The Power of Shared Experience

Georgia gang 2015Last month I gathered in Athens, Georgia with thirteen of my former fellow graduate students to reconnect, reminisce, and enjoy each other’s company again. One thing we reflected on was the challenges and difficulties of getting through graduate school and how grateful we were to have gone through that experience with colleagues who we could lean on, learn from, and laugh with. It reminded me that one of the ways to maximize learning from challenging experiences is to connect with others who are on the same journey.

What’s happening in these shared journeys that stimulates learning?

  • We develop a sense of camaraderie that opens us up to sharing what we really think and feel.
  • We are more likely to seek and to give advice with those whom we know are dealing with the exact same challenges that we are facing.
  • It’s easier to learn from someone else’s experience if that experience is very similar to our own.
  • We empathize with others whose “shoes we are in.” Empathy breeds support and encouragement.
  • Seeing other people like us succeed boosts our own beliefs that we can succeed, too. So we work harder.

Organizations recognize the power of shared experience and often work to connect people who are facing similar challenges, for example,

  • Communities of practice bring together individuals working in the same domain to share experiences, learn from one another, and create new knowledge. A great example is CompanyCommand, an online peer-to-peer collaborative of Army company commanders.
  • Development programs designed for specific roles create a space for peer-to-peer learning. In evaluating a leadership program for school superintendents, I found that individuals learned as much from their fellow participants as they did from the “experts.”
  • Affinity groups provide forums for employees with a common social identity (e.g., women, African-Americans, LGBT) to connect, share experiences, and work together to create a more inclusive workplace.

There’s no doubt that one learns a great deal from difference—from people in other functions or careers, from those whose life experiences are far from our own, from colleagues whose job challenges are different. Difference can challenge our thinking, offer untapped sources of wisdom, and stimulate innovation. But I can also make the case for the power of similarity—the ease of connection, sharing, and support among those whose current experiences reflect our own. What I learned in Athens was that the connection, sharing, and support can last well beyond the joint experience. Go Dawgs!


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.

Leader Development: Can We Make It Go Faster?

speed2A question that I regularly hear from those responsible for leader development in organization is this: How can we accelerate the development of leaders?

When I dig underneath that question, I often hear an assumption that there is something yet to discover about development—a new element that, if added to the mix, will speed up the process.

No one needs to wait for new discoveries to achieve faster results. There’s a great deal already known about human learning and development, for example, the importance of stretch assignments, learning goals, developmental relationships, and regular feedback.

However, as we’ve examined best practices in experience-driven leader development, three key principles stand out about effective strategies to accelerate development:

  1. Customize learning experiences. Instead of sending everyone through the same courses, job rotations, or coaching initiatives, tailor learning experiences to target each leader’s development needs. Customization streamlines development for the individual, removing unnecessary elements and thus speeding it up. For example, at GE, a long-time user of job rotation programs to develop employees, they are experimenting with individualized rotations in the Corporate Leadership Staff program. Cross-functional assignments are selected according to the development needs of the individual. Length of assignments are also customized.
  2. Integrate work and learning. Don’t think of learning as being apart from work, but rather a natural part of work. More intentionally weaving the two together creates synergies and speeds up each one. To accelerate the development of leaders for their fastest-growing markets, Microsoft implemented a program that immerses participants in temporary assignments at corporate headquarters. The projects are real work that benefits from the knowledge participants bring from the field while broadening their perspective and network of relationships.
  3. Create concentrated periods of learning. Although learning is an ongoing, daily process, development can speed up when there are periods of focused learning. Concentrated learning is characterized by clear development intentions and multiple tactics to realize those intentions. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps is an intense six-month experience to develop socially responsible global leaders. It combines virtual training and team-building, 30 days in a developing country delivering consulting services with the team, and sharing lessons learned with colleagues back home.

Here’s the caveat: Although these strategies can accelerate development, let’s be realistic and perhaps even cautious. Becoming an expert at complex leadership tasks takes practice over time and across many situations. And there are downsides to pushing the gas pedal too hard, like moving people from assignment to assignment without enough time to experience the consequences of their actions or burning them out. Perhaps the growing edge of practice is a deeper understanding of how to best pace interventions that aspire to speed up the natural leader development that is happening all the time.

