How the Best Development Experiences Can Produce the Worst Learning Outcomes

Top talent. Great development opportunity. High expectations for learning. It’s a combination that should work—but all too often, outcomes fall short.

Expectations for learning are not met. Even if the person delivers business results, he or she doesn’t learn or develop as much as desired—leaving a skills gap yet to be filled.

How can something so right go so wrong?

While failure to learn is not inevitable, it is common, in spite of mapping out a “great” development experience. In hindsight, we might point to any number of reasons:

  • “The person wasn’t as good as we thought.”
  • “It was the wrong experience or it wasn’t structured properly.”
  • “Learning expectations were not clearly communicated.”
  • “The person needed more or different support than we provided.”

While any of these may be true for a given experience, here is an alternative explanation:

Great development experiences can threaten one’s track record of success.

Great development experiences push people out of their comfort zones. The best experiences place people into situations where they face higher performance demands than they have faced in the past. They are working in situations that are unfamiliar.

Stated simply, great development experiences involve significant performance challenges. The problem?

When people are concerned that they will fail, they don’t focus on learning.

When risk and failure are front-and-center, people often try to get the job done by using what they already know. Rather than experimenting with new ideas and approaches that may not work, they will try to succeed by leveraging what has worked in the past.

You might be thinking, “Our top performers are better learners.”

Maybe, but research suggests that when people face a significant challenge or “threat,” they often respond in rigid ways—narrowing their focus to the problems at hand, and seeking solutions based on how they have approached similar situations in the past.

This means that the very challenges that you provide to spark learning can set up a dynamic that inhibits learning. A colleague described this extreme example of an individual who actively avoided learning from a development experience because he was worried about failure:

“This high potential leader was given an assignment to lead an important and complex project. The idea, not very well articulated to him, was that he needed to build project management skills. The high potential knew that he didn’t have the necessary skills. Not wanting to fail, he promptly delegated the project management tasks to a strong project manager on his team.”

It’s tempting to dismiss the above example as extreme, or to simply blame the high potential’s manager for not clarifying learning expectations in this situation. But I think this is a great example of how a performance mindset can drive out a learning mindset.

By definition, learning means risk—trying out new ways of thinking or taking a new course of action that may fail. If we don’t intentionally support and foster a learning mindset, the performance culture in most organizations will drive it out. The threat of visible failure will override the learning agenda. The talent and the organization may get results in the short term, but over time both are likely to suffer.

What can be done, then, to deliver on learning expectations from development experiences?

Get people thinking about how to learn more, faster.

First, let people know why experience-driven learning matters. Why developmental experiences are expected and valued. Why a learning mindset must augment the performance mindset.

Then, teach people how to approach their development experiences with a learning mindset. Here are just a few questions to consider using with top talent who are entering challenging development experiences:

  • In what ways will this experience challenge me?
  • What am I going to learn from this experience?
  • What risks might I face in taking on this experience?
  • What learning can I get from this experience that will help me achieve my long-term goals?

When we foster a learning mindset with top talent, they will get the most out their developmental experiences. Without it, performance pressure will likely win the day and important development needs will be left far behind.

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.

Do You Collect Catalyst Questions?

Asking the right question is a lot more powerful than finding the right answer.

In my career I have found that if I can get the question right, the learning and personal insight will follow. With the right question, I can ask it again and again. The right questions always force me to tell myself the truth.

I call these catalyst questions because they unlock possibilities and new insights. Catalyst questions also appear to be less threatening, so we are willing to hear them and answer them. When we get the questions right—rather than rushing to a solution or answer—we have the chance to learn and make new choices.whycatalyst-question-front

The secret to a good catalyst question is that it creates energy. “What did I do wrong today and what did I learn?” is probably not a catalyst question. It just makes me tired. “What potential in myself and others remained untapped today and what is getting in the way?” is better. I’m still looking at weaknesses, but it’s in the context of my potential.

Collecting “catalyst questions” has become something of a hobby for me. Claudia Hill suggests that after an experience, individuals or teams are more likely to benefit from it if they ask three questions: (1) “What happened?” (2) “So what?” that is, what was important about the experience? What were the underlying reasons why it happened? What lessons can be taken away? and (3) “Now what?” that is, how can the lessons be applied to meet future challenges? (See Chapter 36, “Scaffolding Reflection: What, So What, Now What?” in Experience-Driven Leader Development).

