Developing Leaders – Experience

Several years ago the CEO of a large facilities services company, two other top executives of that company, and I did a sales presentation for a large potential client at their headquarters in Pittsburgh. On our way to the presentation, the CEO asked each member of the team, “How long have you been doing this kind of work?” He wanted to (and did) tell the client the number of combined years of industry experience our team represented. The client seemed impressed which pleased the CEO. Notice, that CEO didn’t ask about our education. He asked about experience.

Exposure to new things is valuable. It inspires the desire to learn. It’s worth 20% of an overall leadership development program. Education is necessary for instilling the knowledge and skills for leadership. It’s worth 10% of an overall leadership development program. The remaining 70% of an effective leadership development program should be devoted to experience, giving people real-life opportunities to use their new-found skills/knowledge.

“In the end, the only way for a person to learn leadership is to lead.” –John Maxwell (The Leader’s Greatest Return)

A Case In Point

In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed wrote about the power of practice over talent. He cited a study performed in 1991 by psychologist Anders Ericsson and two colleagues. they studied violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin. They divided the boys and girls into three groups based on their perceived level of ability:

  • Students capable of careers as international star soloists
  • Students capable of careers in the world’s best orchestras
  • Students capable of careers teaching music

These ratings were based on the opinions of the school professors and the student’s performances in open competition.

What Ericsson discovered was that the biographies of the students in all three groups were remarkably similar. Most began practice at age eight, decided to become musicians right before they turned fifteen, and studied under about four teachers, and had on average studied 1.8 other instruments in addition to the violin. There was no remarkable difference in talent between them when they started. So, what was the difference? Practice time! By age twenty, the bottom group had practiced four thousand fewer hours than the middle group and the middle group had practiced two thousand fewer hours than the top group, which had practiced ten thousand hours. “There were no exceptions to this pattern,” said Syed of Ericsson’s findings. “Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest.”

Helpful Experience

That story could be misleading. It’s not just the number of hours spent doing something that determines one’s level of expertise. The conclusion was that “purposeful practice made the difference. That sounds a lot like what Green Bay Packers legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Perfect practice or purposeful practice is practice that is guided and coached. If I practice bad habits, they will become a permanent part of how I do things. But, if I practice under the coaching of an expert, they can guide me into getting better.

In the program I helped develop for the healthcare system, we made experience 70 percent of the overall approach. One example is leading a morning huddle. Many healthcare departments begin the day with a brief meeting called a huddle. Huddles usually consist of a standard agenda and last about 10 minutes. It takes some skill to lead a successful huddle.

Our approach was to have new managers sit in on a few huddles to observe and listen to the information and questions. Then we gave them a few lessons on public speaking. Finally, we had them lead huddles with a mentor in the room to provide feedback. The feedback often included the questions, “What went well?” and “What would you do differently next time?” After hearing the answers to those questions, the mentor would then offer their observations in support or redirection of the new manager’s own thoughts.

Repeating that experience several times led to the development of expert skills. The ultimate goal in all this is to develop people to the place where they can develop other people.

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