This post first appeared on The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange.



Sometimes I get stuck. I go to work, look at my to-do list, and sit immobilized because I am overwhelmed. The same is true when I think about my development. The things I want to get better at look like big changes from where I sit now. Where do I even start?

But there’s good news: In the last year, I have adopted a new DSC_0660practice that’s helping me get unstuck. I added a category called “jumpstarts” to my daily task list. Jumpstarts are five-minute tasks that get me moving on the big ugly projects and development activities that I am likely to avoid. Here are some recent examples:

 To help me delegate instead of micro-manage…
  • I will only ask questions in the team meeting later today.
  • I won’t say anything and just listen to other people’s ideas unless they ask me a question.
 To strengthen my network…
  • I will email one of the key stakeholders and set up a lunch next week.
 For feedback…
  • I will have lunch with one of my direct reports this week and ask what I am doing well and what I can improve.

Why do jumpstarts work? Psychologically, these small wins build the self-efficacy and confidence to continue engaging in the targeted behavior. They also trigger a learning orientation—with    these more manageable tasks, it’s easier to see what works, what doesn’t, and why. And they prime creativity and trigger energy to try the next step.

What are the jumpstarts you can add to your to-do list today?

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.

Taking a Page from the LMS Playbook

Cursor and handNot long ago, I was looking for statistics to make the case for an increased focus on experience-driven development.

First, I found these useful citations for the business case:

  1. Professionals increasingly expect to drive their own development. 79% of professionals now expect their development to come from non-L&D sources (Corporate Executive Board, Building a Productive Learning Culture, 2014).
  2. Professionals understand that experience-driven development is critical to their career success. Access to better professional development opportunities is ranked as one of the three most important factors by nearly half of those considering a job change (LinkedIn Global Talent Trends, 2015).
  3. Individuals and their organizations need help doing it more effectively. Approximately 55% of people do not regularly extract lessons from their work. In fact, poorly conceived stretch assignments are one of the biggest sources of waste in the field of learning and development (Corporate Executive Board, Building a Productive Learning Culture, 2014).

With these figures in hand, I was feeling pretty confident about the opportunities for those of us who are practitioners focused on experience-driven development.

Then, I came across this statistic: The $2.5 billion Learning Management Systems (LMS) industry is expected to grow to nearly $8 billion over the next three years (Capterra website, 2015).


People are seeking more experience-driven development, yet there is an increasing focus on the “10” from 70-20-10?

What’s going on? I think it has something to do with this: Structured activity drives out unstructured activity.

The Power of Structure

An increase in LMS investment isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. Recent advances in technology have made e-learning much better than it was in the past. The internet has made it easier to distribute rich content. It’s a great way of doing more with less.

But for the most part, the typical LMS just makes it more efficient to structure, manage, and track formal learning. All of the learning content in an LMS has been neatly mapped so that individuals can quickly access what they need. Want to learn about strategy? Take the strategy modules. Want to develop certain critical competencies? All the learning content has been conveniently packaged and indexed for you by competencies as well. And, now it’s mobile, too!

And, because it’s easier to structure and track formal learning activity, it continues to get more attention than the relatively unstructured activity of learning from experiences.

To develop talent through experience, maybe we need to acknowledge the power of structure and find a way to use it.

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.”

If we take 70-20-10 at all seriously, it means job experiences contain a lot more of the critical learning people need than all of the great content in even the best LMS.

But learning from experience isn’t structured. It’s uncharted. It’s completely customized. Learning from experience is hard to corral, map, and track for one person – much less an entire organization.

People need to figure out which experiences can teach what they need without a convenient set of learning objectives. Then, once they start on a particular development experience, they have to extract the learning. The lessons may not be obvious, learning won’t be guaranteed and insight will never be packaged.

While learning from experience will always be less structured than formal learning, I think we can make it easier. What if we take a page from the LMS playbook and do a better job of communicating experience needed, lessons to learn, and a path forward?

