Most of the factors that influence an individual’s ultimate effectiveness have been firmly established by the time the person is a member of an organization. His basic genetic endowment is set; the individual’s early family, school, and other experiences (e.g., influential teachers, coaches, pastors, and priests) have long since had their influence.
Since 1982 the Center for Creative Leadership has studied the ways in which successful executives acquire their skills. Their research has identified five broad categories of experiences they found to be developmental, as reported by several hundred managers who analyzed and identified the factors that resulted in their own growth:
- Challenging jobs
- Bosses and other people
- Off-the-job experiences
- Training programs
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- Challenging Jobs. Being given a challenging job is the single most important source of development. Challenging jobs force rapid growth and learning. Dealing with crises, starting up an operation from scratch, fixing up troubled operations—these situations require individuals to cope with pressure and learn quickly. In absolute terms, challenging assignments are the best teacher. They are the most likely to be remembered and teach the greatest variety and largest number of lessons.
- Bosses and Other People. Bosses serve as models. Ask a group of people to think back in their lives to that point when they transitioned from the world of school to the world of work, and then ask how many of them can remember their very first boss. Almost everybody will. Bosses, particularly first bosses, have an enormous impact on our development. Note that this item is not specifying ‘‘good bosses.’’ We can learn as much from bad bosses about how we don’t want to act as we can from good bosses who provide admirable models.
- Hardships. Hardships teach us about our limits and allow us to both learn and demonstrate our resilience. Making mistakes, getting stuck in dead-end jobs, surviving serious illness, being denied a well-deserved promotion, enduring life’s traumas—all these events cause us to look inward and reflect.
- Off-the-Job Experiences. Experiences off the job, primarily community service, often afford opportunities to acquire and practice leadership skills the job can’t offer.
- Training Programs. Training programs, the standard regimen of management development activities, are valuable less for what is learned directly from the training than for the opportunity training presents individuals to build self-confidence by sizing themselves up against peers. The Center for Creative Leadership reports that managers find coursework valuable as a forum for trading tips, picking up different problem-solving methods, and comparing themselves with others.
Coursework and training programs can be used to provide specific skills that an individual is lacking; however, just the fact that a course is available on a topic may suggest that the topic isn’t one that will be all that important in bringing about long-term development. Hardly a day passes without a brochure or flyer arriving in the manager’s in-basket announcing a new program in presentation skills or finance for the nonfinancial manager or communication skills or some other easily taught, easily learned skill. But genuine development does not come from easily taught and learned skill-development programs.