Category Archives: Catalysts for Learning

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.

Stepping into the Unknown

taking a stepWhen leaders talk about the key events in their development, they almost always recount trial-by-fire experiences. The implication is, if people want to develop their leader potential, they should be prepared to throw themselves into difficult, not-sure-if-I-ever-want-to-live-through-that-again kinds of experiences.

Why would anyone want to do that?!

Several years ago, I led a project where we had the opportunity to ask leaders that very question. The answers were surprising.

Some leaders muttered, “Dear Lord, to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. If I had, I never would have done it, but I’m glad I did.” Other leaders said they saw an opportunity and took it just to see where it might lead. One referred to this as the “barnacle theory of leadership development.” Like a barnacle, he would float a while until an interesting ship came along. He attached himself to it for a while, and then at some point, would detach until another interesting ship came along.

A bigger title, a bigger office, and everything that came with it, or a strong sense of purpose drove other leaders. And some were bored and figured anything was better than plateauing in their current dead-end job, so they took the next interesting one that came along.

Knowing how they got into their challenging situation was one thing; however, we didn’t want to stop there. We followed up with a second question, “What allowed you to navigate successfully into and through these kinds of experiences?” Looking back, leaders reported a range of strategies. (See Real Time Leadership Development, Yost & Plunkett, 2009). Here are four that were regularly mentioned:

  • Focus on the strengths and potential in yourself and others. Know your strengths and look for ways to leverage them. Look for the strengths and the potential in the people around you. Don’t ignore your weaknesses, but find ways to get “good enough” so they don’t get in your way.
  • Adopt a learning focus. Don’t try to perform at 100 percent all of the time. When you are navigating the unknown, you need to give yourself permission to learn as you go. Find ways to try out new ideas, to figure out what works, and adjust as you go. In a dynamic environment, the person who wins is not the one with the “right” answer at the start, but the person who is open to feedback, learns from it, and adapts.
  • Focus on what you can control. There will always be a lot out of your control. Look for the things that you can control and the ones where you have some influence.
  • Draw on the people around you. Surround yourself with people who can provide advice, give you honest feedback, provide perspective, and contribute emotional support. Listen. Give back. Say thank you.

In today’s turbulent world, every employee at some point or another will be challenged to step into and navigate in the unknown. Change is now the rule; stability is the exception. As you think about your career, what are you drawing on to learn as you go? What can you provide the leaders and people who you support to help them lead their teams into the unknown?

Getting More Than 10% From Formal Development Programs

classroomLast fall at SIOP’s Leading Edge Consortium, I was intrigued by a presentation by James Cameron, the Global Talent Development VP at Walmart. Alluding to the 70-20-10 framework for leader development, he talked about how to get more than 10% from formal development programs.

I like the idea of challenging the status quo:  Just because education and training programs account for around 10% of the key developmental experiences in executives’ careers as they look back doesn’t mean that these programs can’t (or shouldn’t) have more impact going forward.  James turned his presentation into a short case that you can find in the Best Practice Cases section of the website.

Now I see a number of the practices and programs described in Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent and in Experience-Driven Leader Development through this “more than 10%” lens.  Among the contributions in these books, two main strategies are described for better integrating formal development programs and on-the-job development—boosting the power of each:

  • Generate more real-time interplay between the content of the program and the participants’ on-the-job leadership challenges. The program becomes a learning laboratory where knowledge and perspectives encountered via coursework can be immediately applied to current challenges and tried out on the job.  Spacing program sessions over time allows participants to share their on-the-job application experiences with one another, get advice and additional insights, and then fine-tune their next round of application. A recent innovation with this approach is the “flipped classroom” in which content is delivered virtually with assignments to make use of the content in one’s current work; face-to-face classroom time is reserved for interactions that test and deepen understanding[1]. Timing programs to coincide with taking on a new leadership challenge is a key design element for this strategy.
  • Make a stretch experience the centerpiece of the development program.  Other learning tactics (e.g., coaching, feedback, reflection, access to content) are employed, but specifically in support of maximizing learning from the experience. Often the experience is a team-based action learning project—a broadening experience outside of one’s current responsibilities. The intensity of the experience can be heightened, for example, by making it a short-term assignment in another part of the world or at corporate headquarters working with senior executives[2].  Or the central stretch experience of the program can be one that the participants already have in common, for example, all of the participants are in the first year of their first supervisory experience[3].