What if we got to the point where we could provide personalized guidance that helps people see their work challenges as a learning context analogous to courses in an LMS? Our systems would enable a manager to say, “As you work on this performance goal for the coming year, here are some lessons you should seek for your development as a leader.” Of course, different goals would offer different potential contexts for learning, and the lessons leaders could (or should) learn would depend on their past experiences.

Is it useful to apply more structure to experience-based learning in your organization? Does it help to think of each job as a personalized LMS? What would it take to get there?

3 Behaviors of the Antifragile Leader

Last year, I had a conversation that gave me an interesting new lens to think about leadership.

David Peterson, who directs coaching and leadership development at Google, steered me to Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Taleb suggests that objects fall into three categories when they are exposed to volatility and stress:fitness2

  • Fragile: Objects that weaken and break under stress. Think of glass that shatters under pressure.
  • Robust: Objects that are robust and resilient under stress. Think of a rock that remains unchanged under stress.
  • Antifragile: Objects that grow stronger under stress. Think about muscles that are strengthened when exposed to stress and resistance and, conversely, atrophy under low-stress conditions.

Antifragile leaders, then, are those who can be thrown into any situation and will not only survive but thrive. They will grow in their capacity and abilities over time, in an ongoing cycle of stressors and strengtheners.

Which begs the question:

What are the behaviors that lead to antifragile leaders?

In identifying antifragile behaviors, three criteria seem important to me. The behaviors should (1) increase a leader’s potential over time; (2) be self-reinforcing, causing people to want to engage in them even more in the future; and (3) be learned skills. Based on these criteria, I’ve come up with three key behaviors so far:

  1. Feedback Seeking. Feedback seeking is more than passively being open to feedback. It involves strategically identifying the key people in one’s network and scheduling specific times to ask people for their feedback. The type of feedback that is sought is also important. For example, strong negative feedback might decrease the likelihood of it being sought in the future. An appreciative inquiry approach to feedback is more likely to be self-reinforcing. For example, rather than just ask for strengths and weaknesses, an antifragile approach might ask, “What are my strengths?” and “What could get in the way of my future success?” In this way, negatives are always discussed in terms of one’s future potential.
  2. Systems Thinking. Systems thinking is the ability of leaders to identify the dynamics at play within an organizational system. Leaders are able to think beyond themselves to identifying the key stakeholders in the system, what they value, and how their goals play out dynamically in the larger organization. When people seem irrational, a systems thinker doesn’t get angry, but thinks, “How interesting” – knowing the behavior is completely logical from the others’ perspective. Systems thinking also means finding a way to solve today’s problems in a way that also solves tomorrow’s problems or prevents them altogether.
  3. Critical Thinking. Critical thinking, among other things, is the ability to argue with oneself. Strong critical thinkers ask themselves, “Why am I wrong?” They don’t think one chess move at a time (What is my opinion?), but plot out at least three at all times (What is my opinion? What are the best counter-arguments? What is my rebuttal – if there is one?). Critical thinkers are willing to live in the dissonance of not having the perfect solution to a problem because finding the truth is more important than winning the argument.

What do you think it takes to develop antifragile leaders? And is antifragile a useful way to frame what is needed to prepare people to face unknown challenges that they will encounter over an entire career? Talk about it with your colleagues – and let me know what you think.

Accelerate Learning in a New Job

speedThree months ago I made a significant career decision. I left the company I had been with for almost a decade to take a global role with a new firm.

On the first day of the new job, my manager gave me an assignment: put together an “MOS” and have a draft ready in two weeks.

As it turns out, the MOS is a critical concept in my new company—and a prime example of how to accelerate learning in a new job.

What is the MOS?

MOS stands for “Management Operating System” and represents the planned systems that help a person drive forward communication, performance monitoring, and continuous improvement. It outlines the key methods a person will use to ensure that they are moving things towards the right targets while involving the right people. A completed MOS document can contain key meetings including one-on-ones, project meetings, quarterly business reviews, or project portfolio reviews. In addition, the MOS helps define the metrics that will determine if work activity is headed in the right direction.

