6. Maintain Flexibility – Peak Leadership Fitness:Elevating Your Leadership Game

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MAINTAIN FLEXIBILITY

Up to this point, you have been doing a fair amount of reading and, I hope, a lot of thinking. Let’s keep that second part going as we begin this chapter. Think back to the most impactful development experiences you have had in your career—those experiences where you learned the most or learned something particularly important.

My most impactful development experiences were:

 

What made them so impactful?

 

I have done this activity with hundreds of leaders across industries and levels, and more than 90 percent list something other than taking a class. Instead they often mention a former boss or mentor from whom they learned a great deal. Or they tell a story about a particularly challenging assignment or taking on a new responsibility and just having to learn as they go.

Step Up

Sandra was a high performer in her organization. She took on challenging assignments and always delivered results that met or exceeded expectations. Her supervisor, other leaders, and colleagues were impressed with her work. Her annual performance review ratings reflected this, and she was identified as a high potential with future expanded leadership potential.

There was only one problem: Sandra did not think she was ready for more advanced responsibilities. She discussed this with her boss, and they worked on a development plan together. Over the next 18 months, she attended two of the company’s core advanced leadership programs, participated in more senior-level meetings with her supervisor, and worked closely with him to receive additional feedback and guidance.

Then the time came. Her supervisor was given new leadership obligations, and there was a need for someone from the team to step up and take on additional responsibilities. It was going to be a stretch and certainly outside her comfort zone, but Sandra was the natural choice.

When her supervisor approached her with the opportunity, her initial response was, “I’m not ready. I’ve never led a team this big before.”

He told her that he and many others believed in her, and asked her to think about it over the weekend. This was a milestone opportunity, but the role had significantly more visibility, and required more leadership, decision making, strategic acumen, and greater accountability for results. She had a major decision to make.

First thing Monday morning, she went into her supervisor’s office and said, “I’m not sure if I’m ready, but I am willing to take this on.”

Like all other assignments she took on, Sandra fully embraced this new assignment. She continued to seek the advice of her supervisor and her new peer group colleagues. She looked for any opportunity to learn more about the business, her team, and the role.

It was not without some challenges and a learning curve, but over time and with hands-on experience, Sandra grew into her role. Within just a few months, she was feeling comfortable with the new responsibilities. Admittedly, she still had much to learn, but she knew she had made the right decision to step up despite her reservations.

Sandra is now two years into her role; reflecting on her decision, she said, “This was the best decision I’ve made in my career. I’ve grown significantly as a person and leader. I’ve learned more about myself—my capabilities, ability to overcome challenges, and how to lead and inspire others—than ever before. The valuable lesson I learned was one of humility. It took some time, but I had to realize and accept that I didn’t need to have all the answers or be perfect. I had to ask questions, listen, and learn to quickly get up to speed and meet expectations. I made some mistakes, but I took responsibility for them, and, most important, learned from them.”

The results showed. Sandra introduced innovative products and built strong relationships with her peers and team members. Know that it’s OK to question and evaluate each career leadership opportunity. But flexibility and humility, and asking the right questions along the way, can be a valuable growth experience.

The Value of Practice

You may have heard the saying “practice makes perfect.” It applies more than ever to both physical fitness and leadership fitness. Most leaders learn best by doing. Notice how the saying is not “reading makes perfect” or “taking a class makes perfect.” Taking action counts more.

Think about approaches to learning in two categories: active and passive. Passive learning methods include attending a lecture, reading, and watching a presentation; although they can provide information, they have limited impact on learning. Researchers at the National Training Laboratories developed a learning pyramid in which they depict a hierarchy of knowledge retention using active versus passive approaches. They show that knowledge retention from passive approaches ranges from only 5 to 30 percent. On the other hand, active approaches—including having group discussions, practicing by doing, and teaching others—have knowledge retention rates between 60 and 90 percent.

It should be noted, however, that the merits and reliability of this approach has been questioned by some (Booth 2011; Lalley and Miller 2007; and Polovina 2011; among others). They question the research methodology and argue that memory research indicates that all instructional approaches lead to knowledge retention. Based upon my experience with leaders, I believe that you can learn through a variety of instructional approaches and that combining multiple approaches, such as reading or lecture, with practice and teaching will elevate learning.

On my best day, I am a subpar golfer. But I occasionally like to get out there and play. I have two good friends—Keith and Todd—who are great golfers I look to for golfing advice. When I wanted to improve my game, they didn’t give me a book to read. They gave me some sound advice on my swing (foundation) and suggested that I practice as much as possible. They were right. The more I practiced, the better I got. You’ve got to have some basic knowledge—the fundamentals—and be willing to swing the club. Feedback is instantaneous because I can see where my shot goes; I know whether I need to make an adjustment to my swing. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but the more I put their advice into practice, the more likely it is that good things will happen to my golf game.

The same goes for leadership. Remember fitness principles 1 and 4—take that first step and what you consume matters. Practice is only part of the equation, but it is a very important part. It is important to acknowledge that what and how you practice should be built upon a solid foundation or you will just be practicing the wrong things. So, first build solid fundamentals, as discussed in chapter 5, then shift to apply that knowledge through experience. Don’t think about this as an either/or scenario. The approaches should be complimentary, not discreet.

