to a next phase of life. As part of the process, we sort through their career and life archives and identify key experiences (past or future) to help plan their entree to new territory when all-consuming career work is less necessary, appealing, or even allowed.

When starting to work with retirement-transitioning leaders, it’s important to help them establish foundational self-awareness and clarity. Self-awareness includes several variables. I’ll focus on three: retirement mindset, select experience identification and transferability, and alignment with significant others.

Retirement Mindset

At its most fundamental level, retirement mindset is about whether the person is looking forward to (beckons alluringly) or dreading (looms ominously) retirement. I use these extremes to query leaders, helping them determine what they’ll miss the most and the least, and what they look forward to doing. Within their answers are experiences – past, present, and future. They want to leave some types of experiences behind, while continuing to engage in others in some form. And there are new experiences that they want to have, such as long-awaited adventures, commitments, or experiments. The teachable point is that most life-enriching engagement, at and away from work, comes via experiences that can be planned.

Select Experience Identification and Transferability

A thorough, guided walk down memory lane creates a rich list of wide-ranging experiences (both vocational and avocational). From the list the leader identifies the most important to retain or perpetuate in some fashion. Embedded within each is acknowledgment of what made the experience special. It could be people, place, and quite often, purpose. The essence or purpose of what the experience produced (e.g. helping others, being part of a high performing team, launching something cool or new, competing and winning against long odds) is the sweet spot to identify and plan to replicate to the degree possible. While this may sound like Bruce Springsteen’s “glory days,” it really is a personal treasure trove to adapt for future use, meaning, and joy.

Alignment with Significant Others

Because so many experiences have a social element to them, including with a spouse or partner, engaging significant others in envisioning a future, replete with potential experiences that each might value, is important. In most conversations with transitioning retirees, they mention that life at home will require an adjustment as time with a partner will potentially be much more constant. Experiences, together and apart, are rich fodder for discussion. Because both lives will likely change significantly, the chance to test assumptions, share expectations, plan dreams, and talk about the routines that most days will likely include can create new goals and rules of engagement.

The transition to retirement is a unique experience itself. As I work with more people who are making this transition, I want to be intentional about harvesting the lessons they are learning and use their wisdom to help other retirees navigate their own course. I look forward to sharing future lessons learned from retirees with whom I’m privileged to work.

Eating My Own Cooking

cooking_class3“Eating my own cooking” is my version of the cobbler’s shoeless child. As the experience-based leader development (EBLD) consultant who forgot about using experience for my own learning and development, perhaps my story can help save you from yourself. I knew better, but in true hypocritical fashion I looked right past the “experience is the best teacher” advice that I have been giving to others and failed to enact my own development beliefs.

Here’s what happened. In late 2014 my role in a Fortune 500 company was eliminated. I was faced with the scary and exhilarating prospect of starting a new work and life chapter. As I began to think about what to do next, I determined fairly quickly, with the help of a fabulous network of caring family, friends, and other professionals, that I would dedicate my time to serving as an external coach, consultant, and facilitator. My specialty areas of focus would include transition, talent, leadership, and organization development. All of these were aspects of work that I had traditionally enjoyed, done well, and appreciated as opportunities to serve others in ways that felt developmentally enriching and life-giving. And, as a complicating bonus, I had never done any of them outside the confines of the large organizations that employed me.

As the transition began I told myself that I would adopt a humble learner attitude and try each day to take small steps to learn big things. Big things included customer prospecting, proposal writing, marketing, client management, establishing a small business as a legal entity, filing quarterly taxes, becoming certified in new instruments, auditioning for opportunities to work, and working as an affiliate with others who own businesses. All of these were sizable and important. As it turns out, learning from experience and reflecting regularly, were easier said than done.

spinning wheelAs the journey began I took time each day and week to plan what I was going to learn and do. Weeks began to pile up when it dawned on me that the blur of activity was not producing the development or satisfaction that I wanted. I was working as hard as I had ever worked, learning (including through generous mentors, other coaches, and consultants) as much as I had ever learned, yet feeling totally unaccomplished. This couldn’t continue. As I stepped back and took a closer look, my self-diagnosis revealed a near total lack of true development and goal-oriented planning and almost no reflection. That mix predictably produced a frustrating sense of spinning my wheels.

