What are the key learning moments in your leadership?
When I was a global talent director I sent managers to very expensive training courses but soon realised they were not learning anything. By learning I mean changing behaviour. So I set out to understand what were the key learning moments that actually led to behavioural transformation.
When successful managers are asked how they learned to lead, most of them will say they learned through on the job experiences. Research confirms that on the job experiences contribute significantly more to learning than knowledge or skills oriented training. But what experiences contribute most to their learning?
“Training programs were not mentioned as key learning events, except when accompanied with personal coaching or confrontation of behaviour.”
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) has done a lot of research which shows that there are five key learning events that managers name time and again: mission impossible, set backs, role models, conflicting norms and values, dealing with subordinates. In our research (1998) we added dealing with the political arena and personal experiences as key learning events. Let’s take a quick look at all seven.
- Mission impossible: Seemingly impossible assignments which have to be completed under pressure (time, money resources) but eventually lead to success, such as multi-disciplinary projects, switching from staff to a line management job, managing large virtual teams.
One manager recounted having to lay a pipe line through the desert, while having to deal with the fact that the local population kept dismantling the pipes to make water reservoirs. This situation forced the manager to reassess his usual linear engineering approach. He had to call together a multi-disciplinary team including the chieftains of the local population to solve the problem, and has been working that way ever since.
- Set backs: Mistakes and failures, demotions or missed opportunities are all examples of setbacks in business.
One manager told of his career move within the music business from a small to a large label, where he became one of the suits. He learned the hard way that being a manager was not half as much fun for him as working with the artists, and applied successfully for his old job.
- Role models: Different types of role models exist. The sponsor and the guide are positive examples; the regent and controller are negative examples. Both positive and negative role models have an important effect on learning leadership.
At an early stage of their career managers tend to copy or reject a management identity (I don’t want to be like him). More senior managers choose specific characteristics of their role models that they want to copy e.g. I like the way she gives feedback.
- Conflicting norms and values: Situations where the personal values conflict with business interests.
For instance, one manager had to get a deal in a country, where it was quite common to pay bribes to officials. The core value of the company was integrity. This manager learned to take a stand for their own values while negotiating a way to accommodating the national way of doing things.
- Dealing with subordinates: Young leaders talk often of managing their first team as a key learning event. Dealing with performance issues comes up time and again.
One manager told of an employee who had stolen from the kitty to pay for a colour television. It was the week of the world championships football. Because the man had been with the company for over 30 years, and had always performed loyally and well, this manager negotiated a deal whereby the man had to pay back in instalments. Meanwhile the television was put in the canteen for all to enjoy. He said he learned to be flexible in his approach to people, but hard on the task because of this event.
- Dealing with the political arena: Many professionals who became managers talked of politics as a key learning event.
One manager was responsible for the introduction of a new international product line. During his market research, he discovered that introduction of this product was a bad investment in the Netherlands. Even though it was the Dutch CEO´s baby, he argued his point in the Board. He learned that it would have been wiser to lobby for his point beforehand, but also that the continued support of his manager was his lifeline, and that changed his behaviour towards his employees.
- Personal experiences: Many managers spoke of the death of a close family member or the birth of their first child as key learning events.
One manager spoke of the fact that his mother said on her deathbed: “If I look back on my life now I am only sorry I didn’t grab all the chances I got. Why are you always so careful and calculating son – sometimes you just have to take chances.” After she died he found a new job, got married and bought a house. This manager says he learned to take risks and trust people’s process much more because of his mother’s last words.
Radical Agile Transformation Exercise
- Look back on your life, what have been the key learning moments?
- Can you identify a learning moment in each of the seven categories mentioned?
- Write down the event and your interpretation.
- How does this learning affect your behaviour as a leader today?
Bibliography: References & links
The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) – Lindsey, Holmes and McCall, 1987 – www.ccl.org
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