Category Archives: Catalysts for Learning

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.

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.

In Their Own Words

Key Events in Executives' Lives cover2Last week I pulled out my well-worn copy of Key Events in Executives’ Lives to revisit some of the original data that formed the basis of The Lessons of Experience book. Key Events is a technical report full of data summaries—certainly not something one would read from cover to cover. But the report was perfect for me because I was on a mission to combine information from various research projects so that I could confidently say what people are more likely to learn from “start from scratch” assignments. These links between particular types of stretch experiences and lessons learned are especially useful for people who want to be more intentional about using on-the-job experiences for leader development.

Although I got what I needed from looking at a summary bar chart, I found myself drawn into reading the illustrative quotes from research participants, for example,

  • I learned to take risks on people and to keep my cool as a leader. I learned the importance of a leader’s ceremonial role, how to manage a large team harmoniously, and the importance of a company culture.
  • When hiring, if you can’t get experience, go for intelligence, drive, interest. They will learn from mistakes.
  • I learned patience in explaining circumstances, keeping people busy to keep friction down, and the importance of pitching in.

These snippets from interviews added a layer of meaning beyond the statistic that informed my original quest (e.g., in 32% of the start from scratch experiences, a “direct and motivate employees” lesson was reported). I found myself connecting them to my own experiences—a co-worker who I have always admired for her ability to keep her cool; whether it seemed true from my own experience that intelligence, drive, and interest predicted one’s ability to learn from mistakes; the time I learned to be more patient.

It reminded me to share this advice as part of my summary about the patterns of lessons learned from various stretch assignments: You should interview folks in your own organization who have had similar experiences and capture the lessons learned—in their own words—to share with people taking on stretch assignments. It simply will make it more real. Easier to relate to their current context. And with greater confidence that they can learn these things, too.

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.

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?