Experience and practice are most closely associated with informal learning because you are incorporating learning into your actions. There is a greater emphasis on formalizing informal learning, but I believe that stems from two perspectives: suppliers looking to commoditize informal learning and businesses looking to measure the results associated with a learning activity. It could be easy to get caught up in trying to measure the value of informal learning, but the emphasis on attributing performance gains to a single informal activity gets lost when trying to quantify it. Even if you try something and fail, there may be inherent value in what you learn from the process.

The important point here is to avoid getting caught up in that debate. If there is an opportunity for you to learn something new—about the business or a specific leadership skill—roll up your sleeves and go for it.

Take a Hike

Stan is a good friend who worked for a major technology company. Although he left the organization many years ago, he clearly recalls the vibrancy of the culture: “It was fast paced and just a fun place to be. A work hard, play hard place. Probably the best place I’ve worked.”

Without pausing, Stan quickly shifted to one regret that he still carries around: “You know, as great as it was, I didn’t fully realize what I had until it was too late. There were a lot of missed opportunities.

“We were an industry leader, really creating unprecedented products,” Stan explained. “It was an innovative business and I was surrounded by so many intelligent people. Yet, I never took time to walk down the hall and see what they were working on, how our worlds connected, or to get to know them.

“I was so focused on my area, head down all the time,” continued Stan, shaking his head in disbelief. “All I needed to do was take a quick walk around the office. I could have learned so much more, gotten to know some interesting people, and delivered some more powerful results. I never fully appreciated it until after I left the organization. You know, in many ways, every day I didn’t take a quick walk around the office was a missed opportunity. And the best part—no classroom or resource guide required.”

Walking down the hall, talking to peers, and asking questions is a terrific opportunity for informal learning. It helps you learn about the business and make stronger connections. So, whether you decide to keep it simple or branch out with any of a wide variety of other informal learning opportunities, the key is to try to incorporate some of these approaches into your fitness routine. If nothing else, they will add to and reinforce your existing knowledge or create some new insights. You may even find some ancillary benefits, such as networking and relationship building.

An Overview of Informal Learning

Informal learning includes activities that are self-directed, flexible, sometimes ad hoc, spontaneous, and exist outside a structured environment. Examples include on-the-job activities, learning from others, reading and reference materials, and similar resources that can be accessed as needed. To simplify the range of informal activities available to you, this book organizes them into three types: collaborative learning, on-the-job activities, and resources (Table 6-1).

Table 6-1. Informal Leadership Fitness Activities

Informal Leadership Fitness Activities
Collaborative On the Job Resource Based

» Mentoring

» Mentor circles

» Coaching

» Teaching others

» Communities of practice

» Action learning

» Community service

» Job shadowing

» Rotational assignments

» Stretch assignments

» Task force

» Podcasts

» Books

» Videos

» Articles or other publications

When looking across these types, keep in mind what developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the “Zone of Proximal Development,” which is the difference between what learners can do without help and what they can do with help. Strike a balance between independent and collaborative learning activities.

You likely have some level of familiarity with each group and have even incorporated some into your leadership fitness plan.

If you have any other high-impact, informal leadership development activities, send me a note and let me know about them (ttobin7@gmail.com). I’d love to learn more about what works and I’d be glad to share them in my presentations and coaching work with leaders.

The beauty of informal learning is that it exists all around you. It is easily accessible, has reduced scheduling issues, and is typically low to no cost. You can fully customize your leadership development experience through these types of activities based on what you need to develop, when you need it, what opportunities are available, and your personal learning preferences. By their very nature, these activities increase your participation and overall engagement in learning. They allow you to quickly acquire skills and knowledge by providing contextual relevance. You may even be doing some of them already without even knowing. In any case, determine which informal leadership development activities are right for you to include in your fitness plan and how to get the most out of them.

Collaborative Learning

When it comes to your development, think about leadership as a contact sport. It is complex and challenging, so you should not try to tackle every leadership challenge alone. It is amazing how much you can learn from others, and it is equally amazing how much you can learn by giving back to others.

Each collaborative learning activity discussed in this section allows you to be either the recipient of the leadership development or the provider of it. In both cases, people may validate you, challenge your assumptions, offer their insights, or help you make sense of information. Consider any of these approaches for the opportunity to learn by engaging others, some in a one-on-one setting and others in a larger group setting.

Mentoring

Mentoring is a knowledge-sharing relationship between two people—mentor and protégé or mentee—and it can take place at any stage of your leadership journey. It is longer term and more relationship based than task based. Mentors are people you can call on for support, insights, and guidance. Typically, one person has more experience in a particular area. However, in reciprocal value relationships both people have some knowledge or experience to offer. For example, multi-generational mentor relationships can be particularly beneficial to help both individuals better understand how the other thinks about key topics.

So why might you consider initiating a mentoring relationship? Some of the more common reasons I have come across include:

• Strengthen professional and personal skills.