Some of the catalyst questions that have been the most powerful for me are:

  • What is so important that it is worth doing poorly? Sometimes fear prevents me from even getting started. I avoid situations that will stretch me or I find myself paralyzed in the middle of them. This question gets me unstuck. For example, at work, the question might free me to have a tough conversation that I have been avoiding. At home, I find myself willing to go fishing one more time with my son even though every previous trip has ended in failure.
  • What purposes are trying to find me? I spend so much time making my own “to do” lists that I sometimes forget to listen to the people around me. This is the question that keeps me open to others. I suddenly find myself playing a minor, but important role in someone else’s story.
  • If I were smarter than I am, what would I do? Surprisingly, I always seem to come up with an answer to this one, and it’s often rather good.
  • What are three things that I did well today? I am the type of person who finishes every day by thinking about what didn’t get done. I set unrealistic goals for myself and then give myself a passing grade (C+) if I reach them. This isn’t very healthy for me or for anybody else in my life. Taking time to celebrate a few of successes every day reminds me to be grateful and thank others for their contributions.

What are your catalyst questions? And what questions will you add to your collection?

My Love-Hate Relationship with 70-20-10

If you’ve been in the leadership development world awhile, you probably know about 70-20-10. It is a short-hand way of describing the relative distribution of three sources of significant development in a leader’s career-long learning journey: 70% on-the-job challenges, 20% other people, 10% formal coursework. It has been called a model, a formula, and a rule. It is loosely based on a CCL study of the key developmental experiences of successful executives.

I love it and I hate it.

I love it because it is simple. It reduces what we know about the relative power of different modes of learning into a short phrase. Easy to remember. Efficient in conversations with people who know what it means.

I love it because it was drawn from data. 70-20-10 isn’t based on intuition or the need to sell a product. Although I’ve worn different hats in my career, I’m particularly attached to my identity as a researcher.

I love it because it is a call to action. Formal leadership development initiatives are overwhelmingly coursework-centric. 70-20-10 urges us to put on-the-job experience at the center of our efforts to develop leadership talent.

I love it because Bob Eichinger and Mike Lombardo coined it. Perhaps someone wants to debate me on the origin, but without a doubt, Bob and Mike were at the forefront of creating strategies and tools for turning the call to action into real action in organizations. They blazed a trail that I’m using today.

So, what’s not to love?

I hate 70-20-10 because it is silent on really important details. What kinds of job challenges, experiences with other people, and formal coursework are most developmental?  It’s certainly not just any kind of challenge or other person or training course that yields the most learning. The simplicity leaves out critical information.

I hate it because it is an overgeneralization. Not every leader’s learning journey is a 70-20-10 mix. 70-20-10 was derived from a study of men who made it to the executive ranks of corporations. The more a sample deviates from that profile, the less the data supports the proportions.

I hate it because people misuse it. I’ve heard colleagues complain that it is justification to cut formal programs. The reasoning: if they account for only 10% of development, why do we need it? (Back to the critical details—some things are best learned in formal programs.)  Another complaint: Attempts to force everything into the 70-20-10 mold, as if one concept should rule decision making about program designs, learning and development budgets, and individual development plans.

I hate it because it puts learning in silos. 70-20-10 can imply that there are three independent sources of learning, but our own experience tells us that assignments, other people, and courses are all interconnected.  Crafting developmental experiences that integrate all three is a key strategy for accelerating development.

My relationship with 70-20-10 is obviously complicated. But my list of loves and hates should help us clarify – rather than muddle – how we apply 70-20-10.

Let’s use 70-20-10 as an attention-getting call to action. Its simplicity and core idea are powerful starting points.

At the same time, let’s not be too rigid on those percentages. Know it’s a guide, not a prescription. Similarly, let’s not see it as a formula to apply to every learning situation.

Finally, let’s continue to build the deeper expertise needed to embed truly effective learning processes in organizations. That’s an idea I can truly fall in love with.