Category Archives: Challenging Assignments

Eating My Own Cooking

cooking_class3“Eating my own cooking” is my version of the cobbler’s shoeless child. As the experience-based leader development (EBLD) consultant who forgot about using experience for my own learning and development, perhaps my story can help save you from yourself. I knew better, but in true hypocritical fashion I looked right past the “experience is the best teacher” advice that I have been giving to others and failed to enact my own development beliefs.

Here’s what happened. In late 2014 my role in a Fortune 500 company was eliminated. I was faced with the scary and exhilarating prospect of starting a new work and life chapter. As I began to think about what to do next, I determined fairly quickly, with the help of a fabulous network of caring family, friends, and other professionals, that I would dedicate my time to serving as an external coach, consultant, and facilitator. My specialty areas of focus would include transition, talent, leadership, and organization development. All of these were aspects of work that I had traditionally enjoyed, done well, and appreciated as opportunities to serve others in ways that felt developmentally enriching and life-giving. And, as a complicating bonus, I had never done any of them outside the confines of the large organizations that employed me.

As the transition began I told myself that I would adopt a humble learner attitude and try each day to take small steps to learn big things. Big things included customer prospecting, proposal writing, marketing, client management, establishing a small business as a legal entity, filing quarterly taxes, becoming certified in new instruments, auditioning for opportunities to work, and working as an affiliate with others who own businesses. All of these were sizable and important. As it turns out, learning from experience and reflecting regularly, were easier said than done.

spinning wheelAs the journey began I took time each day and week to plan what I was going to learn and do. Weeks began to pile up when it dawned on me that the blur of activity was not producing the development or satisfaction that I wanted. I was working as hard as I had ever worked, learning (including through generous mentors, other coaches, and consultants) as much as I had ever learned, yet feeling totally unaccomplished. This couldn’t continue. As I stepped back and took a closer look, my self-diagnosis revealed a near total lack of true development and goal-oriented planning and almost no reflection. That mix predictably produced a frustrating sense of spinning my wheels.

The “simple” cure was to return to my leadership development roots and to treat experience as the best teacher. The behaviors that I reacquired and have faithfully used will sound familiar and sadly ironic. They included:

  • View each day as an opportunity to learn and grow
  • Plan and seek experiences with both learning and doing goals that produce growth and achievement
  • Embed learning within the work
  • Reflect regularly, in the moment and beyond, on what you’re trying to learn
  • Honestly and regularly evaluate whether learning is occurring and in what ways it spurred the intended growth
  • Add incrementally the application of all that you learned to each similar experience, including keeping good notes of lessons learned and strides made

While the journey is a long way from over, and there’s still a great amount to learn, the sense of progress, development, and achievement have returned.

Does this problem sound familiar? I hope not. If it does, pull a page or two out of your EBLD playbook and begin anew because there will always be new things to learn, do, and continually do differently as you grow throughout your life.

Taking a Page from the LMS Playbook

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Power of Structure

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

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

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

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

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Short-Term Assignments, Long-Term Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dark Side to Stretch Assignments

Reading a couple research articles got me thinking deeper about something Paul Yost wrote last year. He described a stretch assignment as when you are excited and scared at the very same time.storm

The two articles (see references below) take a serious look at the dark side of stretch assignments. Both articles were published in 2014 in top peer-reviewed journals in our field by entirely different research teams. Both made use of an instrument I had a hand in developing, the Job Challenge Profile (potential blogger bias alert!). They both grounded their research in transactional stress theory—a theory I had become a fan of when I first read Lazarus and Folkman’s book Stress, Appraisal, and Coping back in 1985.

At that time, I was focused on how job challenges (like influencing without authority or starting something new) stimulated on-the-job learning, but I was also interested in the manager’s affective reactions to these challenges. I was well aware that managers experience both positive and negative emotions as they encounter these challenges. Somewhere along the way, this part of the equation drifted into the background of my work. These studies brought back into focus the negative emotions that stretch assignments can generate.

Here are the overall findings from the two studies:

  • In a sample of early-career managers, Yuntao Dong, Myeong-Gu Seo, and Kathryn Bartol found that experiencing development job challenges can increase managers’ pleasant feelings (e.g., excitement, enthusiasm, and satisfaction) which, in turn, increase their advancement potential and decrease their intent to leave their current job. These same job challenges can simultaneously increase negative feelings (e.g., anger, nervousness, and disappointment) which, in turn, decrease advancement potential.  But there’s another twist: job challenges were related to increased turnover intentions only for those low on emotional intelligence (i.e., the ability to detect, respond to, and manage emotions). The researchers argue that emotional intelligence can prevent managers’ unpleasant feelings from developing into intentions to leave their job.
  • In a sample of junior and mid-level managers, Stephen Courtright, Amy Colbert, and Daejeong Choi found that experiencing developmental job challenges was associated with higher work engagement which, in turn, was associated with higher levels of transformational leadership behaviors.  However, experiencing developmental job challenges was also associated with higher emotional exhaustion which, in turn, was associated with high levels of laissez-faire leadership behaviors.  The extra twist in this study: this indirect relationship between job challenges and laissez-faire leadership behaviors held only for those managers with low leadership self-efficacy (i.e., the managers’ perception of their ability to effectively perform the functions of a leadership role).

