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.

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