• Gain insight into the processes of business groups beyond their own.

• Experience a fresh perspective on your organization’s culture.

• Explore alternative avenues when facing on-the-job challenges and concerns.

• Find support when making career choices.

• Take an active role in career development.

Either the mentor or mentee can initiate the relationship. In either case, finding the right match is critical. As you consider your fitness plan and whether mentoring is for you, think in terms of your personal needs, as well as what you have to offer others. When selecting a mentor, consider:

• What do I want to gain from the mentoring relationship?

• What skills do I want to develop?

• Is there a potential mentor who demonstrates those skills?

Being a mentor can be just as powerful as having a mentor. As a mentor, you have an opportunity to share your knowledge and experience and help develop a future leader. As a mentee, you can gain insights and wisdom from someone who has already gained knowledge and experience. In this case, the mentor is someone who has “been there and done that.” Because most leaders learn best from experience and you can leverage others’ experience, it is like giving your leadership a little turboboost.

When done well, mentoring is a great source of knowledge transfer for know-how, know-what, and know-why. Although mentor relationships are particularly beneficial during leadership transitions, such as being new to an organization, team, or role, there are no steadfast rules for mentoring. These relationships come in many forms and there is no single best approach to initiating them, what to cover, how long it should last, or even how many mentors to have. However, one tip that I got early in my career (coincidentally from a mentor) was to have multiple mentors from across industries, such as an academic, someone within your industry or field, and someone from outside your area of expertise.

Mentors can come from within or outside your organization. Mentors from outside your organization can offer a fresh perspective. Those from within your organization can help provide insights into contextually relevant issues, broaden your understanding of the organization, help you navigate the culture, build relationships, and act as your champion. However, the mentoring relationship should not be with someone in your direct report chain. This increases the likelihood of fostering an independent point of view regarding performance, as well as a confidential and constructive environment. Of course, we should all strive for that with the people we work with, so take it as more of a suggestion than an absolute.

Mentoring relationships can be formal or informal. On the more formal side, two people are matched based on need or interest, and the relationship is more choreographed. In this case, the mentor and mentee concentrate on a building the relationship over time and focusing on situations and a wide range of topics. These types of mentoring set-ups are often found in organizations, clubs, or associations.

On the informal side, the mentor-mentee relationship takes form in any variety of ways. The most common and effective way I have seen is through a working relationship. In this case, the relationship forms organically over time as the two individuals get to know each other.

In fact, I formed three of my best mentor relationships with previous supervisors as one or both of us transitioned out of the organization. In each instance, the supervisor and I kept in touch and checked in periodically. They asked good questions that made me think and more times than not just listen. They seemed to take a personal interest in my success, and as I think back on it, always saw potential in me before I realized it myself. We did not have a specific cadence, sometimes talking weekly and sometimes not for a few months. As I have continued to grow in my leadership career, we talk less often about specific leadership skills and more about particularly challenging situations. The funny thing is, I don’t think we have used the word mentor for any of these relationships.

My best advice to ensure a successful mentoring relationship is to have a plan and purpose and commit to it, but stay flexible. (See the appendix for mentoring roles, guidelines, and resources.) As part of your planning, you should spend a fair amount of effort finding the right relationship; I have found that a good match is a key contributor to a successful relationship. You should be reasonable and realistic in whom you pursue as a mentor and the frequency and commitment of your meetings. For example, if you are a first-time manager in your organization, don’t seek out the CEO as your mentor. And, since we operate in a very busy world, don’t strive for daily hour-long check-ins. The more reasonable you are with your request, the more likely it will be to come to life. If someone declines to be a mentor, don’t take it personally. It may simply be due to availability.

Once you’ve found a good match, plan some more. For this part of your plan, think about what you hope to learn. Come prepared with specific situations and questions for every meeting—what you want to learn about or teach.

Mentor Circles

Mentor circles are similar to mentoring with one main distinction—they are conducted in a small group setting. The groups can vary anywhere from two to no more than 15 people who have some similarity in terms of level, discipline, or functional area. Keep in mind that the larger the group, the more difficult it will be to address any one individual’s development interests. Mentor circles are not meant to be affinity groups, but rather fluid and focused on a variety of professional development topics. They can be set up to run periodically, such as biweekly or monthly, and last from several months to up to a year.

Mentor circles require a greater level of coordination than mentoring. The group usually organizes with the assistance of a leader for organizational support and sponsorship, and they collectively identify topics they would like to learn more about or people from within or outside the organization they would like to hear from. While there is some structure to the agenda, topics are largely driven by the needs and interests of the people in the group. For that reason, they are less likely to be tailored to your specific needs and goals. However, mentor circles can still provide some very useful development opportunities to learn from the facilitator and others in your group.

Sessions should be brief—no more than an hour. They should begin with 10 to 15 minutes of high-level presentation by the facilitator to allow quick insights and the latest information on the topics of interest to the group. The facilitator should then spend the next 30 minutes or so fielding questions from the group.

