“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.
As 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.