Challenges can teach a valuable lesson

Think of the worst experience you ever had at work. It might have been working for a boss who was your worst nightmare or a horrible mistake you made on an important project. It's probably painful even recalling the incident but force yourself to dwell on the circumstances for just a moment. Then ask yourself: "What did I learn?"

Chances are that you learned lessons that were difficult but indelible. In fact, these challenges, and how you handled them, were probably some of the most important of your career.

The Center for Creative Leadership, in Greensboro N.C., has been examining the current research on executive development and some of the findings have been published in a paper by Morgan C. McCall, Jr. (Human Resources Planning Journal, Volume 11, No.1. ) His analysis tells us something we probably already knew but, perhaps, didn't consciously think about: challenging work experiences can be the best teachers when it comes to executive development.

What falls into the category of "challenging?" Executives say starting an operation from scratch, turning around a failing project or a move from a line to staff job were among the most challenging assignments for them. It was important to have line jobs which relied on being "in charge" as well as staff jobs in which persuasion without formal power was key.

Hardships such as being set back by mistakes or distasteful jobs, being confronted with tough personnel problems or dealing with traumatic personal events were also mentioned. Says McCall, "These were experiences that forced their victims to dig deep and confront a level of self not usually dealt with in other kinds of situations."

Not surprisingly, bosses also play an interesting role. Either the employee had to adapt to ogre-like qualities or learned from an exceptional role model. Having many bosses over a period of time also honed the skills needed to work with people in authority.

Dealing with incompetent or resistant subordinates also was seen as "developmental" (although other adjectives were probably used at the time!). Learning potential was also increased every time the manager had to work with a new group of people such as new clients, vendors, unions and people from different cultures.

Job situations in which managers were playing for high stakes with a tight deadline forced them to sweat bullets but also made them stretch in spite of themselves. More high growth experiences include bleak business periods such as failed equipment, customers whose businesses went belly up or markets that dried up.

Another challenge was learning to manage something so big (more people, dollars, products, markets, etc.) that managers couldn't get their arms around it. In addition, McCall explains that successful managers who came into situations with "at least one missing trump" didn't let the disadvantage do them in. They learned to manage unfamiliar functions, products or technologies or proved that they weren't "too young" or overcame the "wrong background."

So what does all this mean to a businesses trying to develop managers for the next generation of leadership? There are some things that can be done ON PURPOSE to strategically develop executive bench strength. Some conclusions pulled from the research are:

1.      Think seriously about what a person might learn from a particular experience and don't stop at the "exposure" level. Do you want him or her to handle relationships, learn to set and execute an agenda, develop trust?

2.      What is developmental for one person may not be for another. For example, try not to think that everyone who holds "x" job will learn "y." Also, repeating the same kinds of experiences, such as spearheading two turnarounds, doesn't net much new learning and may pigeonhole the person.

3.      The sink-or-swim philosophy can cause some casualties. Companies can do more to debrief transferring executives or provide structured experiences to help them make sense of what they've just experienced.

Is your company ready for all of this? Your company's culture plays a huge role in defining what actually takes place in executive development. Fancy programs on paper will be useless unless the following components exist:

·        Executives must be willing to risk putting some talented people in jobs for which they are not fully qualified. People who are fully qualified for a job are least likely to develop in it.

·        Managers are allowed and encouraged to make mistakes. A philosophy that reinforces taking reasonable risks and tolerating failure is a must.

·        Movement across organizational barriers occurs regularly and easily. If this is working, managers relax their grip on "turf" and stop thinking all movers are losers.

·        Developing executives is the responsibility of the line executives. Commitment is demonstrated by the time executives devote to it and the thought they give to it.

Competition, globalization and the challenges facing us in the next twenty years mandates that responsible executives must start thinking more strategically about executive development. Their company's future depends on it.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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