3 Ways Leaders Learn from Experience to Reach Great Results
Today’s leaders must be prepared to address fast moving complex situations where the stakes are high and relationships are critical for success. For leaders to succeed in today’s rapidly changing environment requires a foundation of self-awareness, an ability to reflect on opportunities, shift perspectives for the greater good, and respond in ways that enhance relationships and drive lasting results. The Darwinian rule applies to modern leaders: adapt, migrate, or die.
Learning from Experience
“We had the experience, but missed the meaning. – TS Elliot
Think back to a time, in either your professional or personal life, that you learned a very important lesson that has positively impacted you in becoming more successful. Now consider where and how you learned this valuable lesson.
I have asked thousands of leaders to consider this scenario and followed it up with this question: Raise your hand if you learned your important lesson in a classroom or structured learning situation? In all my experience it is the rare occasion that someone raises their hand to indicate that their important lesson occurred in a formal classroom learning experience. This exercise confirms what we already know, which is that our most important lessons as adults usually come to us through experience.
This concept is captured in the popular 70/20/10 model that many organizations use as a guide for how to develop their leaders. This model is used as a general framework stating that leaders obtain 70 percent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal educational events. Research confirms what our intuition already understands – the most successful leaders are adept at continually evolving and adapting to meet the needs of their changing environments.
The best leaders learn from their experiences by implementing a growth mindset, practicing self-reflection, seeking feedback from others, and drawing practical conclusions that result in successful behavior change.
3 Ways Leaders Learn from Experience to Accomplish Great Results
1: Choose a Growth Mindset
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” —Thomas Edison
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck shared her research that shows how the power of our beliefs about learning and intelligence can have a profound impact on nearly every aspect of our motivation and behaviors.
Dweck’s research shows that people can have one of two mindsets about learning and intelligence. Those with a “fixed mindset” believe their basic abilities, intelligence and talents are fixed traits. We either have a talent for something or we don’t. While those with a “growth mindset” believe they can enhance their basic qualities through effort. Those with fixed mindsets miss opportunities for improvement while those with a “growth mindset” watch their abilities move ever upward. Motivation seems to be key. If we have a belief there will be a positive payoff for our effort, we work harder instead of succumbing to helplessness.
Our mindset is not a fixed trait, we have all experienced having both a fixed and growth mindset. The good news is that we have the ability to choose the mindset that will serve us best. Having the awareness to understand when you are moving into a fixed mindset can be a powerful way to switch back into growth mode.
Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence provides a practical framework for when you need to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. This tool will help challenge feelings of helplessness by identifying actions, attitudes, and activities within your control or influence that will enable you to improve the situation or help to grow and develop your abilities.
The Powerful Combination of Feedback and Reflection
2: Ask for Feedback
Leaders are the people that need honest feedback more than anyone else because they are more likely to receive only positive messages from their teams and employees. A leader is often the last person to know when their behaviors and actions are causing issues that negatively impact their team members motivation and performance.
One of the most courageous acts a leader can perform is to actively seek honest and constructive feedback about their performance. This leadership behavior creates a vulnerability and authenticity that demonstrates everyone is a work in progress and helps to establish a culture where continuous improvement is encouraged and expected (Growth Mindset).
Sharing feedback with a leader is often risky. A leader must be deliberate about creating a safe environment by actively giving permission and expressing an openness and desire to receive feedback about their performance. The practices below will help leaders to minimize potential threats while encouraging others to provide them with accurate and honest feedback.
Be Specific with Feedback Request – As a leader you need to be specific with your feedback request. If a leader asks general questions like “How am I doing?” or “What can I do better?” it makes it very difficult for the individual to understand what type of feedback is wanted and “okay” to provide. It can be helpful for a leader’s request for feedback to begin with a statement that they have a desire to improve in a specific area followed by the request for feedback. Below are a couple of examples of specific feedback requests:
- I am wanting to improve how I lead our weekly team meetings. What can I do to make our meetings more collaborative and effective?
- My goal is ______. What am I doing that is getting in the way of achieving this goal?
Ask for Feedback Often – It is important for leaders to be seen frequently asking others for feedback about how they can improve their performance. As this becomes part of a leader’s regular routine people begin to feel safe about providing upward feedback.
Seek Feedback from a Variety of Perspectives - Leaders need to ask for feedback from a variety of sources, not just their immediate manager, close peers, and favorite direct reports. To gain a more accurate perspective of their leadership impact, they should deliberately seek feedback from those who are different than them. This includes:
- Those who have different a personality, age, gender, ethnicity, etc
- Individuals at all levels within the organization
- Individuals outside their team and outside of the company
Avoid Defensiveness – The quickest way for a leader to ensure they will rarely receive honest constructive feedback is to act defensively. If a leader is perceived as being defensive or denying the other person’s perspective, they are making a statement to others that they don’t want or value constructive feedback. Even if the leader disagrees or feels the feedback is unfair, they should ask questions to clarify their understanding of the feedback and thank the person for their candor and willingness to share their perspectives. Reacting out of defensiveness will not make things better for the leader, team, or individual providing the feedback.
3: Practice Daily Reflection
We do not learn from experience….We learn from reflection on experience.
- John Dewey, Educational Reformer
Reflection is a humbling yet powerful tool that helps leaders improve their performance. But it’s not easy, as it makes leaders look honestly at themselves, their strengths, weaknesses, and areas that require improvement. When reflecting, a leader considers an experience and tries to understand it, which often leads to insights, learning and ideas to test on new experiences. Reflection has been identified by numerous researchers as crucial to any learning process.
When engaging in reflection, too often leaders will focus only on the results of their actions; which often times proves to be short sighted. James Zenger published a fascinating survey that shows how it is the combination of both results and relationships that creates an effective leader. His work shared the results of a survey of 60,000 employees to identify how different characteristics of a leader combine to affect employee perceptions of whether the boss is a “great” leader or not. Below are some of the results.
- Results-oriented leaders are rated as good leaders 14% of the time
- People-oriented leader are rated as good leaders 12% of the time
- Leaders with both strong results orientation and social skills are rated as good leaders 72% of the time
The combination of being able to be effective at driving results and building relationships seems to be the key for being perceived by others as an effective leader. This is why leaders need to take the time to reflect on both their results and relationships. Below are some daily reflection questions leaders can ask themselves. It’s a useful practice to record responses in a private leader’s journal.
The real intent of choosing a growth mindset, asking for feedback, and practicing daily reflection is positive behavior change. Below are some guidelines to help leaders move from learning from their experiences to establishing new habits and behaviors that enable them to continually improve, grow, and evolve.
Define one achievable goal at a time - Too many goals will ensure you will lose focus and not succeed at accomplishing the desired behavior change.
Define the “Why” of your goal - Is it meaningful and important for you and your leadership success? If not, choose a different development goal.
Plan for obstacles - You should define what obstacles will get in the way of your success in achieving your new development goal and what actions you will take to mitigate the obstacles.
Tell someone you respect about your development goal - It can be a colleague, your manager, your team, a personal friend, or family member. There is power in speaking your intention because it creates accountability and solicits support from others.
Great leaders are great learners! Please share your ideas and insights for how leaders can best learn from their experiences to accomplish great results.
If you found value in this article, please send me a connection request so you can have access to future articles and posts. Your reactions, shares, and comments are always appreciated.
Tony Gambill is a principal consultant for CREO Inc., an innovative management consulting and advisory firm based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Tony brings more than 20 years of executive experience in leadership and talent development within global for-profit, non-profit, technical, research, healthcare, government and higher educational industries. www.CreoInc.net