All posts by George Hallenbeck

George Hallenbeck
George is Group Director for Global Product Development at the Center for Creative Leadership. He leads an experienced and innovative multi-disciplinary team to develop the next generation of CCL’s programs, assessments, publications, and services. Prior to joining CCL, George guided the evolution of core experience-based development products at Lominger International and created several new products, especially in the area of learning agility.

The Other Side Of What We Know About Experience: Understanding Our Misunderstandings

silver-bridgeCall it the Freakonomics effect, but the unexplored side of things has always intrigued me. Many of us who read and contribute to this blog are committed to understanding the research-based principles of experience-driven leader development and applying those to our organizations, our colleagues, direct reports and mentees and, hopefully, ourselves. So rather than go further down the path of contributing to what we know, I’d like to spend a few moments on the flipside and do some myth busting.

Despite all we have come to understand and the corresponding practices we’ve developed, a great many outside our field have yet to grasp the important role that experience plays in development. The blind spots they’ve developed about why and how to leverage experience are both driven and sustained by some misunderstandings of what “experience” is and how it benefits learning and development.

This pain point was nagging at me as I was working on my upcoming book on leader development and so I turned a spotlight on three common and persistent misunderstandings I’ve come across in hopes that by calling attention to them, others might become more self-aware and proactively avoid getting tripped up by them. By the same token, the more we as practitioners know about what others don’t know, the better we can steer them to the useful truth.

Misunderstanding #1: Experience Is What’s On Your Resume

Much attention is given to work experiences that take place on the job, but work isn’t the only place where valuable learning can occur. In fact, many individuals who excel at learning from experience will share that some of their most valuable lessons learned have come from experiences they’ve had outside of work.

Just because learning takes place in a setting other than work doesn’t mean that the lessons can’t be successfully adapted to a work challenge. One individual shared the rather gut-wrenching experience he went through in trying to mediate a family dispute over who should inherit an uncle’s property. Through the experience, he learned a lot about dealing with diverse stakeholders under very emotional circumstances where there was a lot to lose. He later found that the insights and skills he gained from this experience proved quite valuable in negotiating multiparty contracts where interests diverged and emotions ran high.

Misunderstanding #2: Learning on the Job Is Mostly About Learning to Do Your Job More Effectively

Different on-the-job experiences teach different things. Specifically, the lessons learned from any experience can potentially fall into three different “worlds”: The World of Work, the World of People, and the World of Self. The lessons that teach us about the self are sometimes the most profound – and the most difficult. They often stem from a particular category of experience we call hardships. (For more on hardships, see my April 2014 post in this blog.)

Misunderstanding #3: Learning from Experience Is an Event

Learning from experience is an ongoing process, not an event. Because of the way that past and present interact, learning from experience never ends. Different perspectives emerge over time. Also, a lesson isn’t truly learned until it’s applied. Until you can apply the insights you’ve gained from your previous experiences, their true value lies unrealized.

In the spirit of transparency, this is an anecdotal list of misunderstandings based on years of coaching and consulting, and not empirically based. I would suspect that many of you reading this have encountered other limiting mindsets that potentially undermine the value of experience to leader development. I encourage you to share the misunderstandings you’ve encountered and contribute to our shared understanding.

A Different Look at the Power of Questions

green question marksThe key to solving a problem is not about generating the right answer but in asking the right questions. That common wisdom can take an interesting turn if used to drive learning from experience.

Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog would agree with the premise that challenging experiences are a critical element of leadership development. However, experience in-and-of-itself is not sufficient in transforming an individual. Many people are exposed to very rich learning experiences and emerge relatively unchanged. A key element is missing. For experience to deliver its full value and inform a person’s development, it must be internalized and applied. That’s when the real shift occurs – and where the power of questions comes into play.

The most important questions are not the questions we ask others, but the questions we ask ourselves. In my years of studying individuals who excel at learning from experience (i.e., highly learning agile individuals), one thing that distinguishes them from their peers is their penchant, nearly a compulsion in some cases, to engage in an ongoing, internal, question-fueled dialogue about their experiences.

This intentional sense-making process naturally varies from person to person, but typically involves these key components:

Before the Learning Event (Priming the Pump)

  • How might this represent a new challenge for me?
  • What might I learn as a result?
  • How might lessons from past experiences apply?

During the Learning Event (Learning in Real Time)

  • What’s important here?
  • How am I feeling?
  • What’s my intuition telling me?
  • What are my actions telling me about what’s working/not working?

After the Learning Event (Reflecting and Sorting Through)

  • What can I learn from what I (and others) did in this situation?
  • How was I able to adapt lessons from other experiences?
  • What feedback do I need to seek from others?
  • How might this help me going forward?

So remember, learning from experience doesn’t happen just by the virtue of “being there” – it’s an active process and requires some degree of effort, intention, and willingness. Practice summoning and embracing the questions that will be the key to unlocking the full value of your life’s experiences.

Hardship: A Different Kind of Challenge

cloudsHardship is an important but often underappreciated aspect of experience-driven leader development.

Hardships are easy to overlook because they fall outside the well-known 70-20-10 framework of developmental experiences (Challenging Assignments – 70%, Other People – 20%, and Coursework – 10%). They are not developmental experiences we ask for or recommend. They can be some of the most difficult periods of our personal and professional lives.