After consulting an internal website detailing the MOS process, I put together a spreadsheet outlining the key meetings I would set up, what my key metrics would be, and how I would manage performance. During the first two weeks, I met with numerous stakeholders, learned more, and factored new knowledge into my draft MOS. I found I was continually updating the document—sometimes several times a day.

Why have new employees build an MOS within the first two weeks?

One of the challenges of a new job is to filter out the most important things from the avalanche of information that is thrown at you. Having new employees prepare an MOS helps them create a mental structure to prioritize and arrange the work, relationships, and performance expectations that accompany new responsibilities. Without delving into learning theory, there is certainly plenty that has been written about the power of sense-making structures to help people grasp complex information faster.

Most importantly, the MOS builds ownership. Nobody handed me a completed MOS. Certainly my own manager would have a very good idea how to build one for my role. The process of creating the MOS helped form a picture of the relationships, challenges, and objectives that I would face. It made the work tangible and got me engaged very quickly.

How do you create structure for learning during on-boarding? 

Starting a job in a new company can be one of the most anxiety-causing events in a person’s career. However, we also know that these transitions can be amazing opportunities for personal growth—especially if organizations take steps to structure on-the-job learning in the right way.

When starting a new role, we are hyper-sensitive to the reactions of people—always looking for subtle feedback contained in every interaction that helps us better understand how we are fitting in and what the organization values.

Organizations can build on this natural openness for learning that new employees bring to the first weeks in a role. By providing an MOS or other system to help people make sense of their new organization and new role, you quickly help new employees shift from new-job overload to focused effort and accelerated learning.

What has worked for you? What structures have fueled learning from critical experiences during on-boarding?

Experience-Driven Formal Development Programs

SIOP2015Over the years, I’ve picked up a number of tactics for getting the most out of participating in professional conferences. One tactic is to organize conference sessions on topics you want to learn more about and invite people doing interesting work related to that topic to participate. In other words, create a session you can’t wait to attend, which is exactly what I did for the recent SIOP conference in Philadelphia (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology).

Since I was intrigued with this notion of enhancing the impact of formal development programs by making them a force for experience-driven learning, I invited five colleagues who were designing and delivering such programs to share their work and insights:

  • Vicki Tardino talked about Boeing’s program for executives who have just moved into director-level jobs and how the program puts the transition experience at the center, surrounding it with tools and supporting roles to maximize learning from that experience.
  • Laura Ann Preston-Dayne focused on Kelly Services’ program to develop a community of “solutionaires” (senior consultants who can design creative talent solutions for clients’ complex workforce issues) via formal learning events and hands-on skill building with a sponsor.
  • Vicki Flaherty described IBM’s program to develop top MBA graduates on an accelerated path to general management positions—a program that integrates structured job rotations, coaching and mentoring, and training opportunities.
  • Lyndon Rego shared insights from a program CCL co-designed for middle-level managers in the rapidly changing microfinance environment in India and the learn-apply-teach approach that serves as the foundation of the program.
  • Erica Desrosiers described the key design elements in Walmart’s formal programs to accelerate the readiness of their top talent for new roles, including an emphasis on leaders developing leaders and opportunities to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to real experiences in the field.

Here are some key ideas I took away from the session—ideas about how to make formal development programs more impactful:

  • Build the program around people experiencing the same challenging assignment. We often call a group of people attending the same program a “cohort,” assuming that the shared program experience itself will band them together as a learning community. And it does to some extent. But when you connect people who are dealing with similar on-the-job challenges, like moving to a director-level job at Boeing or working as a microfinance middle manager in the rural part of a developing country, you up the developmental power of the experience. People are not just learning from their own experience, they are learning from each other’s experiences. They are able to bring different perspectives to bear on shared problems. And they find comfort and confidence in knowing that they are not alone, that others struggle with the same challenges, and that they now have access to companions on the same journey.
  • Make use of well-known methods for integrating learning and doing. For example, the sponsors in Kelly’s program employ an apprenticeship approach, building skills in participants by observing and coaching them as they do work side-by-side. Building on the notion that individuals deepen their own learning by teaching others, the program for microfinance managers requires participants to teach program content to their own staff members and together discovering ways to apply it in their own context. And Walmart’s Leadership Academy has intensified what I would label the “educational field trip” by making these experiences both practice fields for trying out new techniques and real work that benefits the organization.
  • Provide participants valuable experiences that are often hard to get. IBM’s program rotates participants through three key assignments to give them breadth of experience and to target each participant’s development needs. Several of the programs provide the opportunity to have real conversations and interactions with senior executives (rather than just see the “public” face of these executives). And it is important to make sure the program provides what formal coursework has often uniquely offered participants: the experience of stepping back, taking a deeper look at oneself, reflecting in the midst of new experiences, and being more aware of what and how one is learning.

