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29 Sep. 2015 | Comments (0)

Watch the On Demand Recording of our June 2015 Book Discussion web cast, featuring authors, Cindy McCauley, Senior Fellow, Research and Innovation Center for Creative Leadership, and Morgan McCall, Professor of Management and Organization in the Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California, as they discuss their latest book, Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent.


A question that I regularly hear from those responsible for leader development in organization is this: How can we accelerate the development of leaders?

When I dig underneath that question, I often hear an assumption that there is something yet to discover about development—a new element that, if added to the mix, will speed up the process.

No one needs to wait for new discoveries to achieve faster results. There’s a great deal already known about human learning and development. And as I’ve worked with leader development professionals in organizations, I see them putting this knowledge into practice, for example, putting leaders in stretch assignments with learning goals, encouraging developmental relationships in the workplace, making sure that useful feedback is regularly shared, and providing training that equips leaders right when they most need it to deal with their current challenges.

In learning from these professionals about their best practices, three key principles stand out about effective strategies to accelerate development:

1) Customize learning experiences. Instead of sending everyone through the same courses, job rotations, or coaching initiatives, tailor learning experiences to target each leader’s development needs. Customization streamlines development for the individual, removing unnecessary elements and thus speeding it up.  For example, at GE, a long-time user of job rotation programs to develop employees, they are experimenting with individualized rotations in the Corporate Leadership Staff program. Cross-functional assignments are selected according to the development needs of the individual. Length of assignments are also customized.

2) Integrate work and learning. Don’t think of learning as being apart from work, but rather a natural part of work. More intentionally weaving the two together creates synergies and speeds up each one. To accelerate the development of leaders for their fastest-growing markets, Microsoft implemented a program that immerses participants in temporary assignments at corporate headquarters. The projects are real work that benefits from the knowledge participants bring from the field while broadening their perspective and network of relationships.

3) Create concentrated periods of learning. Although learning is an ongoing, daily process, development can speed up when there are periods of focused learning. Concentrated learning is characterized by clear development intentions and multiple tactics to realize those intentions. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps is an intense six-month experience to develop socially responsible global leaders. It combines virtual training and team-building, 30 days in a developing country delivering consulting services with the team, and sharing lessons learned with colleagues back home.

Here’s the caveat: Although these strategies can accelerate development, let’s be realistic and perhaps even cautious. Becoming an expert at complex leadership tasks takes practice over time and across many situations. And there are downsides to pushing the gas pedal too hard, like moving people from assignment to assignment without enough time to experience the consequences of their actions or burning them out. Perhaps the growing edge of practice is a deeper understanding of how to best pace interventions that aspire to speed up the natural leader development that is happening all the time. 


View our complete listing of Leadership Development blogs.

  • About the Author: Cindy McCauley

    Cindy McCauley

    Cindy McCauley is a Senior Fellow in Research and Innovation at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). She designs and manages R&D projects, coaches action learning teams, writes for multiple a…

    Full Bio | More from Cindy McCauley


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