In the landmark The Lessons of Experience, CCL’s researchers distinguished hardships from challenging assignments. Commonly experienced hardships are:

  • Personal Traumas – Threats to the health and well-being of one’s self or family.
  • Career Setbacks – Often missed promotions, demotions, or firings.
  • Changing Jobs – Risking one’s career to get out of a rut.
  • Business Mistakes – Failure resulting from bad judgment and poor decisions.
  • Subordinate Performance Problems – Often resulting in firing the employee.

With challenging assignments, the majority of learning comes from the success of meeting the challenge. With hardships, the learning comes from the lack of success. The lessons learned from challenging assignments are primarily external in nature (“What did I learn about handling my job and working with other people?”) while the lessons of hardship are mostly internal (“What did I learn about myself?”)

Because hardships force individuals to come face-to-face with themselves, they often experience a significant shift in their self-awareness and better appreciate what they can and can’t do successfully. Individuals often get a significant dose of humility that increases their compassion and sensitivity in dealing with others’ mistakes. Finally, surviving the hardship and willing themselves to move forward provides added strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures.

The lessons learned from hardships often have less to do with the events themselves and more with how individuals respond to them. Individuals who learn from hardship:

  • Resist the temptation to put the blame on the situation or other’s shortcomings.
  • Are able to step back from the situation to gain some clear-eyed perspective and recognize where their own mistakes and shortcomings contributed to the outcome.
  • Demonstrate resilience in moving beyond the pain of the hardship experience and committing themselves to do something about the personal limitations they had realized.

If you work closely with someone going through a hardship on or off the job, you can support them and encourage a learning response by:

  • Acknowledging to yourself that they are experiencing a traumatic situation and that coping with it and learning from it will require some time and effort on the individual’s part.
  • Looking for signs that the individual is either engaging in denial or, conversely, putting too much blame on themselves – in either case, seek the appropriate coaching and or counseling resources to help them cope and gain perspective.
  • Encouraging the individual to reflect on their experience and identify what lessons can be learned and how they might be applied – but choose your timing wisely. Wait until they are starting to come to terms with their hardship.
  • Resisting the temptation to tell the person “what they did wrong” and how they might improve – this may actually inhibit their self-awareness and spark defensiveness instead.

We seldom choose a hardship – hardship finds us. It is beyond our control. But we can control how we respond and how we frame it over time.

Hardship can push us to the brink and create a profound sense of loss and aloneness. And, if we let them, these dark moments can yield valuable and lasting lessons for becoming a better leader.

Navigating the Promise and Peril of Assignment Re-entry

This article was originally posted on the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leading Effectively blog.

148204705-500One in four. That’s the number of organizations in a recent survey by Cartus that reported difficulties in repatriating international assignees and making good use of their experiences. When asked what aspect of their global mobility program they were most interested in improving, the top choice (58%) was repatriation and career management.

These are troubling statistics when you consider how much organizations invest in expatriates and how much is expected in return. They expose a common blind spot in managing developmental assignments. Not just international assignments, but other common types of experiences such as making a functional shift or playing a critical role in a turnaround or start-up effort. Greater attention is frequently given to putting the right people in the right assignments and prepping them for success than considering, “What happens next?”

Too often, they go off track. Employees experience frustration with limited opportunities to apply the insights and skills they learned during the assignment. Further difficulties stem from coming back to a job environment either very different or very similar to what they experienced before. Organizations experience a letdown effect from setting their expectations too high for what the employee can accomplish post-assignment.

When things fizzle after a high-profile developmental assignment, it’s a loss for all parties. The organization is unable to capitalize on its investment and is forced to consider other options for finding the strategic talent it needs. The employee is left to struggle with lower engagement, decreased commitment, and diminished career expectations. What started out with such promise can sometimes sadly result in a premature parting of ways.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Try these practices to avoid the post-assignment blues:

Ask the right questions at the beginning. What are the individual’s developmental needs? How does the experience provide opportunities to develop these needs? How can the organization leverage what has been learned? How does this relate to the person’s career interests and goals?

Maintain dialogue. A lot can happen between the beginning and end of an assignment. Individuals learn some things they expected and others they didn’t. Personal interests and priorities shift. Business conditions change and strategies evolve. Keep track of the changes as you go.

Continually assess learning. Learning from experience isn’t linear and occurs at an uneven pace. Depending on the length of the assignment, opportunities to apply and refine learning might be limited. Maintain a realistic view of how the individual is progressing against expectations.

Prepare for re-entry well in advance. Three months is too late. Six months might be okay. Better yet, be prepared to start thinking about next steps after the initial “settling in” period has passed.

Identify opportunities for application. Both parties need to weigh in on this. Look for opportunities to meet the organization’s strategic needs and the individual’s career aspirations.

Keep the learning going. Most individuals who thrive in developmental assignments are lifelong learners. They’re more inclined to seek the next challenge than a return to normal. Consider how the next assignment continues to stretch them.

The risk-reward ratio for developmental assignments is high. Commitment to planning, communication, and partnership needs to happen through all phases of the process: before, during, and after. That strengthens your odds of avoiding the mishaps and celebrating the successes.