Learning Leadership on the Fly – Part 2 of 3

By Tom Davidson

Below are 3 top ways to develop your leadership skills on the fly. In this post, we’ll discuss the 2nd one in this 3-part blog series: stretch assignments.

Once upon a time, future leaders were slowly “groomed” over many years by placing a chosen few in select positions of responsibility that would teach them certain aspects of leadership and management skills while exposing them to many parts of the organization. The major assumptions of the day were:

• That high-caliber associates would stay with one organization most or all of their career
• That organizations would be stable and not change very much over a long period of time, so their needs could be predicted
• That organizations could accurately identify their best talent to begin with
• That organizations would only need a handful of properly trained future leaders
• That high-potential future leaders would have lots of time to absorb their new skills, usually with the help of a long-term senior member of management as their guide

But in the decades since the good ol’ days, all of these assumptions have been turned upside down, particularly with the retirement of the Baby Boom generation, leaving gaping holes in leadership ranks in every sector of the economy. Moreover, investment in leadership development fell over the same period, and downsizing left little room for what used to be called bench strength. But now there’s little time to catch up, so leaders like you are often being thrown into supervisory jobs to sink or survive.

If you or your associates are in this situation, below are three top ways to develop your leadership skills on the fly. In this edition, we’ll discuss the second one in this three-part blog series, stretch assignments.

• Volunteering
• Stretch Assignments
• Teaching Others

Stretch Assignments
People learn 75 to 90 percent of what they need to know at work from on-the-job experience, so take fuller advantage of this principle by getting the most out of your current work situation. In this day and age, it’s up to each one of us to own our own development. It’s wonderful when it happens, but you can’t count on your boss or organization to guide you through the many learnings you will need. Very often, middle and senior executives are fighting their own battles and scurrying to get the education they need at their levels!

Stretch assignments are work-related tasks that take you out of your comfort zone and expose you to the new skills and perspectives you will need as a leader. Much like learning to rock climb, you can read about it all day long, but until you put your hands and feet on the rock face, skin your knuckles and take a few falls, you’re not going to learn very much at all. Here are three places to look for stretch assignments to develop your leadership skills:

1. Outside your comfort zone. In Carol Dweck’s book on learning (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success), she explains how people choose one of two learning mindsets, which begin when we are children and, unless challenged, last a lifetime. They are the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed-mindset individual likes to do the same thing, the thing they are good at, without much feedback or challenge. The growth-mindset individual likes a challenge, gets bored by doing the same thing and is not having fun unless they’re challenged. While this is true and fascinating, the best part of her research is this. You can choose your mindset! We’re not stuck with the one we grew up with or the one we default to in any given situation. If you want to be a successful leader, choose the growth mindset every time!

2. Outside your subject or area of expertise. Unless you get exposure to other functions, you’ll end up being pigeon holed and for a good reason. As a one-trick pony, you may excel in one area of the business but you won’t be sufficiently broad in your skills or thinking that you can adapt and be useful to the organization when needs, structures and strategies change. Sure, you can become a specialist, but that usually means you’ll also stay an individual contributor or first-line supervisor at most. To get yourself on the launch pad to leadership, get yourself into other parts of the business.

3. Outside your circle of friends and people just like you. One of the biggest mistakes new managers make is surrounding themselves with people just like them (The 8 Greatest Mistakes New Managers Make: Surviving Your Transition to a Leadership Position, by Tom Davidson). By staying within your age, geographic, specialty, click, professional association or any other narrow demographic, you start to see the world through one particular lens, which can give you tunnel vision and limit your problem solving. Moreover, you won’t grow the skills you need to work with a wide-variety of people. This will limit your range of leadership skills until you start getting stretch assignments that grow your acumen with diverse people and perspectives.

Take control of your own leadership development, because no one cares about it as much as you should. Do so, and you will be able to demonstrate that you have the key attribute of a modern-day leader, the aptitude and willingness to learn on the fly.

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