Training & Development

Making Leadership Development Work

Experience is the key to learning how to be an effective leader. The problem with leadership development is ensuring that potential leaders are provided experiences – for how can one learn from experience if there are no experiences to learn from? Decades of research on leadership (how it’s developed and what is most effective) has illuminated a set of common “facts” about how/why experience is essential.

“Facts” about learning experiences.

  • Leadership is learned from experience:Research has shown that natural ability has little to do with becoming a leader when compared to experience.
  • Early experiences are indispensable: Early work experience (short & long-term assignments and contact with other very good/poor supervisors) are essential.
  • The challenges present are what make an experience effective:The unexpectedness, complexity, and pressures are a few of the challenges that make experiences effective.
  • Experiences teach different lessons:Depending on what challenges are presented, people are able to learn different ways to handle them.
  • Experiences can (and should) include “developmental” aspects:Feedback and coaching can enhance the learning experience, particularly when someone is having problems with presented challenges.
  • Getting people the experience(s) they need is essential:Making experiences available is crucial, but matching developmental needs must also be intentional and a priority.
  • Learning takes time and is ever-changing: There will be successes, delays, stops & starts, and learning from experiences is most likely when people are willing and encouraged to embrace the “lessons”.

Why don’t more organizations use this info?

There are a few reasons why more organizations aren’t using this knowledge to develop their leaders more effectively. First, is the assumption that people either have leadership ability or they don’t, which can lead to the dismissal of those who don’t immediately succeed at challenges – believing there is a lack of leadership ability. Secondly, results are achieved in the (relatively) short-term, while development is a longer-term objective. Pressure exists to provide challenging opportunities to those with “proven” success, instead of to those who may get greater benefit from the experience. Additionally, the cost of experience-based leadership development is more difficult to calculate as compared to tracking the costs associated with training programs, consulting fees, or tuition, and therefore the ROI is more difficult to demonstrate for “experiences”. Many organizations think they are including experience needs in their development opportunities. Job rotation and special projects are common techniques, but their focus is often on meeting business objectives (completing the assignments or learning different job responsibilities) and less on actually learning from the experiences.

“Experiences” can be a part of development.

Imperfect as they may be, there are some strategies organizations can use to try to ensure that “learning” is an integral component of providing experiences.
  • Go with the flow: Work with others’ points of view and interject how experiences have contributed to current leaders’ success to make it easier for them to understand the need for truly meaningful experiences in leadership development.
  • Make development a part of strategy: Identify the organization’s strategic initiatives, and the leadership challenges that will likely be present for them. Then the skills needed for those challenges can be developed by providing needed experiences (e.g., projects or mentors).
  • Use business initiatives for development: Moving leadership development away from typical HR processes and toward a business initiative almost ensures it will remain a top priority, instead of becoming a routine “procedure” full of forms and other paperwork.
  • Create a “leadership developer” role: Put someone in charge of understanding the organization’s potential leaders, their strengths and weaknesses, and the experiences that can be offered. Give this person the ability to take advantage of experiences as they arise, by influencing which leadership candidates may be best suited for different activities.
  • Concentrate on learning from experiences: The emphasis (and record keeping) should be on whether someone learned/gained anything from different experiences, not just on the fact that they had them.
  • Make “mastery” of job demands a criteria: There are a variety of ways to overcome challenges. Instead of the “one best way”, focus on if the skills or demands were mastered through a variety of ways.

Practical applications

Many HR departments already have processes in place (e.g., talent management or coaching) that could be redirected to focus on mastering skills learned through different experiences. The key is to make sure they are being utilized appropriately, focused on experience-based learning, and not treated as standard operating procedures which often lose their meaning and importance. Rethinking an organization’s current development processes and the emphasis of them may be necessary to ensure that the opportunity (and requirement) to learn from experiences is a primary focus.

Interpretation by:

Kathleen Melcher

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: McCall, M.W. Jr. (2009). Recasting Leadership Development. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 3(1)