Guest speakers and subject matter experts can come from inside or outside the organization; speakers from within the organization keep this option low cost while maximizing the benefits. An interesting approach some organizations use to keep costs low while offering expertise and a perspective from outside the company is swapping speakers with other organizations. Be creative when identifying possible speakers.

Coaching

Coaching is designed to be a short-term partnership between you and a coach to enhance your effectiveness and overall performance. Coaching and mentoring use similar skill sets. However, the primary difference between the two is that coaching is a more time-bound, short-term activity focusing on different skills required for a specific job or task. With the increase of executive and leadership coaching as a profession, it is common for coaches to be external to your organization and charge fees for their services.

When done well, coaching is highly personalized and incorporates the assessment and self-awareness tactics that are critical for your development. The coaching process also takes on an increased level of formality than mentoring. The coach should take the following steps:

1. Conduct an assessment to identify your areas of focus. This is a critical first step to help identify what you should focus on.

2. Set goals. Based on the results of the assessment, focus on the few (three to five at the most) areas you are going to work on. It is critical that you write down and own your goals and the associated actions.

3. Challenge and provide support. Much like a personal trainer at the gym, a coach should help challenge you to operate outside your comfort zone, while also providing support in the form of feedback and encouragement.

4. Provide feedback on a specific skill or set of skills. Coaches should hold you accountable for activities you commit to and provide feedback along the way.

Coaching engagements typically last between six and 12 months, but that can vary depending on the coach’s approach and your needs. Given the nature of this relationship, building and maintaining trust are key to success. Coaches can encourage, support, and guide, but you must plan and act.

There are many reasons to seek out a coach, and it is important to identify the right match or the relationship won’t be effective. The fit between you and the coach is critical. You should consider the extent to which a coach’s style, values, and approach match your needs and expectations. You are looking for experience, rapport, honesty, and candor in a coach. And equally critical to the outcome is that you are open to feedback and guidance. Interview three or four coaches as part of the selection process to understand what they will do (their approach), how you will work together, and what outcomes you can expect.

Coaches can focus on a single topic, such as the core leadership skills discussed in chapter 5, including delegating, developing others, executive presence, relationship building, conflict management, influence without authority, communication skills, giving presentations, time management, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, and managing. In fact, I identified a considerable number of those skills based on previous requests I’ve received for coaching support. Even when there is not a specific need identified, you should consider coaching during times of transition to a new or expanded role.

Keep in mind that coaching tends to fall into the third quadrant—high cost, high impact—because a good, trusted coach will charge a premium and the leadership development they provide will be completely tailored to you.

Teach Others

I am a big believer in the importance of leaders giving back. I believe we all have something worth sharing that will benefit someone else. Your job is to find what you have to offer and look for opportunities to share it. If you are still early in your leadership career, it may take a little more time to find or develop it, but once you do, there is substantial benefit to you and those you teach for sharing your knowledge.

One way to do this and further hone your leadership skills is to teach others—or stay within the spirit of this fitness-focused book and become a leadership fitness instructor. In doing so, you’ll enhance your cognitive and behavioral capabilities, grow your knowledge and experience, and help others get the most from their learning and leadership development.

This leaders-as-teachers approach can be formalized as a class, workshop, or presentation at a professional association, or it can be informal, such as a discussion with a peer, colleague, or direct report. The topics can vary widely from learning how to use software, social media skills, or effective communication to sharing specific technical or leadership skills. The real value comes from sharing a skill you have with someone else to help their development.

On the more formalized side, something interesting happens when you teach a course. You do (or should do) a great deal of planning, so you actually learn more about your subject matter. And you learn it at a new depth of understanding because you’ll need to explain it to others who do not necessarily understand it. This act of preparation will often enhance your project management, public speaking, and relationship skills.

It Pays to Look Within

A professional services organization I worked with had a strong emphasis on associate learning. It believed that its people were a great source of differentiation and so invested heavily in this area.

For the technical and industry topics (more than a dozen of its core courses), the organization hired the best professors from a leading local university. These professors would frequently receive top scores on course evaluations.

However, as I looked further into the feedback, I learned something intriguing. The common sentiment from associates who participated in these courses was reflected the comment: “The professors are terrific. They’re entertaining and engaging. They really know the subject matter. But they really don’t know our business.”

As I discussed these findings with members of the leadership team, the topic of cost benefit came up. Because some of the smartest subject matter experts in the industry were working at the firm, we decided to pursue a leaders-as-teachers approach instead of hiring the local professors. We called it an apprenticeship program, where more senior-level subject matter experts would teach courses to more junior associates.

Right away we were faced with two realities. First, the associates were quite busy with client work. To address this, the senior leadership team approved release time from their billability targets. Second, none of the associates selected to teach a course were trainers per se. Many had little to no platform skills, experience, or comfort. To say that it was outside their comfort zones was putting it mildly. So, we developed a train-the-trainer program, which included ample opportunities for practice and feedback.

As the apprenticeship program got under way, we realized some expected and unanticipated outcomes. On the expected side, the junior associates learned about the subject matter in a contextually relevant way. Some of the unanticipated outcomes included teachers learning more about the subject and how to explain it—their depth of knowledge and applicability increased. In other words, the good got better. Additionally, these high-performing subject matter expert leaders greatly improved their public speaking skills. They also built relationships with their cadre of trainers, as well as the students.

