Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Developing Leaders-The Importance of Practice

In this blog I want to discuss the role of practice in developing leadership skills.  Quoting from the Random House dictionary by "practice" I mean the "repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acaquiring skill or proficiency."

In the practice of leadership, leaders learn how to develop trust, build teams, set priorities, inspire confidence, engage with key stakeholders and allocate scarce resources. If you want to be good at leading, you have to lead and you have to lead often at increasing levels of responsibility and complexity to grow as a leader. Leaders learn by doing, getting feedback and improving their performance

In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he explores the idea that "excellence at a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice." Studies over and again in a variety of fields pegs 10,000 hours of practice as the minimum level required for excellence.

Whether or not 10,000 hours is the right number or not is really not important to me.  What is important is the role of practice in developing skill.  I believe that applies to leadership as well.  For many years, in both the military and large civilian organizations the role of practice in developing leaders was well understood.  Young staff with potential were placed in leadership roles early and often.  Talent development systems and processes integrated progressively challenging leadership experiences with formal development programs.  In some ways these opportunities were "automatic".  By automatic I mean the talent development systems in organization steered individuals or cohorts of individuals through the system providing thsoe development opportunities at the right time.

A number of factors over the last 15 years have eroded both organizational ability to develop leaders through practice and an individual's  ability to develop their own skillThese opportunities aren't "automatic" anymore.  Organizational structures have flattened, been de-layered and spans of control have increased.    This means fewer opportunities for progressive development.  Increasing specialization and the requirement to develop deep technical expertise leaves less time to develop generalist skills.  Global organizational structures and virtual teams make it difficult to mentor and observe the leadership practices of others.  As a result many people might be individual contributors for their first 10 or 15 years in a company.  They only get that first formal leadership opportunity at that point.  I've seen a lot of leaders make "rookie mistakes" in significant roles simply because of the lack of practice.

So what's to be done? How do young leaders get the opportunities to practice?  Quite simply both organizations and individuals have to work harder to provide those opportunities...they aren't automatic anywhere, anymore. One strategy is to put them in charge of projects addressing key business challenges.  These projects need to have resources allocated, deliverables and deadlines.  Another is to assign them roles on standing committees.  At an individual level, someone seeking to develop as a leader might need to get those opportunities outside work; as volunteers in their community, helping local schools or other forms of community service.  I also think business leaders and senior HR staff need to challenge their own thinking on who is deemed "ready" for leadership roles.  If you ask any senior leader in any company what their most meaningful leadership experience was, they will almost always point to a time when they were figuratively "thrown into the deep end of the pool"...when they didn't already know everything they needed to know to get the job done...when they had to learn really fast and the possibility of failure was very real.  I'm not suggesting that its smart to routinely throw people in jobs for which they are totally unprepared.  I do propose that senior leaders could take more risk with young leadership talent.

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