Executive Development That Makes a Business Difference

By Robinson, Gail S.; Wick, Calhoun W. | Human Resource Planning, February 1992 | Go to article overview

Executive Development That Makes a Business Difference


Robinson, Gail S., Wick, Calhoun W., Human Resource Planning


Executive Summary

Executives must increasingly cope and thrive on substantial amounts of change and uncertainty. These realities demand a more powerful approach to executive development. We call this approach "Learning From Experience." Understanding the learning potential of experience, developing sound learning strategies, and increasing ones an awareness of personal characteristics that facilitate growth are factors that improve development. Action learning principles transform these ideas into practice. The article cites two applications, one large company and one small company, that demonstrate how significant the impact of learning from experience can be when aligned with business goals. In each case, this approach to executive development provides double gain: powerful executive growth and significant business results.

Business success and survival of organizations increasingly depends on the ability of executives to cope and thrive on substantial amounts of change, complexity, and uncertainty. In order to compete in today's marketplace, executives need to scan vast amounts of information from diverse sources and quickly orient themselves to new cultures and situations. They then must make decisions and take action based upon ambiguous and contradictory data. In this environment, expertise, knowledge, and skills become quickly outmoded. Little has been done to help managers prepare for this new world where there are no road maps for success.

These new realities call for a different and more powerful approach to executive development - one that relies less on teaching skills and knowledge and more on learning how to learn - one that integrates learning with work and results in a real impact on the business. We refer to this as the "learning-from-experience" approach to development.

Learning from Experience

Research has finally affirmed what we all know intuitively - that "experience is the best teacher." Studies have shown that about 70% of all development occurs through on-the-job experiences, whereas training provides less than 10% of a manager's development.

Although learning from on-the-job experiences is the most significant type of development for executives, learning from real-life experiences is often messy and difficult to achieve. The problem with this method is that, unlike formal classroom instruction, there is no lesson plan and few guideposts. It takes a certain level of awareness and type of cognitive processing to extract learnings out of one's experience. The best executives are adept at this, while others learn very slowly and painfully from their experiences, or not at all. Slow learners miss important cues that excellent learners notice. The result is that two people can be faced with the same experience, yet one may grow from it and the other may not. Apparently, experience provides only the opportunity for development to take place; the individual must extract the lessons from the experience before development can occur.

A recent study by Kathleen Dechant (1988) at the University of Connecticut on 21 senior managers revealed that their learning ability was strongly linked to job success. This suggests that the best executives are adept at learning. They have adopted learning strategies that enable them to extract the maximum value from their experiences, and thus are better able to take advantage of development opportunities that come their way.

We believe these learning strategies can be identified and taught, so that the development of executives is accelerated. When these strategies are combined with exposure to rich developmental opportunities, then optimum conditions are present for executive development.

Key Concepts

Developmental Experiences

Wick and Company's (1988) research found that developmental experiences contain four key elements: challenge, novelty, responsibility, and choice. …

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