Financially, the program was a success as well, with cost savings in the six figures annually.

Although this vignette is more focused on an organization-level solution, there are some insights for individual and aspiring leaders. For starters, much like the organization looked within for talent, you must look within to identify what work-related topics you know that could benefit others. Then, get involved. Look for ways to share your knowledge with others. No matter where you are in your career, there are both formal and informal ways to impart your knowledge.

Teaching others does not have to be a rigorous program. However, if you choose to pursue the more formal approach, you can do this by working with your organization’s training or human resources department, or your boss, to find opportunities to teach others. They can help you identify the needs, the audience, and other important details.

If your organization is not an option or you are not part of an organization, you can often find opportunities to get involved with local associations. It is important to note that teaching others does not have to be a formal classroom activity. You can also get involved in teaching others informally by reviewing your professional network and seeking out others looking to build their skills.

If you are currently a leader, there are likely opportunities around you almost every day where you could impart some knowledge. You don’t want to come across as a know-it-all; just look for teaching moments. For example, if someone on your team is uncertain how to deliver difficult feedback to a direct report or an internal stakeholder, share your insights. Stories provide great teaching moments, so rather than simply telling people what to do in a situation, you can tell them a story about how you or a former colleague handled a similar situation. Think about it in terms of your own experience, even if it did not work out well at the time. You likely learned from it, and those lessons are worth sharing.

Communities of Practice

Communities of practice (CoPs) are groups of people who share a common curiosity or interest in a subject. They learn from one another through regular interaction and by sharing their perspective and experiences related to the topic, thus expanding the body of knowledge of the group. CoPs are learning networks and knowledge management vehicles that can be pulled together to solve problems, brainstorm ideas, share best practices, discuss developments, and document projects. More than a group of people with shared interests, communities of practice develop a shared set of resources, experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing recurring problems.

Communities of practice create a direct link between learning and performance, while providing opportunities to work across levels, business groups, and in some cases organizations. Opportunities for CoPs abound, but I often see them form around technical knowledge, such as a CPA study group, a user group for a specific software, or a group that comes together temporarily to discuss a specific technical topic. The CoP should be small and manageable, and it should allow you to have a voice and be an active participant.

These groups cost little to no money to participate in and the benefits include broadening your professional network, systems thinking, and problem solving, as well as expanding your technical knowledge on a topic of interest. If you learn best through social collaboration, CoPs can and should be a consideration in your training plan. However, one point to note with CoPs is that they are typically composed of like-minded individuals because that creates the community. That in and of itself is not a bad thing, but remember that there is much that can be learned by being exposed to different viewpoints, so you should also look to include alternative perspectives in your leadership fitness plan.

Action Learning

Action learning has its origins in the 1940s, when Reg Revans introduced his pioneering approach to organizational problem solving. The approach included small groups called sets working together, asking a variety of the “W” questions (who, what, where, why, when), and solving problems. Over time and through information sharing, participants would give support and gain the confidence to introduce new ideas.

For Revans, the approach was as much about the process as it was about the outcomes. The process allows for individual development through experience and challenging assumptions, as well as peer to peer development. Results matter. And they are achieved by taking action: putting the ideas and recommendations into practice to help improve organizational effectiveness. Another important outcome is participant learning.

In his book, Action Learning in Action, Michael Marquardt (2005) elaborated on the practice of action learning. He sees the application of action learning as a way to respond to and drive change while developing core leadership skills including problem solving, project management, decision making, and working across boundaries. The skills acquired as part of an action learning team can be further applied to other organizational challenges, thus broadening your point of view and elevating your leadership skills to a broader set of challenges beyond the action learning project.

The problems action learning should tackle should be complex, meaningful to the organization, and without a predetermined solution. Problems to solve can vary, and may include the following examples:

• improving employee engagement

• identifying ways to improve customer satisfaction

• improving workforce efficiencies

• identifying innovative product lines or other ways to drive revenue

• increasing productivity

• reducing workplace accidents

• determining how a new company intranet should be organized

• developing a new approach to communicating with stakeholders.

It is also helpful to begin the action learning project with a team charter, which ensures clarity and alignment on the problem statement, goals and objectives, scope, interdependencies, approach, data, and resources. Additionally, the approach and resulting recommendations should have the support of the organization’s senior leadership team. Without their support, any recommendations and resulting actions may be limited. For that reason, it is important for the action learning project to have an executive sponsor to help the team navigate the organizational landscape. Having an executive sponsor is also helpful to guide the team in their preparation for delivering the project’s final recommendations. This is where the action comes in. The result of the action learning project must include a presentation to senior leadership, including recommendations and their potential business impact.

One of the benefits of action learning from an organizational perspective is that the team (or set) comes from within the organization and represents many viewpoints. They understand the culture and context of the problem, as well as the nuances associated with action. The value for the organization also includes the value and impact of the solution itself.

