A Matter of Experience

By: John P. DelMonaco

Do you have executives in your leadership pipeline who have great potential but need to be battle-tested? Do you have a plan in place for expanding their capabilities? Too often, companies merely assume that promising individuals will be exposed to the right challenges and somehow determine the intended developmental benefit. Chances are these organizations will be disappointed.

Done well, providing experiences for critical talent accelerates development and readiness for more complex senior-level roles. However, many executives climb the corporate ladder unknowingly carrying their behavior, skill, and knowledge gaps right along with them.

While some resourceful individuals may have the ability to become aware of their shortcomings and figure out ways to overcome them, most struggle on in a haze of confusion. In the worst case, experience deficiencies can cause failure to meet important business objectives. Because of this, world-class companies have learned to cultivate the organizational will necessary to make experiential development a key component of their talent-development strategy.

So, how do you go about readying your cream-of-the-crop talent for very senior positions? How will you get them from A to B? Our research and experience at RHR International have shown that executive development is maximized when there is an approach that takes into account three factors in equal measure.

The Individual
It is vital to assess the unique makeup of the person chosen to be developed. Two people can be exposed to the same business experience, and each will draw different benefits and outcomes. Why? Motivation, learning orientation, and how people process feedback are all critical to the success of a developmental experience. These factors should be accounted for in advance before designing the proper experience around the individual and the needs of the company. An objective assessment provided by an internal or external resource can be invaluable during this process. Deep insights about individual psychology, including learning style, will enable the organization to effectively match experiences to the person who will optimize the developmental impact.

The Experience
Developmentally rich experiences can occur within a role or through outside assignments. Here is where organizational will becomes very important. In other words, does your organization possess the creativity and the risk tolerance for stretching talent in new and different ways? In the absence of obvious openings for new roles—board memberships, task forces, projects, etc.—an organization needs to get creative about how it provides critical talent exposure to business challenges. It needs to be very clear about what abilities are needed based on company strategies and then design a way for its talent to build those capabilities. Certain kinds of experience matter more than others (e.g., those that are highly visible and include novelty, complexity, and pressure to perform). Failure should always be an acceptable outcome of a developmental experience. Sometimes the best learning comes from hardships in a supportive environment.

Resources and Process
Experiences should be provided with an eye toward development and not as a test to see who makes it (with little or no support). You cannot simply throw someone into a challenging situation and expect him or her to learn what it takes to be a leader. People need to get feedback at the right time in order to consolidate what they have learned.

Learning and development are maximized when resources and processes are put in place to extract learning and generalize behaviors to current and future roles. Efforts should be made to plot out in advance when coaching or mentoring conversations should take place so that learning occurs just in time (bearing in mind that in-the-moment feedback is necessary and essential as well). Such points of feedback are opportunities for the organization to leverage the system of resources around the executive (boss, peer, mentor, coach, etc.) to accelerate development.

The Bottom Line
Hiring outside talent is not a bad thing—all companies need a balance of build and buy. But buying is a risky and potentially expensive proposition that should not be relied upon too heavily. Building is a long-term commitment that can pay huge dividends now and in the future.

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