Category Archives: Challenging Assignments

Leader Development: Beyond the Workplace


A recent conversation with colleagues at Taproot Foundation was a welcome opportunity for me to once again explore the leader development opportunities in people’s lives outside the workplace.

taproot-logoThe Taproot Foundation’s mission is to drive social change by leading, mobilizing, and engaging professionals in pro bono service. They work to match skilled volunteers with pro bono opportunities. But here is what I was most interested in: They also work with forward-thinking organizations to design pro bono programs that go beyond employee engagement to capitalize on the leader development and team building opportunities embedded in volunteer work.

Group of children at soccer practiceAlthough many of us are prone to compartmentalize our lives into work, family, community, and leisure domains, effective leaders have long been applying leadership skills and insights developed in one setting to the challenges encountered in other settings. I worked once with an executive who was focusing on working with his direct reports in more of what he called a teaching mode rather than a telling mode. He drew from his experience as a volunteer coach for his daughter’s soccer team to articulate what teaching entailed and adapted skills developed in that setting to the workplace.

In their research on the relationship between multiple life roles and effective performance at work, Marian Ruderman and Patricia Ohlott found evidence that experiences outside of work can provide the practical skills and psychological support that enhances leadership effectiveness on the job (Academy of Management Journal, 2002). Experiences as a volunteer, parent, neighbor, traveler, or hobbyist can enhance a wide range of skills, from selling a concept and planning events to resolving conflict and handling ambiguity.

Corporate Social Responsibility and Learning & Development functions in organizations are now collaborating to more intentionally leverage the leadership development potential in employee volunteer programs. What does leveraging this potential entail?

  • Recognizing the kind of stretch experiences that a volunteer will likely encounter—and the competencies such experiences develop. For example, these employees will be in unfamiliar settings with limited knowledge of how things work. To be successful in these settings, they will have to expand their network, be an agile learner, and develop comfort with ambiguity. Volunteers will also likely be working in a more resource-constrained environment—a challenge that can spark creativity and force the re-examination of assumptions. If volunteers go into the assignment knowing not only what talents they have to offer, but also what they can gain from the experience, then efforts to learn and grow can be more deliberate.
  • Designing pro bono experiences to target specific competencies that the organization needs to realize its strategic goals. For a number of organizations, the aim is more leaders adept at working in a global environment. Global pro bono programs are a way to give more employees a global leadership experience. These programs typically deploy multi-cultural teams to emerging-market countries to help organizations or government agencies solve problems. These short-term assignment expose participants to different worldviews, require collaboration across cultural boundaries, and deliver on-the-ground lessons in adaptation to local context.
  • Making pro bono work the centerpiece of a broader learning experience. IBM’s global pro bono program (Corporate Service Corps) starts with three months of preparation, including self-reflection and personal goal-setting, an intense structured learning curriculum, and virtual teambuilding. A CSC alumnus serves as the team’s facilitator. And after the one-month in-country pro bono work, participants have two months to reflect on and harvest key insights, and then share the experience and those insights with back-home colleagues. These elements of the program serve to maximize the learning gained from the pro bono experience.

Taproot Foundation has put together a useful Program Design Roadmap to help you start imagining and planning how you can integrate pro bono work and talent development in your own organization.

Most organizations find that they don’t have enough of the right kind of stretch experiences within the boundaries of their organization to meet their growing need to develop leaders. Pro bono work is one way of getting outside the constraints of those boundaries—in ways that energize employees and fulfill organizational aspirations to make the world a better place.

This post first appeared in November 2016 on The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange blog.

How to Lead Change with Experience-Driven Development

(This post was originally published in September 2016 on LinkedIn.)

time-for-changeA new Center for Creative Leadership white paper Putting Experience at the Center of Talent Management revisits the 70-20-10 framework for development that stems from CCL’s Lessons of Experience longitudinal research initiated over 40 years ago. The authors of this new report make the case for experience driven-development (the 70%) as a requirement for attracting and retaining talent and for accelerating the development of leaders at all levels.