To maximize the benefits for the participants, it is important to balance action with learning. This requires reflection. Take time to think about what you learned, how you can incorporate your new knowledge and point of view to other problems, and how you can continue to refine and apply your new set of leadership skills.

Community Service

In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (2006) talked about leaders as heroes who rise to the fore in times of crisis. Leadership, he says, is about bringing out the best in others, and great leaders take a proactive role in this. They get involved, give back, and take on greater social responsibility.

Community service is group-centered leadership fueled by shared power and community building. It reinforces new ways of relating and the promotion of important values such as trust, commitment, sharing, and ownership. Although community service is group centered, it creates opportunities to develop your individual leadership skills. By volunteering for community service activities, you will experience a greater sense of self-awareness about your strengths, interests, and capabilities. You may be given opportunities to apply, or even stretch, your leadership, technical, interpersonal, or other essential skills. Depending on the community service project, you may also find yourself taking on additional leadership responsibilities.

Examples include volunteering at local organizations, such as food banks or schools, or partnering with national organizations. One company I worked with partnered to provide education support of business topics to elementary-school children. They brought nearly 100 of their employees to spend the day at the school teaching grade-appropriate business skills. Volunteers built their organization and public speaking skills, plus there was an esprit de corps among them. Because of the level of coordination required to implement such an activity, there were opportunities for nearly a dozen employees to take on leadership roles managing specific aspects of the effort, such as transportation, teacher assignments, and curriculum review.

On-the-Job Activities

Do you recall the question I asked at the beginning of this chapter about the most impactful leadership development activity? Do you remember the most common reply? Leaders often tell a story like this: My boss was suddenly called away, left, or perhaps took on a new role in the organization. The organization, however, was delayed in filling or decided not to fill the position, so I was asked to take on additional leadership responsibilities.

It was either sink or swim, and they all chose to swim. The work was definitely out of their comfort zone. It was often unexpected. And there were no courses or books to prepare them for it. Sometimes they struggled, but inevitably they either sought others for support and guidance or learned by trial and error.

The best news about on-the-job leadership development opportunities is that they can deliver benefits for both you and the organization. When planned well, they will help you gain contextually relevant knowledge about the business, build relationships, and maintain a broader, systemic understanding of the business. Over the long term, they can increase your knowledge and ultimately your productivity. The most common types of on-the-job leadership development activities are job shadowing, rotational assignments, stretch assignments, and task forces.

Job Shadowing

Job shadowing is another form of collaborative learning.

The Shadow Knows

I was at a restaurant recently with some colleagues when we were approached by two people at the same time to take our order. One of the waiters introduced himself and his colleague, and said he would be serving us while his colleague shadowed him.

I just had to know more, so I asked them to tell me about their training program.

He explained that every new hire shadows and observes for two shifts. The new hire then becomes the lead server for two shifts with an experienced server shadowing and offering guidance and feedback along the way. Then, the new hire is on their own. But he acknowledged that “no one is really on their own here. We’ve always got each other’s back.”

They took their service training seriously. Sure, you could argue that the shadow period could be a little longer, but they were quick to point out that the learning was continuous, and the team members supported one another beyond the first four shifts.

I asked them if they thought it helped in any way. Before I could even finish my question, both were nodding emphatically.

“Absolutely,” the new hire said. “I’ll feel much more comfortable when I’m on my own. I’m already picking up some important things for how to do the job better than if I was just thrown right into it.”

The experienced server echoed that sentiment: “I had never waited tables before I started here and learned from a more experienced person how to do it well, things to avoid, and even how to handle some tough customers.”

This vignette is the essence of job shadowing. I’ve also heard such activities referred to as “ride-alongs.” Whether in a restaurant or a corporate setting, shadowing is when a less experienced person follows a more experienced one around and observes what they do, asks questions, gains insights, and eventually tries out aspects of the job. Ideally, they are given some guidance on what to observe, and there is opportunity to ask questions and for feedback to take place. That is where the real development occurs. In the case of the servers, they were looking for the welcome and greeting, interaction with guests, some procedural activities around taking and delivering the order (such as timing, interactions, and who ordered what), and the close.

These are great opportunities to learn more about the company, build relationships, and learn the culture. Every job shadow can take on a distinctive look because of the different roles, experiences, and outlooks that each person brings.

The best job shadowing experiences are a collaborative effort between your boss, the shadower, and the person being shadowed. This ensures clear expectations are established up front and the key people in the job shadow are aligned. Although these assignments are typically emphasized when you are new to the organization, team, or role, they can and should take place throughout your career. Consider shadowing someone in various functional areas, such as marketing, operations, IT, product development, R&D, or finance. The more you can learn about the business, the better. It will help you make personal and conceptual connections that will enhance your business acumen, strategic and systems thinking, decision making, and relationship building.

As with other development opportunities, the key is to have a plan going into the job shadow. Both the shadow host and shadower have roles to ensure a positive and productive development experience. See the appendix for additional details to help prepare for a job shadow experience. The host should plan, ensure proper introductions are made, educate the shadower, and summarize the experience.