Many thanks to the session participants (and audience members who asked great questions). To learn more, you can access their presentation slides here.

I’m still intrigued and would love to hear about your own efforts to design and implement more experience-driven approaches to formal development programs.

Short-Term Assignments, Long-Term Success

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

hourglassMany years ago as a young professional at CCL, I had a special six-month assignment as “assistant to the president.” I was the second person to serve in the role. The president had created the role to serve multiple purposes—to have someone dedicated to helping him with special projects, to keep him connected to those of us doing the on-the-ground work of the organization, and to provide a learning experience for the person taking on the role.

And it definitely was a learning experience. I got to see how things worked at the executive level of the organization, worked on major cross-functional projects for the first time, and learned strategies for dealing with the stress of tight deadlines and unexpected requests that would throw my plans for the day into disarray.  It was an experience whose lessons I drew on later when I took on managerial responsibilities myself.

I had not thought about that assignment in a long time. What brought it to mind was our recent efforts to learn more about what organizations are doing to better use experience to develop leadership talent.  Short-term stretch assignments are one of key development strategies that emerged. It’s simply not practical to rely on job moves to get individuals the variety of experiences they need to develop a broad repertoire of leadership skills.

Yet it was not just any type of short-term assignment that these organizations created. They targeted three types:

  • Cross-functional. Organizations need leaders who understand the whole business, the different perspectives that various functions and units bring to the work, and how to manage and integrate those differences. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their silos. If you are a high-potential manager at SAP, you get a notice every six months with a listing of special project assignments across the organization. If you and your manager agree that one of them is just what you need to move forward on one of your development goals, you can apply for that assignment. You may or may not get it because competition for some assignments is high. If you get the assignment, you temporarily leave your position and work fulltime for six months in some other part of the organization.
  • Strategic. Organizations also need leaders who can look to the future, dig into complex emerging issues, and see ways forward. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of day-to-day operations. If you’ve been doing stellar work at GlaxoSmithKline, you could get the opportunity to go to corporate headquarters in London  and work with a team of 2-3 other people like yourself (but from different parts of the organization) to examine and develop recommendations for dealing with a strategic issue.
  • Global. And organizations need leaders who understand cultural differences and can work with people around the globe. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their country.  If you work at IBM, you can apply to participate in their Corporate Service Corps. If you are lucky enough to get a slot in the program, you’ll join a team of up to 15 IBMers from around the world and travel to a developing country where you’ll do pro bono work for a small business or a nonprofit group to improve their organization.

These examples of short-term assignments are major organizational initiatives. They are often reserved for people who are expected to move up in the organization and take on broader leadership responsibilities.

However, we also found examples of short-term assignments that were on a more local scale and open to anyone who wanted to expand their leadership capabilities. Assignments that gave individual contributors in the organization a taste for supervisory work. Opportunities to shape an assignment that allowed people to spend 10% of their time in another function. Project posting systems that helped people find assignments outside their typical work.

One thing stood out about these efforts to create more short-term developmental assignments: if you took one of these assignments, you were not going to be left on your own to make of it what you could.  Because these organizations want to maximize their investment, they surround the experience with the things needed to stimulate and focus your learning—learning goals, coaches, peer networks, formal courses, feedback, and tools for reflection.

Short-term assignments fill an important niche. They provide the opportunity to do real work outside of your current context without having to commit to a job move (and all the upheavals that entails).  Is your organization finding ways to create these types of opportunities?  What examples, experiences, and insights do you have to share?