They sum up the current status of talent management as follows: “But most organizations have one thing in common: They are not maximizing on-the-job opportunities that prepare leaders, develop employees and advance business goals. Learning from experience is the number one way development happens. People gain or fine-tune their abilities and perspectives through their day-to-day work. They learn by doing, by trying, by figuring out.” 

According to these experts, “In spite of the importance of experience-driven development, organizations struggle to tap into this powerful source of learning.” They recommend a comprehensive talent management approach with experience at the center and suggest that organizations get started by asking “How can we incorporate experience-driven development practices with small changes or big steps?” 

With many corporations revising their performance management processes and some eliminating the annual performance review altogether, Individual Development Plans (IDP’s) take on even greater importance. An Individual Development Planning process (or pilot) would be a good starting point for an organization that wants to maximize on-the-job development opportunities. Here are four critical success factors for organizations to consider if they wish to accelerate development through experience-driven individual development planning. These recommendations are gleaned from my experience facilitating development planning with over 300 leaders in four global corporations over a 15 year period at sites in the US, England and France.

1.  Link development planning to change management efforts and strategic goals.

In their recent article Change Management and Leadership Development Have to Mesh authors Ryan W. Quinn and Robert E. Quinn state: “One major reason organizations struggle is because they treat both leadership development and change management as separate rather than interrelated challenges. Cultural changes cannot happen without leadership, and efforts to change culture are the crucible in which leadership is developed.” 

Individual development planning processes that support the 70-20-10 model put the correct emphasis on the 70% of development that comes from challenging work experiences as opposed to traditional development plans that emphasize mentors (accountable for 20% of development) or participation in training programs (accountable for only 10% of development). A “stretch” project that supports organizational strategy and change management needs to become the focal point (the 70%) of the individual development plan.

To integrate development into the “real work” of leaders at all levels, have participants collaborate with their managers on the selection of one challenging project or stretch assignment or stretch goal that supports the organizational change or strategy and make that project the centerpiece of their development plan.

For example, in one pharmaceutical R&D organization that was undergoing globalization and simultaneously forging earlier and more collaborative relationships with their drug discovery counterparts, development planning participants selected projects related to new roles on drug discovery teams, the development of new technologies (e.g. in the realm of biomarkers, animal models and informatics) and leadership roles on Global Practice Networks. These stretch projects and new leadership roles, aligned with change management challenges and priorities, accelerated the growth and confidence of these scientific leaders and provided opportunities for the organizational recognition that is an essential element of leadership development.

Integrating individual development planning with change management also creates buy-in from executive leaders who see the alignment of these individual projects with their visions for change. One global pharmaceutical leader commented on the benefits: “It is very much an applied, practical approach that aligns individual development with the “real work” (projects, portfolio) of R&D effectiveness. The program has enabled me to successfully implement my vision (for change)…”  

2.  Design and use a process that involves assessment, development planning, and implementation of a challenging project over a 9-12 month period. 

Provide participants and their managers with a process, development plan template, discussion guides and timeframes and/or a facilitator to keep the process on track. Here is one example below.


3.  Have participants incorporate an action plan for the challenging project as well as a plan for addressing “soft skills” in the context of the project.

Development plans should include an action plan for the challenging project indicating progress goals and benchmarks–“what” needs to be accomplished “by when.”

The focus on the development of soft skills or interpersonal leadership skills in the context of the challenging project is likewise critical to accelerating development.  Lominger’s Leadership Architect sort cards have proven useful in identifying the soft skills that are needed to address strategic challenges. Participants can zero in on two mission critical soft skills to work on as they execute their development plan over the course of 9-12 months.

For Your Improvement: A Guide for Development and Coaching is a useful guidebook in helping participants define their interpersonal needs and goals. With respect to a specific skill, the participant and his or her manager can identify in behavioral terms, where the participant is unskilled or overusing a skill to the point that it represents a barrier to the implementation of their stretch project or new leadership role.