The shadower should do some homework ahead of time to understand more about the role, activities to be observed, and how they may fit with their responsibilities, and come prepared with areas to look for and questions to ask. Questions can span a wide range of topics, including the host’s professional experience, background in the organization, or specific insight into the shadow activity. What are the host’s priorities? Key challenges? How does work get done? Who else is involved in decision making? At the end, document what you learned and ideas for how it may apply to your area.

You can also combine two development opportunities into one. For example, if you have a mentor within the organization, you could ask to shadow them at a meeting or presentation. That has the potential to be quite powerful in preparing you to sit at the leadership table in the future.

Rotational Assignments

Job rotation allows you to systematically move from one job to another. It requires a level of coordination along with a business need and approval. Job rotation allows for greater systemic insight about the company and innovation by bringing new ways of thinking to a different area.

For your own development and to get the most from a rotational assignment, it is important that you come prepared to learn and contribute—contribute your expertise and point of view, and learn by asking questions. Your questions should focus on the hows and whys of the job. Often, even the types of questions you ask can lead to insights. For example, simply asking why tasks are performed a particular way often encourages discussion around possible new ways of performing those tasks.

Job rotation requires a level of preparation and planning both before you initiate the activity and following it to get the most from it. Preparation is about planning for what you will focus on, roles and responsibilities, what your anticipated or ideal outcomes are, and any coordination required to make the experience happen. It should involve supervisor approval, identification of content, and setting aside time.

During the job rotation, you should take your pulse on progress. Are you sticking to your plan? Identify any barriers and figure out the best way to work around them. In these instances, you may want to consult others for guidance. This creates further learning opportunities.

Following the experience, make time for reflection to sustain momentum. What stood out? What did you learn? What will you do differently? Evaluate any outcomes and take any needed action. If you are in a more advanced state of leadership fitness and you are getting others involved, ask participants what they learned and how they will apply the experience.

Stretch Assignments

Stretch assignments are typically short-term assignments that take you out of your immediate comfort zone and allow you to build new skills. However, in some instances, they may be longer term, such as part of a new assignment or promotion. They allow you to take on projects, solve problems, or otherwise contribute to operations above your current job level, skill set, and experience.

The assignment may be an additional part of your current responsibilities or a separate focus. For example, if you have never led people, you might run a project team before being assigned direct reports. If you are trying to build your financial acumen, a short-term approach would be to combine taking a course with a stretch assignment. The assignment would be to review your department’s financial reports and provide a summary to the department head. This could be extended to a longer-term assignment by focusing on the broader goal of improving upon specific annual financial results for the department.

Stretch assignments are not for everyone. Typically, they are driven by the needs of the business or specific project, and selection is often performance based. For example, if you are performing above expectations and a business or project need arises, you may be asked to take on responsibilities a level or two above yours or to lead a portion of an organization-specific event or group. These assignments require you to take the initiative by having conversations with your boss about your interests. Like other informal leadership fitness activities, they yield the best results when given a good amount of thought and planning.

Task Forces

Task forces are a group effort that involves solving actual work challenges with the expectation that they are tied to a specific outcome that should, in turn, link to an organizational goal. They tend to be shorter in duration and smaller in scope than an action learning project and are initiated by organizational or community leaders in response to a specific challenge or problem.

Task forces can address a wide range of problems, such as complex problems that touch on the entire organization, department, or team; problems that are not amenable to outside experts; problems on which decisions have not already been made; and problems that are operational in nature. Examples of such problems could be:

• identifying a new product or service or making improvements to an existing one

• developing a set of recommendations and priorities for an organization (or department) value proposition

• determining a new, more efficient process or technology.

Use the task force to find new ways to engage with key stakeholders. This is your chance to get involved. Effort and initiative go a long way in facilitating your peak leadership fitness. You can be a task force leader or a participant and gain great benefits for you and the broader group.

Task forces give you the opportunity to develop teamwork, problem solving, strategic and systems thinking, innovation, change management, communication, leadership, and project management skills. Task forces will help you accelerate learning and understand different points of view, and perhaps even handle difficult topics or situations. The best results usually come from cross-functional, multiple-discipline teams. When done well, a task force leader is identified (note that they do not have to be leaders by position to allow participants to stretch) and goals, objectives, resources, timelines, and expectations are established. The result of the task force project could also include a presentation of findings and recommendations to other leaders.

Resource-Based Learning

Information is all around us, and it is important that we not only embrace it but take advantage of it. Your biggest challenge with the resources around you are threefold: finding quality over quantity, finding the type of resource that fits your learning style, and incorporating it into your regular routine.

As an extension of microlearning discussed in chapter 5, resources are an opportunity to supplement your leadership fitness plan. They include podcasts, books, videos, articles, and other publications. However, any resource by itself has limited impact because it rarely gives you an opportunity to practice the new skill.

Each resource provides a brief overview of a topic or perspective. It may be based on data, facts, opinions, or some combination thereof. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether the perspective is credible, so keep that in mind. This is not meant to encourage you to avoid using resources, because they do add value to your fitness plan, and they are relatively inexpensive and easy to incorporate. In any form, they should provide you with some additional insights and perspectives on a leadership topic. When considering any resource, consider the topic, frequency, and source of information.