James shares similar strategies used at Walmart, although several have interesting twists.  For example, cohort groups in a program are facilitated by a manager who is currently in the job that the participants will be moving into. The facilitator’s job during cohort discussions is to connect the content of the program with the challenges the participants will likely face in the new job.

However, James also shares an additional strategy for getting more than 10% from formal programs:  Make the program as challenging as a job.  You can get fired from Walmart’s Leadership Academy for not demonstrating that you are open to learning during the program.  Your facilitator could be a senior leader who will later make decisions about who has the right stuff to move up in the organization.  You will be assigned leadership roles in the classroom. High stakes, visibility, and influence without authority are characteristics of developmental assignments. The challenge is to build these same characteristics into formal programs.

It reminds me of an intriguing question I first heard from Mary Plunkett:  How do you make the “10” more like the “70”?  How do you do that?  And are there any downsides to such an approach?


[1] See how Lori Homer did this at Microsoft (chapter 14 in Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent) and how Lyndon Rego and colleagues apply the concept at CCL (contribution 59 in Experience-Driven Leader Development).

[2] See IBM Corporate Service Corps case by Vicki Flaherty and Mathian Osicki (chapter 10 in Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent) and the GSK Future Strategy Group case by Kim Lafferty and Steve Chapman (chapter 9 in Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent).

[3] See how Mary Mannion Plunkett and Dagmar Daubner created such a program at Heineken (chapter 15 in Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent).

Are We Qualified to Learn from Our Own Experience?

Tunnel Vision

Plunkett1Your phone is ringing, emails are popping up, instant messenger is blinking, Yammer is reminding you to collaborate, and your schedule for the day is packed: seven hours of meetings and conference calls, your son’s baseball game, and a dinner with a key customer. It’s no wonder that most leaders treat professional development as an off-site, multi-day commitment that happens infrequently.

Yet we know that learning occurs as individuals engage in challenging experiences and then reflect on the outcomes of those experiences.  Baseline data indicates that our executives at Carlson are great at running the gauntlet in pursuit of results. But are they kicking learning to the ditch as they race forward?

Optimal Navigation

So we asked ourselves: What could be the carefully-aimed catalyst that would nudge our executives to convert action into learning, to become better gardeners of their own experiences?

Forty self-selected executives participated in the experiment we designed: short-form executive coaching.  Most of the executives had never worked with an executive coach before and experienced the program through many eye-opening lenses.

The two key elements of short-form executive coaching are:

  1. Quick Insight. Personality self-assessments and qualitative feedback from key stakeholders created a unique mirror for executives to view themselves.
  2. A Little Space. Four coaching sessions with carefully chosen external coaches created the space for reflection and challenge.

A Better View

Executives in the experiment saw what they were missing. They described the experience as the catalyst to “ask myself questions, to get my nose out of the steering wheel and the do do do do”; “to take a step back”; “to analyze”; “to think.”  And the mantra heard most often in debriefings:  “What is my everyday leadership impact?”

Plunkett4We created this mind cloud from the executives’ descriptions of their short-form coaching experience:



Wide Angle Lens

Plunkett5While our executives report a new approach to interactions, will they continue to monitor their leadership impact and use each day to try on a new perspective?  Many of them have requested six month check-ins to keep the view front and center.  Perhaps the key learning for an executive is to create habits and routines to step to the balcony so they can learn, and not kick learning to the ditch.


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.

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.

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?