In the world of scientific leaders, some commonly worked on competencies from the Leadership Architect include Conflict Management, Dealing with Ambiguity, Negotiating, Motivating Others and Political Savvy, to name a few. The FYI book (as it is called) is a source of self-directed learning in that it provides ten remedies for each of the 67 competencies and 19 career stallers included in the book. Participants can select two or three remedies for each of the skills they are working on, apply these remedies in the context of their challenging project or stretch assignment and then reflect on their success and the changes they are making in a follow-up discussion with their manager.  One participant who developed a new technology and then executed its transfer to other global sites states:

“During this process I had to utilize both science and project management, forming teams across the organization. I have learned to recognize the complexity of the organization. Since I had the opportunity to work with colleagues from different sites and lines, I exercised my skills of motivating others. The program increases learning via communication and dialogue with managers and mentors.”  

4.  Hold participants and their managers accountable. 

Accountability is critical to the success of an experienced-driven development process. A workshop to launch the process, attended by both participants and their managers and also guest executives, can be useful in stimulating discussions about organizational strategy or culture change and how these translate into individual stretch projects and assignments. Participants and their managers can be introduced to expert tools like the Leadership Architect and FYI guidebook and to their roles in executing a successful experience-driven development process.

Managers can expect to invest a minimum of five hours per direct report in the meetings needed to create, execute and follow-up on an experience-driven development plan. If participants are requested to send their development plans “up the line” to their executive managers, this increases accountability and opens up dialogue on the challenging projects that are aligned with strategy and cultural change. One organization held an annual celebration to recognize participants and their accomplishments on their stretch projects and another selected participants to give formal presentations to executive management on the challenges and outcomes of their projects.

As Morgan McCall stated in his book High Flyers: Most of the (development) cost is sunk.  Challenging assignments, bosses, hardships, mistakes, etc. already exist.  The key is providing a systematic approach to maximize the development from the challenging assignment and from other people.

In conclusion, these comments from participants in experience-driven development processes sum up their value in driving change, both organizational and personal:

“I learned a lot about how the organization works and how to successfully navigate within it, particularly in forming collaborations and negotiating with Discovery colleagues. It has helped me to develop a good understanding of the specific issues pertinent to the drug development process, how to align my work with the goals and initiatives of multiple groups, and how to develop new technologies and approaches to preclinical work. These things were largely motivated by my goal-setting in this program… “

“Program has required me to think about the context in which organizational decisions are made and resourced. This, in turn, has allowed me to begin to understand how to work more efficiently within the system to attain goals and provide deliverables. It has also motivated me to reach beyond my comfort zone in dealing with problems and issues and to try to develop novel solutions to overcome obstacles.”

“Project provided additional vehicle for feedback on leadership behavior.”

“This program greatly enhanced my organizational agility. Dealing first hand with serious issues of ambiguity and taking on the challenge necessary to make a change enabled me to meet critical business needs.”

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.

The Origins and Evolution of 70-20-10

Cross Section of Chambered Nautilus ShellWhat a delight it was to read Bob Eichinger’s account of the origin and purpose of the 70-20-10 model in a blog post by Cal Wick.

I thought back to the time I had cornered Bob 10 years ago at a conference and asked him how he had arrived at the sources-of-learning percentages (70% from challenging assignments, 20% from other people, and 10% from coursework).

I got a shorter version of the story he shares in the post, but enough to go back and apply the same calculations to each replication of the original Lessons of Experience research.  Not every study produced the 70-20-10 results, but most were close. The one consistent finding:  Challenging assignments are always the #1 source of key learning experiences in managerial careers.

You can even find support for the central role of on-the-job learning in research framed as questioning the 70-20-10 model. For example, a major Conference Board – DDI study found that in companies with high-quality leadership development, 52% of leaders’ time spent on learning is on-the-job learning, 27% is learning from others, and 21% is formal learning.  Keep in mind that this study is asking a useful but different question (time spent on learning vs. key learning experiences in your career).  Yet, however you approach the question, on-the-job learning comes out on top.

Most folks have moved on from quibbling over the percentages to focusing on how organizations can best use all three major sources of learning to enhance leader development. The Conference Board-DDI report advocates for better integration of learning on the job, from others, and in the classroom.  Similarly, Bersin by Deloitte  encourages a continuous learning approach that weaves together experience, exposure, and education.