Short-Form Resources

Podcasts are audio recordings on a specific topic. With the average podcast lasting 30 minutes or less, you can download them onto your device and listen to them while working out or while you are waiting on some other activity. Some podcasts also include video.

Videos are another short-form activity. TED Talks are one of the more popular and effective examples of this type of delivery. These provocative segments are delivered by a respected thought leader on a topic in 15 minutes or less.

Long-Form Resources

Books and articles are longer-format resources. As a rule of thumb, you should read at least three business books a year and one article a month to stay current in your field. If you can’t find the time to read a book, there are a few other options available. You can listen to audiobooks during your commute if that fits your learning preference. You can also find book summaries if you are really short on time. There are several subscription services that take business books and summarize them into the essential elements for easier (and quicker) consumption.

When it comes to reading about a variety of leadership topics, you have multiple options, including blogs, articles, and books. You can read articles in rigorous, peer-reviewed publications (which helps filter quality) or trade publications. Also try giving back by writing an article for a professional publication.

Maintain Flexibility and the Cost-Impact Matrix

The activities associated with maintaining flexibility have a wide range across the cost-impact matrix (Figure 6-1). Informal learning activities are most often, but not always, associated with being low cost and high impact. Although most of the activities fall into quadrant III, there are a few activities that find themselves in the higher-cost quadrant II and the lower-impact quadrant IV. That does not mean you should avoid them. However, you may want to consider them as a low-cost supplement (quadrant IV) or, if you have a larger budget, as part of a more targeted, high-impact part of your plan.

Quadrant II (high cost, high impact) includes coaching and action learning. Coaching tends to be the highest cost and impact activity in this chapter because you are paying for a qualified expert over an extended period to conduct an extensive development program. Action learning just nudges into the high cost aspect of the quadrant due to the organization’s commitment of resources and time. If you find yourself with an opportunity to participate in an action learning project, it is very likely that it will cost you little to nothing because it is sponsored by the organization. However, in fairness to the analysis, I wanted to recognize that there are costs associated with it. In terms of impact, when done well, action learning can provide a wide range of higher-order leadership skills. And it can help give you important visibility with other leaders and senior executives within the organization.

Figure 6-1. The Cost-Impact Matrix

Quadrant IV (low cost, low impact) includes community service, task forces, and resources. It usually costs little more than your personal time to get involved in community service. And, while community service can have a positive influence on your leadership development and in some cases even the potential to be transformational, that is not the norm. However, it is still a very respectable form of development and has good benefits for the cause you are contributing to. Resources are a great low-cost supplement to include as part of your fitness plan. They help you establish strong habits but do not require a lot of time and will contribute to your foundation of knowledge and staying current in the field.

Quadrant III (low cost, high impact) has a wide variety of development activities, including mentoring, mentor circles, teaching others, communities of practice, job shadowing, rotational assignments, and stretch assignments. This is the sweet spot of your leadership development fitness plan. The activities that require a higher level of coordination are mentor circles, communities of practice, rotational assignments, and stretch assignments. They are located near the top of the quadrant because they tend to have an increased cost associated with them. Their impact is still strong, but the activities tend not to be exclusively focused on your development needs. In other words, these activities are not fully within your control. However, when they are available, and you get involved, they have the potential for a very high impact on your leadership development.

In the third quadrant, the activities you can initiate yourself include mentoring, teaching others, and job shadowing. Of course, you still need to involve at least one other person in the process, but the activity itself can and should be highly tailored to your needs and interests. These activities are like fruits and vegetables. The more of them you can include in your diet, the better.

Tracking Your Performance

Developing your leadership skills should be fun, and the activities should be relevant. That way you are more likely to stick with it. Informal leadership development is often easier to coordinate, incurs little to no cost, and puts you in control of your development and subsequently your future. Organizationally, these types of activities can contribute to productivity and business results. Depending on the activity and how it is executed, they can also help you develop multiple leadership skills simultaneously, such as interpersonal skills, project management, communication, and technical skills.

Your job is to determine which activities match your leadership development needs, your preference for learning, and your access. Keep in mind that there may not be anything formal established in your organization for any of these activities. In many of the cases, you can initiate them yourself. Others will require the participation of others. In either case, you need to take that first step to include informal activities into your fitness routine.

Fitness Tips to Maintain Flexibility

When starting out with informal learning, keep it simple. Try learning about a different part of the business from a colleague or read about your industry.

Incorporate at least one development activity from each informal leadership development category.

Find a leadership fitness buddy to challenge and support you throughout your journey.

Schedule a meet and greet with someone in your organization whom you don’t know. (Extra tips: Come prepared with questions to understand their department and function. Be respectful of their time.)

Find at least one person you can go to for leadership advice.

Become a mentor to someone in your professional network.

Volunteer to teach a class or give a presentation at a professional association.

Participate in a ride-along or shadow someone from your team or other part of your organization.

Read at least three business books a year and one article a month.

Commit to trying one new approach to informal learning and share your lessons learned with a peer, colleague, or friend.