7 Insider Tips for Learning on the Job

Want an insider view of how to learn on the job? How to tap into your potential as a leader? (Leading Effectively e-Newsletter, March 2014)

A new book, Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent, reveals strategies and methods leading-edge organizations take to make job experience an intentional part of talent development.

Written primarily for human resource, talent management and leadership development professionals and edited by CCL’s Cynthia D. McCauley and Morgan W. McCall, Jr. of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, the book holds some gems for the rest of us, too.

Here, we pulled some ideas and tips to help you connect to the power of on-the-job learning.

1. Go where the action is. “You have to take the ones with the most potential and send them where the action is,” writes Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, in the book Shift. “That way you achieve two ends: You get the problem taken care of, and you get a manager who’s grown through experience.”

“Ghosn’s view touches on the value in seeking challenging assignments, getting results, and learning and growing through that experience,” says McCauley. “Development is not an add-on to your job; it is woven into it.”

Find “where the action is” and commit to growing and learning while you are in the thick of it.

2. Connect learning to the business strategy. This is a major priority at the organizational level, but it’s relevant to all of us. Identify your learning goals and set priorities based on the needs of the business — what is needed from you now? What is needed in six months? What could you be doing in two years? What skills and experiences are important — and what real assignments, with real performance expectations, can you take on so you learn what you need?

3. Hone your learning skills. Most of us readily create goals around actions and outcomes. It’s not as common to set goals for improving our ability to learn. Yet, the ability to learn from experience is a key element for successful leadership, and increasingly, success in any field.

How could you boost your ability to learn? Routinely ask exploratory questions (What am I learning? How am I learning it? How am I applying it?), reflect on experience (each day, each week, after key events) and seek feedback.

4. Match what with how. Different experiences teach different things. The trick to on-the-job development is to clarify what you need to learn and then figure out what kinds of experiences will teach those lessons. For example, according to research from McCall and others, a start-up experience helps you learn to build a team, set and communicate priorities, work under time pressure and learn new content quickly.

The lessons offered by specific types of experiences are well-known to many in the talent/HR community, so ask around. Or grab a copy of McCauley’s book for managers: Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences without Changing Jobs.

5. Use ideas from other people. Ask around for ideas for learning — peers, your boss or the HR team may have projects or processes if you seek them out. Look outside your context, too. Other companies, industries or communities may inspire you. Examples from Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent include:

  • A Personal Development Plan checklist from Yum! Brands to create a focused plan, keep yourself accountable and make progress an ongoing effort.
  • A 30-day Leadership Fitness Challenge, from Kelly Services, to exercise leadership muscle and get in the habit of making learning part of your routine.
  • Rotational assignments and joint duties to build boundary crossing and collaboration skills, as implemented in recent years by the U.S. Intelligence Community.
  • Special projects, time-limited roles and assignments, online experiences, as well as experiences outside of work, such as community roles or service work outside of your culture or comfort zone.

6. Connect the dots. Training and education, coaches and mentors, and experiences large and small are all part of the learning puzzle. Be sure you are making connections with all your opportunities to develop as a leader. What threads tie your learning together? How do you make sense of, or package, your experiences in a way that is valuable to you, your employer and the people you serve?

7. Be curious, always. Cultivate a growth mindset, as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls it. Don’t assess your current roles only by what you achieve — ask yourself, am I learning and growing? Think about your career moves in the same way — go after projects and experiences that require your strengths but also give you the chance to stretch.

If your company’s senior leadership and HR team value learning and leadership development, take advantage of it — pursue experience and other learning strategies with gusto. Immerse yourself in and pass along the culture of learning.

If you find yourself in an organization that doesn’t seem to invest in development, control what you can. Take time to learn about learning, set your personal goals, and help your direct reports to do the same. After all, you spend too much time on the job not to learn — and learn a lot — from your experience.

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