I’m totally on board with these approaches. At CCL, my colleagues and I still use the 70-20-10 meme from time to time, but we’ve also been using a different phrase:  putting experience at the center of talent management. It’s an approach that emphasizes the pivotal role of challenging assignments in attracting, developing, and retaining talent—and at the same time, highlights how the power of on-the-job experience is enhanced when surrounded by developmental relationships and formal learning opportunities.

I agree with what Cal points out in his post:  that the value of 70-20-10 was its ability to “open our eyes to learning that is happening all the time.” It makes me wonder, what am I still blind to when it comes to experience-driven development?

Choosing a Developmental Assignment

sign-post-hard-choices-280x156What are all the factors that you should consider in matching one of your direct reports with a developmental assignment?

That’s the question I want leaders to ponder as they work in small groups to review the case of a manager who needs to decide which of three assignments would be best for developing a particular employee. The case describes the employee’s current job and responsibilities as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

Two of the potential assignments are temporary assignments (a task force assignment and a special project); the other assignment is a job move. The group has to decide which assignment they would recommend the manager choose for the employee.

Over the years I’ve used this case numerous time and have found that all three assignments are about equally likely to be recommended by a group. None of the assignments are clearly “better” than the others.  An argument can be made for choosing each one.

As groups describe how they arrived at their decision, they almost always consider three important factors:

  • In what ways would the assignment provide the opportunity to practice and improve a skill that the employee needs to develop?
  • How much of a risk would the organization be taking by putting the employee in what is clearly a stretch assignment? Risk is typically assessed in terms of how much the overall success of the endeavor (i.e., the task force, the special project, or the work responsibilities in the new job) would depend on the performance of the employee.
  • Would the assignment take advantage of some of the employee’s strengths? Individuals can be more effective in a stretch assignment if they have strengths to readily apply to the work. In fact, this can mitigate some of the risk.

And many of the groups point out two other factors that they wanted to consider in their deliberations, but about which the case provided no information:

  • How much coaching and support would the employee likely receive from the people she would be working with in the assignment?
  • Which assignment would be most motivating to the employee?

CVDL_feat_img_sub_extraLast week I discussed the case with folks who dug even deeper and offered more insights about the complexities of matching individuals and assignments for development. Students in Benedictine University’s Values-Driven Leadership doctoral program surfaced additional questions that the manager should consider:

  • If the employee takes on one of the temporary assignments or the new job, what would be the impact on others in my workgroup?
  • How much personal risk would I be taking on by giving the employee each of these assignments (or recommending her to others)?
  • How could the risk inherent in the assignment be mitigated? A number of the students were attracted to the potential pay-off of the riskiest assignment (the job move), which sparked ideas for creative ways to mitigate the downsides of this assignment, including redesigning the job and strengthening support from others during the transition.

Working with these talented students brought the case alive and reminded me that using challenging assignment for development is complicated. It also reminded me of the power of conversations with colleagues for surfacing our assumptions, getting a broader view, and finding new ways forward. Many thanks to you Cohort 3!

Linking Developmental Experiences to Strategy

Biz09-HON-1217-newscomA recent post on the original key developmental events research got me thinking about how people in organizations end up with the opportunity to have capability-building experiences.

It’s true that ongoing research has brought increasing clarity to the kinds of events that build capability such as high-visibility project assignments, managing a larger scope, influencing without authority, and proving yourself. Many individuals seek out these kinds of challenges and accelerate their own development. Still, the process of connecting the right experience with the right individual is often left to chance.

I recently sat in on a development program in Honeywell that doesn’t leave the process to chance. The program, the Transportation Systems (TS) Value Drivers Academy, accelerates the development of senior leaders within Honeywell’s turbocharger business. The program connects people with developmental experiences while focusing top talent on key strategic priorities.

Prior to the program kickoff, top management within the TS business identified several key projects for advancing strategic objectives. For example, one project involved investigating how a technology from another Honeywell business could be applied to improving efficiency in a turbocharger. After participating in a face-to-face workshop to build key project skills, leadership acumen, and an innovation mindset, small teams were assigned one of the projects.

Each project has a designated top-management champion/coach, and the whole program is sponsored by the president of the TS business. The project groups have several months to work on their projects, giving regular updates to each sponsor and finally presenting results to the TS management.

