As we climb the ladder of success, let’s make sure it is leaning against the right building.
My reflection on the pursuit of success began in a hallway when a colleague grumbled, “I-O psychologists and HR professionals have done nothing to make organizations better!” After much discussion, we agreed, I-O psychologists haven’t changed the direction of leaders or organizations, but they have helped them get wherever they are going a lot faster.
I’m afraid this is often true of our role in leadership and professional development. We debate how to speed up development most efficiently and how to figure out when acceleration rates are too fast, but we fail to help leaders discern the contribution they want to make.
In his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001), the poet David Whyte says, “Speed has become our core competency, our core identity. We do not know what powers we would be left with if we stopped doing what we were doing in the busy way we were doing it. Besides, there is a deeper, older human intuition at play that knows any real step forward comes through our pains and vulnerabilities, which is the reason we began to busy ourselves in the first place, so that we could stay well away from them” (p. 128).
Likewise in his classic The Career is Dead—Long Live the Career (1996), Tim Hall noted that the dynamic, ever-changing careers that employees face today require two overarching competencies: adaptability and identity. Organizations love highly adaptive employees because they can be pointed in the desired direction and will figure out how to get there as they go. Yet, the second dimension is equally important. Without a strong sense of identity—an internal compass—employees can get used up, never going anywhere of significance but getting there very quickly and efficiently.
What if instead of accelerating adaptability, I-O and HR professionals found ways to accelerate a person’s purpose? What would that look like? What questions could someone ask to ensure they are heading in the right direction? Here’s a start to prime the pump:
- What are you doing today that will be the thing you remember 20 years from now?
- What purposes are trying to find you today?
- What is so important in your life that it is worth doing, even if done poorly?
What are the questions that you use?
Last 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!
The key to solving a problem is not about generating the right answer but in asking the right questions. That common wisdom can take an interesting turn if used to drive learning from experience.
Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog would agree with the premise that challenging experiences are a critical element of leadership development. However, experience in-and-of-itself is not sufficient in transforming an individual. Many people are exposed to very rich learning experiences and emerge relatively unchanged. A key element is missing. For experience to deliver its full value and inform a person’s development, it must be internalized and applied. That’s when the real shift occurs – and where the power of questions comes into play.
The most important questions are not the questions we ask others, but the questions we ask ourselves. In my years of studying individuals who excel at learning from experience (i.e., highly learning agile individuals), one thing that distinguishes them from their peers is their penchant, nearly a compulsion in some cases, to engage in an ongoing, internal, question-fueled dialogue about their experiences.
This intentional sense-making process naturally varies from person to person, but typically involves these key components:
Before the Learning Event (Priming the Pump)
- How might this represent a new challenge for me?
- What might I learn as a result?
- How might lessons from past experiences apply?
During the Learning Event (Learning in Real Time)
- What’s important here?
- How am I feeling?
- What’s my intuition telling me?
- What are my actions telling me about what’s working/not working?
After the Learning Event (Reflecting and Sorting Through)
- What can I learn from what I (and others) did in this situation?
- How was I able to adapt lessons from other experiences?
- What feedback do I need to seek from others?
- How might this help me going forward?
So remember, learning from experience doesn’t happen just by the virtue of “being there” – it’s an active process and requires some degree of effort, intention, and willingness. Practice summoning and embracing the questions that will be the key to unlocking the full value of your life’s experiences.
A question that I regularly hear from those responsible for leader development in organization is this: How can we accelerate the development of leaders?
When I dig underneath that question, I often hear an assumption that there is something yet to discover about development—a new element that, if added to the mix, will speed up the process.
No one needs to wait for new discoveries to achieve faster results. There’s a great deal already known about human learning and development, for example, the importance of stretch assignments, learning goals, developmental relationships, and regular feedback.
However, as we’ve examined best practices in experience-driven leader development, three key principles stand out about effective strategies to accelerate development:
- Customize learning experiences. Instead of sending everyone through the same courses, job rotations, or coaching initiatives, tailor learning experiences to target each leader’s development needs. Customization streamlines development for the individual, removing unnecessary elements and thus speeding it up. For example, at GE, a long-time user of job rotation programs to develop employees, they are experimenting with individualized rotations in the Corporate Leadership Staff program. Cross-functional assignments are selected according to the development needs of the individual. Length of assignments are also customized.
- Integrate work and learning. Don’t think of learning as being apart from work, but rather a natural part of work. More intentionally weaving the two together creates synergies and speeds up each one. To accelerate the development of leaders for their fastest-growing markets, Microsoft implemented a program that immerses participants in temporary assignments at corporate headquarters. The projects are real work that benefits from the knowledge participants bring from the field while broadening their perspective and network of relationships.
- Create concentrated periods of learning. Although learning is an ongoing, daily process, development can speed up when there are periods of focused learning. Concentrated learning is characterized by clear development intentions and multiple tactics to realize those intentions. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps is an intense six-month experience to develop socially responsible global leaders. It combines virtual training and team-building, 30 days in a developing country delivering consulting services with the team, and sharing lessons learned with colleagues back home.
Here’s the caveat: Although these strategies can accelerate development, let’s be realistic and perhaps even cautious. Becoming an expert at complex leadership tasks takes practice over time and across many situations. And there are downsides to pushing the gas pedal too hard, like moving people from assignment to assignment without enough time to experience the consequences of their actions or burning them out. Perhaps the growing edge of practice is a deeper understanding of how to best pace interventions that aspire to speed up the natural leader development that is happening all the time.
This post first appeared on The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange.