Growing from experience

Learning on the job is the best way for a person to develop, many management theorists agree. Often people are given new positions in order to provide them with developmental experiences. But what if a job transfer is not possible? Can people still grow even if their job descriptions and responsibilities do not change?

Yes they can, and in more ways than most of us think, say researchers from The Center for Creative Leadership ( A paper entitled “Eighty-eight Assignments for Development in Place”, based on research by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, shows just how many opportunities there are.

“You can add developmental assignments to current jobs without moving people into new jobs,” the paper states. It identifies five broad categories of experience that executives generally cite as being potentially developmental:

1. Challenging jobs, because they teach about the subtleties of leadership _ starting up or fixing troubled operations, expanding large operations, working on time-limited projects from crises to systems installations. These represent what leaders do. Such jobs teach us how to cope with pressure, learn quickly or deal with problem subordinates. In absolute terms, challenging assignments are the best teacher.

2. Other people, mostly bosses, because they serve as models of values. “Exceptional people seem to create a ‘punctuation mark’ for executives, either by representing what to be or do what not to be or do. Whether by serving as a model of integrity or acumen, poor ethics or avarice, certain bosses exemplify how values play out in management settings.”

3. Hardships, because they tell us something about our limits. “Managers told [the authors] of making mistakes, getting stuck in dead-end jobs, having to fire people and enduring the traumas of life. These events often caused managers to look inward and reflect on their humanity, their resilience and their flaws.”

4. Coursework, because it can serve as a powerful comparison point, a chance to build self-confidence by sizing oneself against managers from other firms. Executives spoke of coursework as a forum for trading tips, picking problem-solving methods and comparing themselves.

5. Off-the-job experience, usually relating to community service. Such experience was often a primer in persuasion.

Interestingly, job changes involving the same people, or similar tasks, or indefinite time frames were rarely cited as developmental experience. Here are the 11 most commonly cited challenges, in rough order of how often they were mentioned by the people the authors surveyed. They have concluded that for an experience to be developmental, five or more of these “imbedded challenges” are usually present. They call this list the Eleven Developmental Challenges:

1. Success and failure are both possible and will be obvious to others.

2. Requires aggressive, individual, “take charge” leadership.

3. Involves working with new people, a lot of people or both.

4. Creates additional personal pressure.

5. Requires influencing people, activities and factors over which the manager has no direct authority or control.

6. Involves high variety.

7. Will be closely watched by people whose opinions count.

8. Requires building a team, starting something from scratch or fixing or turning around a team or an operation or project in trouble.

9. Has a major strategic component and is intellectually challenging.

10. Involves interacting with an especially good, or bad, boss.

11. Something important is missing.

The article goes on to detail 88 assignments with a grid that illustrates the number of developmental aspects likely to be experienced from each. For example, dealing with a business crisis typically allows the participant to experience 10 of the 11 challenges, as does carrying out an “undoable” project after the last person given the task failed. Other activities that encompass eight of the 11 challenges include:

– going off-site to troubleshoot problems (dealing with a dissatisfied customer);

– starting up something small (e.g., hiring a secretarial pool);

– running a task force on a business problem;

– managing an ad-hoc group of inexperienced people;

– managing an ad-hoc group of low-skilled people;

– managing any ad hoc group _ people are experts, one person is not;

– managing an ad hoc group in a static operation;

– managing an ad hoc group in a rapidly expanding operation;

– supervising cost-cutting.

Which assignments should be given to which people? Numerous strategies are available.

First, armed with the information outlined above, many managers will voluntarily add developmental challenges to their present jobs.

Second, a general strategy can be followed of exposing early-career managers over time to one or two assignments in each of the five areas listed at the outset.

Third, a job assignment that naturally arises through the course of work can be used as a developmental experience.

Fourth, a strategy of targeted development can be followed in which a specific need is addressed by one assignment or a series of assignments.

In short, the authors conclude, you can grow from experience _ if you manage it properly.