There are a few things I really like about this program.

  • The central focus of the program is actual strategic work that the business needs accomplished. This means the investment is not “only” about training, it helps further key business goals.
  • These projects have clear sponsors. I’ve seen programs like this where the participants come up with their own projects they hope to sell to a sponsor. Often the project outcomes get shelved. In this case the projects have buy in and sponsorship before the program even begins.
  • The training part of the program was directly linked to skills the teams would have to immediately use in their projects. In all the discussion about 70-20-10, positioning training to support immediate application is an essential part of solidifying learning.
  • The projects—and the positioning of these projects in the business—have the ingredients of excellent developmental assignments: (1) the assignments are project-based, (2) the projects have high visibility, (3) the teams have to accomplish their objectives without formal line authority, and (4) the stakes are high—top management is watching closely.

Over the years, the program has directly led to several key innovations used by the Honeywell turbocharger business—all while playing a key role in developing critical talent. That’s a win-win if I ever saw one.

Talent to Win

Scoring the winning points at a basketball gameA big story-line in men’s college basketball this year is the outstanding crop of seniors who are leading top-ranked teams.

If you don’t follow college basketball, you might be thinking, “of course a team with experienced players at the helm should have the edge.” But that hasn’t been the case in recent years. The accolades have gone to the so-called “one-and-done” freshmen—those players who are talented enough to begin playing at the professional level right out of high school but instead play one year at the college level until they meet the minimum requirements for the NBA draft. Last year’s national championship team had three such freshmen in their starting line-up. In contrast, the four teams remaining in this year’s tournament are senior-dominated.

To those who make a living analyzing college sports, this “year of the senior” is an anomaly—a talented incoming freshman class is expected to once again make a big impact. But I’ve enjoyed this season of four-year players coming into their own. An article by sports writer Nicole Auerbach helped me articulate why it feels so satisfying:

  • Fans love seeing the players on their teams grow and develop. I admit that I have yelled at some of these seniors early in their careers (well, yelled at their image on my TV) for missing critical free throws or making careless passes that led to turnovers. Seeing them put in the hard work that enhanced their performance over time makes these seniors, in my mind, especially deserving of the success they are achieving.
  • We admire the level of maturity displayed by seasoned players. Sometimes I can’t believe these are young men in their early twenties. They are not only developing their craft, but developing as people. As Villanova coach Jay Wright said, “You watch them start thinking about their teammates, the program, and not just themselves. It’s my favorite part of coaching.” Maturation is a slow process and adversity plays a role in it. Kansas senior Perry Ellis explained it this way, “I benefitted so much from the ups and downs because I learned so much about myself as a person and as a player. When you are not playing well, there’s still things you can do and learn how to fight through that and get through it.”
  • We enjoy watching players who are having fun. Emotions are contagious. Winning games certainly contributes to fun, but there’s something about the confidence and broader perspective that these seniors have gained that allow them to more fully enjoy the sport itself, their teammates, and this time in their lives.

Are there insights here for growing leadership talent? I’ll share some of my own (and encourage you to do the same):

  • Some people have the raw talent to move quickly to the next level of accomplishment in their career track. It’s pretty easy to identify this caliber of professional talent. But organizations can benefit from investing in motivated people who—with more practice, experience, and coaching—can also perform at the highest levels. Do we do enough to identify these seeds of potential in people?
  • A lot of what makes leaders effective requires maturation—the development of more complex and less egocentric ways of making sense of oneself and the world. To support maturation, organizations need to keep individuals in challenging jobs long enough for them to experience the ups and downs, to hone skills and see the bigger picture, to master the challenges and confidently lead others through them. Do we move our talented people too fast?
  • There’s satisfaction in seeing people learn and grow. Certainly bosses, coaches, and mentors who are directly working to develop others experience that satisfaction. But don’t people feel more committed to an organization when they look around and see continuous learning everywhere? We are quick to point out high performance, but do we do enough to make employee development visible in the organization?

Sure, the world of high-profile college sports might have little in common with our own organizations. But at the end of the day, we all face the human resource challenge of attracting the occasional ready-made star and growing the rest.

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!



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?