There’s a lot in these studies; for now, here are some of my take-aways:

Stretch assignments can produce the very opposite of what proponents of them intend. It is useful to be reminded that the same job experiences that can stimulate on-the-job learning can contribute to a wide range of other outcomes. Increasing employee engagement and keeping talented people in the organization are often cited as reasons (in addition to development) for giving stretch assignments. Yet we shouldn’t ignore the potential negative stress and exhaustion that can lead to inaction and avoidance of leadership responsibilities, doubts from others about one’s potential, and turnover.

The negative consequences of stretch assignment can be moderated. The studies cited point to two important tools that managers can make use of in the midst of a stretch assignment to lessen negative outcomes: emotional regulation and self-efficacy. Certainly, organizations can look for these qualities in individuals when selecting people for stretch assignments. They can also make it easier to enact these qualities during stretch assignments by making their salience more apparent and providing the social support that strengthens them.

The mix of excited and scared matters. I’m stimulated to pay more attention to that experience of being excited and scared at the same time when facing a challenge.  What’s the ideal balance of these positive and negative feelings? For me, I’m thinking 75% excited and 25% scared. What do you think?

Dong, Y., Seo, M., Bartol, K.M. (2014). No pain, no gain: An affect-based model of developmental job experience and the buffering effects of emotional intelligence.  Academy of Management Journal, 57, 1056-1077.

Courtright, S.H., Colbert, A.E., & Choi, D. (2014). Fired up or burned out? How developmental challenge differentially impacts leader behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 681-696.

Getting the Most Out of 70-20-10

make things happenMany organizations claim to embrace the concept of 70-20-10 as a learning approach. The idea of 70% learning on-the-job, 20% learning through others, and 10% formal learning/training seems logical, thus the framework is pervasive in corporate learning. Unfortunately, many employees, managers, and even learning leaders misunderstand – and fail to leverage – the 70%.

Too often learning and talent professionals think, “OK – so the on-the-job learning happens anyway, let’s focus on the parts we can actually plan like coaching and formal training.” The first problem with just letting the 70% “happen” is the lack of focus on getting the right experiences, particularly those that will stretch people to gain new skills and competencies. The second problem is that the “20” and “10” parts are often disconnected from on-the-job experiences.

To address both problems, development should start from the 70%. On-the-job learning should be a very deliberate exercise in choosing experiences that help a person grow capability by planning job situations beyond his or her comfort zone. An individual development plan discussion should be focused on questions like, “What are two experiences in the next job you want to be in that you could try now?” Once the right experiences are identified, additional ingredients like other people (20%) and formal learning (10%) can be introduced as direct supports to the on-the-job elements. Support from others should be directly positioned to help the person through the experience. Similarly, formal training should be positioned to support specifically-chosen, on-the-job challenges.

DHL2What does this look like in practice? Drawing on my doctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania, my team at DHL created a special accelerator program for technology project managers. The research looked closely at the kinds of experiences that information-technology project managers claimed to help them develop. The findings described a variety of challenging on-the-job events that pushed people outside their own comfort zones, but with strong support from developmental relationships. For a pilot “learning from experience” initiative, the company tapped 13 senior project managers to identify current challenges and work closely with top project leaders, who served as coaches and facilitators. The small groups met every three weeks for six months to review projects, work though challenges, and explore ways to steer the project to success. While all project managers showed positive development, the people who made the biggest gains were the ones who had been facing significant project challenges.

In addition, DHL has built a process to help ensure that on-the-job experiences are part of the DNA of learning. We have development guides outlining a menu of experiences for different job roles. These guides are based on the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), a leading IT competency model. Managers and employees can select experiences based on current roles or next-step roles. For example, a junior IT service leader might pick “lead customer service review” as an action that, combined with support from others, might be one of the right stretches to help build capability and confidence.

Do people learn through experiences that just happen anyway? Probably—but organizations that constantly challenge people to plan the right experiences supported by other people and formal learning will build capability much faster and ultimately out-compete firms that miss this golden opportunity.

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).

Excited and Scared at Exactly the Same Time

If the research is true—that most development occurs in stretch assignments—then it naturally begs the next question: What is a really good stretch assignment and what is the right amount of stretch?

Cindy McCauley and colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership have done a lot of work to answer the first question. Some of the key elements of a really good stretch position include taking on unfamiliar responsibilities, inherited problems, influencing without authority, and working across cultures, to name a few. (See Chapter 3, “Identifying Development-in-Place Opportunities” in Experience-Driven Leader Development).