The “simple” cure was to return to my leadership development roots and to treat experience as the best teacher. The behaviors that I reacquired and have faithfully used will sound familiar and sadly ironic. They included:

  • View each day as an opportunity to learn and grow
  • Plan and seek experiences with both learning and doing goals that produce growth and achievement
  • Embed learning within the work
  • Reflect regularly, in the moment and beyond, on what you’re trying to learn
  • Honestly and regularly evaluate whether learning is occurring and in what ways it spurred the intended growth
  • Add incrementally the application of all that you learned to each similar experience, including keeping good notes of lessons learned and strides made

While the journey is a long way from over, and there’s still a great amount to learn, the sense of progress, development, and achievement have returned.

Does this problem sound familiar? I hope not. If it does, pull a page or two out of your EBLD playbook and begin anew because there will always be new things to learn, do, and continually do differently as you grow throughout your life.

Think Small: Will a Micro-Experience Fit the Bill?

micro assignmentShort-term work and small assignments are often left out of the development process. But “micro-experiences” have the potential to solve two challenges:

  • Organizations often have short-term work or parts of a project that need attention – small assignments in need of an owner.
  • Few developing leaders have long and concentrated periods of time to take on assignments beyond or instead of their day jobs – people in need of learning in small bites.

Intuitively, it seems if we can put these two needs together, we have a valuable addition to on-the-job learning. However, a closer look brings up a few important questions:

  • Can micro-experiences drive development? Do they?
  • Is there is a minimum length of time needed in a micro-experience for it to drive real growth?
  • Can a series of micro-experiences – a micro-experience mosaic – be a suitable alternative to a longer-term stint in a new role?

My own experience shows that development can occur pretty quickly, suggesting micro-experiences can be an effective approach. But, of course, the value is dependent on several variables, including:

The mindset of the developing leader. The best consumer of the micro-experience is one who values new experiences as a preferred way to learn. A leader who is clear that development is a marathon, not a sprint, will also be likely to extract value from a micro-experience. He or she is likely attuned to the limited depth and breadth of a single, small experience and will place each micro-experience in the context of the larger mosaic of development. Leaders eager to develop too quickly with a get-it-done-now, silver-bullet mindset could be disappointed with how far and fast a micro-experience can drive their growth.

The growth goals of the developing leader. What are the aspirations for development? Where does a leader’s development goal live on a continuum of learning?

Exposure >>> Understanding >>> Competence >>> Expertise

The single, initial micro-experience is probably best suited to helping one gain exposure to something new. Over time, and with added micro-experiences, one can gain more developmental traction and deeper learning.

The type of micro-experience selected. The quality and effectiveness of a micro-experience also hinges on a careful match with the leader’s specific development goals. Does an experience clearly align with targeted growth?

When the mindset, the target, and the experience are aligned, I see micro-experiences offering a number of advantages. Micro-experiences allow leaders to:

  • Break a large development goal into several bite-sized pieces. For example, to strengthen business acumen, a leader might sit in on an analyst call, review quarter-end reports with a finance colleague, tag along on a sales call, and participate in product development meetings. Micro-experiences allow for iterative skill- and knowledge-building in a way that is relatively easy for leaders to plan, digest, and execute.
  • Take a test drive. Micro-experiences give a sense of what is expected or what a next step in their development might look like. Is the leader interested in more directionally aligned development?
  • Preview a different job or career direction. Leaders gain a quick and realistic exposure to a different role, function, or field, if career exploration or broadening of experience is needed.
  • Learn with low risk. Micro-experiences are a less costly investment of the leader’s time and the organization’s resources than many alternatives. They are also likely to provide a safer learning environment.
  • Diversify. A range of experiences are relatively easy to attain.

Alongside the benefits, potential disadvantages and uncertainties remain, such as:

  • Learning immersion may be gradual and casual, rather than deep and intense.
  • Momentum between experiences can stall.
  • Activity – the leader as a “pair of hands” – may trump learning and a head/hands balance.
  • True stretch may be hard to attain.

What do you think?

Is it time to think small? Are you experimenting with micro-experiences in your organizations? If so, what works? What doesn’t?

I invite you to use this forum to share your opinions (both pros and cons) of micro-experiences. Tell us your stories – good or bad. Your advice, guidance or words of warning will give the idea of micro-experiences more visibility – and an opportunity for all of us to consider its potential.