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Developing Leaders through Experience

Developing Leaders through Experience

Posted by Gavan O'Shea on 02/19/2014

Evoking terms like “trial by fire” and “crucible,” leaders often cite challenging experiences as the most important element of their personal growth. But how can organizations increase the likelihood that their leaders will 1) experience the kind of challenges that trigger development, and also 2) learn the potential lessons that such experiences hold? While there are no easy answers to these questions, there are practices that we know can stimulate experience-based development:

  • “Engineer” the right kind of developmental experiences: research shows that the best developmental experiences tend to be ambiguous, consist of novel and challenging tasks, involve multiple stakeholders and a variety of inputs, and frequently involve high visibility and risk. To the extent that they can be anticipated, organizations can assign such tasks to aspiring leaders who they view as developmentally ready.
  • Provide support and encouragement: Developmental experiences can be extremely stressful, even when individuals are committed to their learning and growth. People experiencing them need support (e.g., opportunities to acknowledge and discuss what is challenging and to come up with potential solutions) and encouragement (e.g., clearly communicating your belief in their ability to complete the task, emphasizing the growth you have already seen and the remaining opportunities for development).
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: Like any domain where expertise is involved, developing leadership skills involves what David Day calls “dedicated practice:” a sustained investment of time, energy, and focus, where the to-be-learned leadership skills are exercised in a variety of settings. Leadership coaches can help hold leaders accountable during this process, in addition to providing support and encouragement.
  • Provide Feedback: Accurate and timely feedback is critical as aspiring leaders try to learn what skills they have improved and where developmental challenges remain. Given the stress inherent in developmental experiences, though, it is important to be mindful about when and how such feedback is delivered. Feedback providers must balance the benefit of feedback with what the aspiring leader may be “able to hear” during a stressful situation.
  • Encourage reflection: Reflecting on a developmental experience can help leaders identify what went right, what they could have done differently, and what lessons they can draw from the experience. After-event reviews (AARs) can help stimulate reflection in a structured, systematic way.

Mining the developmental nuggets that are a part of any challenging experience is not an easy task. The processes above, however, can help organizations realize the truth of Osler’s dictum that “The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.”

About the Author

Dr. Gavan O'Shea is HumRRO's Director of Federal Talent Management.

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