Answering the second question—what is the right amount of stretch?—is still under debate. Business leaders and leadership development professionals have wrestled with this question for a long time.

Several years ago I was excited to find a reference that said CitiCorp tried to place their high-potential leaders in positions for which they were 60-70 percent prepared. This seemed like a good guide, but the next question was: 70 percent of what? At least it was a place to start!

In working with leaders since then, I have come to rely on three rules of thumb:

(1)    Pair “good enough” with “chance to excel.” Is the assignment one where the candidate has the skills to perform “good enough,” but the assignment will also require him to develop new capabilities to really excel?

(2)    Push the leader to the edge of her comfort zone.  If the leader is too comfortable, then she won’t need to stretch herself to grow. If the assignment has too much stretch and pushes her outside the comfort zone, learning is likely to be hit and miss. She is unlikely to process the learning very deeply—and might even take away the wrong lessons!

hang glider(3)    Look for “excited and scared.” A leader that we interviewed several years ago described the right challenge this way: “The most developmental jobs I ever had were the ones where I felt excited and scared at exactly the same time.” This rings true for many leaders. In my own life, these were the times when I found myself excited to get up in the morning, where I knew I was doing something that mattered, where I was never sure what the day would bring, but I was confident that I or the people around me could figure it out.

So, what are your rules for the right amount of “stretch”?  What opportunities for challenge and learning are on the horizon for you? How can you help create those kinds of experiences for others?

Think Small: Will a Micro-Experience Fit the Bill?

micro assignmentShort-term work and small assignments are often left out of the development process. But “micro-experiences” have the potential to solve two challenges:

  • Organizations often have short-term work or parts of a project that need attention – small assignments in need of an owner.
  • Few developing leaders have long and concentrated periods of time to take on assignments beyond or instead of their day jobs – people in need of learning in small bites.

Intuitively, it seems if we can put these two needs together, we have a valuable addition to on-the-job learning. However, a closer look brings up a few important questions:

  • Can micro-experiences drive development? Do they?
  • Is there is a minimum length of time needed in a micro-experience for it to drive real growth?
  • Can a series of micro-experiences – a micro-experience mosaic – be a suitable alternative to a longer-term stint in a new role?

My own experience shows that development can occur pretty quickly, suggesting micro-experiences can be an effective approach. But, of course, the value is dependent on several variables, including:

The mindset of the developing leader. The best consumer of the micro-experience is one who values new experiences as a preferred way to learn. A leader who is clear that development is a marathon, not a sprint, will also be likely to extract value from a micro-experience. He or she is likely attuned to the limited depth and breadth of a single, small experience and will place each micro-experience in the context of the larger mosaic of development. Leaders eager to develop too quickly with a get-it-done-now, silver-bullet mindset could be disappointed with how far and fast a micro-experience can drive their growth.

The growth goals of the developing leader. What are the aspirations for development? Where does a leader’s development goal live on a continuum of learning?

Exposure >>> Understanding >>> Competence >>> Expertise

The single, initial micro-experience is probably best suited to helping one gain exposure to something new. Over time, and with added micro-experiences, one can gain more developmental traction and deeper learning.

The type of micro-experience selected. The quality and effectiveness of a micro-experience also hinges on a careful match with the leader’s specific development goals. Does an experience clearly align with targeted growth?

When the mindset, the target, and the experience are aligned, I see micro-experiences offering a number of advantages. Micro-experiences allow leaders to:

  • Break a large development goal into several bite-sized pieces. For example, to strengthen business acumen, a leader might sit in on an analyst call, review quarter-end reports with a finance colleague, tag along on a sales call, and participate in product development meetings. Micro-experiences allow for iterative skill- and knowledge-building in a way that is relatively easy for leaders to plan, digest, and execute.
  • Take a test drive. Micro-experiences give a sense of what is expected or what a next step in their development might look like. Is the leader interested in more directionally aligned development?
  • Preview a different job or career direction. Leaders gain a quick and realistic exposure to a different role, function, or field, if career exploration or broadening of experience is needed.
  • Learn with low risk. Micro-experiences are a less costly investment of the leader’s time and the organization’s resources than many alternatives. They are also likely to provide a safer learning environment.
  • Diversify. A range of experiences are relatively easy to attain.

Alongside the benefits, potential disadvantages and uncertainties remain, such as:

  • Learning immersion may be gradual and casual, rather than deep and intense.
  • Momentum between experiences can stall.
  • Activity – the leader as a “pair of hands” – may trump learning and a head/hands balance.
  • True stretch may be hard to attain.

What do you think?

Is it time to think small? Are you experimenting with micro-experiences in your organizations? If so, what works? What doesn’t?

I invite you to use this forum to share your opinions (both pros and cons) of micro-experiences. Tell us your stories – good or bad. Your advice, guidance or words of warning will give the idea of micro-experiences more visibility – and an opportunity for all of us to consider its potential.