Make Experience Count

People at the top of the learning function know that leaders develop primarily through on-the-job stretch experiences. These experiences engage leaders in new problems, challenging them to master new skills and confront their mental models to force broader thinking.

Effective leader development has always been experience-driven. Yet leader development initiatives are overwhelmingly education-driven. They focus on teaching and delivering content. They operate from the model that learning happens primarily outside of work and must be transferred to the work setting.

Certainly education plays an important role, but by focusing on this narrow slice of learning, leader development functions miss opportunities to harness the power of on-the-job experiences and accelerate development in service of business strategy. To shift from being education-driven to experience-driven requires a new mindset about leader development. For instance:

Partner with line managers to staff work with development in mind. As a general manager for leadership development at Microsoft Corp., Jeff McHenry worked with line managers to match job assignments and high-potential employees, what he calls “pinpointing.” Pinpointing involves taking stock of a business unit’s priorities and the assignments needed to meet those priorities, listing the developmental needs for each employee, matching the assignments with needs and following up to ensure employees are learning from their assignments.

Identify and fill experience gaps. At Genentech Inc., the talent development group recognized that as the company grew, opportunities for cross-functional experiences declined. Yet a broad understanding of the business and a systems perspective of the organization — capabilities grown through cross-functional experiences — are critical for success at senior levels. To fill this gap at the director level, learning leaders created Director Developmental Pathways, a process in which directors spend about 10 percent of their time over six to nine months in a host function engaged in job shadowing, special projects and task force participation. Online resources guide directors and their managers in designing and maximizing learning from these experiences.

Promote a learning-from-experience mindset. Several years ago, learning leaders at Kelly Services Inc. set out to build broader support for experience-driven development in the organization. Brad Borland, the company’s senior director of global leadership development and talent management, said one obstacle was many leaders’ long-held belief that development and work are separate, and that development is not really happening if there isn’t a class or coach involved.

“Regularly challenging this belief as we worked with leaders one-on-one helped create a grassroots shift in how Kelly Services understands development.”

Learning leaders facilitated the shift by introducing a four-step learning-from-experience framework, talent summits that focused on experience-driven development, and a 30-day fitness challenge using social media to engage the whole organization in real-time, on-the-job development.

Integrate formal development programs into work experiences. The Future Strategy Group is an accelerated talent development initiative at GlaxoSmithKline. It brings emerging leaders to corporate headquarters to work on strategic projects identified by the executive team. In addition to the project work, each leader has a coach, attends workshops on topics relevant to the assignment and receives ongoing feedback from peers and senior leaders. Formal training and developmental relationships are built into the stretch experience to maximize learning.

Kim Lafferty, head of learning and development at GSK, said FSG acts as both a think tank to advance strategic work and a development chamber to accelerate mid-career talent. “It blends organizational problem solving and leader development within the business context into one integrated, intense experience.”

In listening to practitioners like these who are making experience-driven development more intentional and powerful by building in feedback, coaching and relevant education, I have been struck by a perspective that many of them share: Leading is a craft to be mastered over time through practice and reflection, not a set of competencies acquired through a carefully constructed curriculum.

Cindy McCauley is a senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership and co-author of “Experience-Driven Leader Development: Models, Tools, Best Practices and Advice for On-the-Job Development.” She can be reached at

This story originally appeared in Talent Management’s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.