The NATURE of Leadership Development (blog 3 of 3)

By Tom Davidson

The previous two blogs discussed the leaders’s root system and growth rings. In this blog, we’ll discuss the third component of the analogy — the branches.

As we’ve been discussing in this blog series, the healthy growth of forests give us a useful analogy for thinking about our own growth and development as leaders. Here are  the three components of tree-biology we are using in our analogy: 

Roots – A mature leader has deep roots in her values, strengths, experiences and priorities.
Rings – A successful leader never stops adding knowledge, skills and abilities.
Branches – A wise leader branches out their experience and perspectives. 

The previous two blogs discussed the leaders’s root system and growth rings. In this blog, we’ll discuss the third component of the analogy — the branches. 

Branching out your experience 
Trees form branches, or secondary stems, off their main trunks to produce leaves (broadleaves and needles) that collect sunlight and perform photosynthesis, which converts sunlight into chemical energy and nutrition. Successful leaders also branch out to collect new experiences and convert them into wisdom. 

Leaders who branch out very little may become experts in their technical fields, but they have limited overall utility to their organizations. Leaders who move around in their organizations take on new and different responsibilities thus exposing them to different ways of thinking and making them more valuable and mobile in their careers. 

Just as trees with relatively few branches received limited amounts of nutrition, energy and growth, leaders who stay in one field or area of expertise might be reasonably successful but become less and less valuable to their employers and clients. 

One of the best ways to grow your leadership is by branching out into other types of work in your field, other business functions than the one you grew up in, and other industries where your skills are also valued. Here are three key ways for you to branch out your knowledge, skills, and abilities: 

1. Volunteer for new assignments in your field that are not what you are normally paid to do (either inside or outside of your current organization). Sometimes called “stretch assignments,” these allow you to gain exposure to other kinds of people, experiences and bodies of knowledge without cutting ties to your current role and function. When taking on such assignments, be sure to identify what it is you intend to learn from the task and share that with your manager or sponsor so that your learning becomes nearly as important as the successful completion of the work. 

2. Change jobs in your current organization. Historically, job changes meant straight-line promotions up the corporate ladder. But the corporate ladder has changed! Now, instead of a straight line up the chain of command, great promotions can happen in a lot of directions: up, sideways, diagonally, and sometimes down-in-order-to-go-up. While they don’t always come with an increase in pay, they always come with an increase in knowledge and experience. As a forester, I learned to think long term, and changing jobs in your current organization is a long-term strategy that will build your skills and your resume faster than waiting for a job opening in the slow and old-fashioned line of succession. Make your own line of succession, because nobody’s going to do it for you any more. 

3. Change organizations or industries. Job hopping used to be frowned upon, but norms have changed and so has the need for employees to watch out for their own careers. When I was an HR manager 20 years ago, we used to sort resumes using a criterion like this because we thought “job-hoppers” (people who changed jobs every couple of years) were disloyal or flighty in their career aspirations. But just 15 years ago, when my job was finally eliminated in a merger, I found out that the organization I had grown up in had started looking for employees with more diverse backgrounds and experiences from outside the organization! The rules had changed right under my nose, and they’ve probably changed under yours, too. 

Don’t be the thin, small tree in the stand with few or puny branches. Be the wolf tree that stands out from all the others in the forest because it’s thicker, taller, full of limbs and leaves, and dominates the canopy around it. Not only will you be a more successful leader, but you’ll have more fun in the process. 

How else can you branch out your experience so you can stand out as a leader with more to offer than most?

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