Friday, October 23, 2009

Ten Tips To Improve Leadership Learning

YMCA "Dave, we need to talk about your responsibilities around here." Jack was the new director.

"Okay, what should I be doing?" My teenage voice cracked as I rubbed my sweating palms.

"I know that under Bob you had a lot of responsibilities. I heard he even gave you the unofficial title of assistant youth director. Well, all that stops as of today. Consider yourself demoted to the front desk."

I was devastated.

Two years earlier, Bob, the youth director at our local YMCA, hired me to work at the front desk in the youth department. I worked hard for Bob and eagerly took on every new responsibility he tossed my way. By the time I turned 19 years old, Bob had entrusted me to lead the YMCA’s youth leadership program, junior high school teen center, and assist in running two, month-long, cross-country camping trips.

But now, it seemed that my professional growth had come to a crashing halt at the tender age of 19 because Bob left.


How about you? What happens when you are dealt a professional setback or encounter a new, challenging situation? Do you go through the experience or grow through it?

In a survey of 6,900 managers from 77 firms, the McKinsey organization reported that only 3% agreed with this statement: "We develop people effectively." (1) I invite you to adapt their question by asking, how effectively do I learn?

If you want to grow through today's turbulent environment, you must take control of your own development. It is not your boss’s job to keep you informed about the numerous changes bombarding your field. Of course he or she should support your learning efforts, but why trust your future in their hands? The latest research tells us that if you want to keep earning you must put agility in your learning.

Learning agility is the ability to deal effectively with new situations and changing conditions. When Jack took Bob’s place at the YMCA, my world was turned upside down. The question became, was I an agile learner who could grow through these tough times? (Read on to find out.) Researchers Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger followed 313 managers for two years after they were promoted. (2) They found that high learning-agility managers performed significantly better in their new jobs than those with lower scores. This study and other research tell us that a key to navigating any whitewater environment is becoming an agile learner. (3) Leaders I coach find the following ideas helpful in growing their learning agility. Pick a few that might work for you.

1. Involve others in learning. One administrator asked members of her team to develop a plan to train everyone on the new office software installed. Another invited the staff to add content to their web site.

2. Make education part of your meetings. When I was Chief Administrative Officer of Molecular Imaging at UCLA, our Friday staff meetings included a 10 – 15 minute educational agenda item. We would teach each other, invite faculty, and ask outside experts to bring us up to speed on technical and medical issues.

3. Volunteer to be on unfamiliar committees. Become more active in your associations. I’ve been on the board of directors of the National Speakers Association (LA Chapter) for the last four years. It keeps me going AND growing!

4. Obtain objective measures of quality. The Radiation Oncology Department at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Penn maintains a very active patient satisfaction survey and regularly reviews results. How active is yours?

5. Become an advocate for change. The top companies are ever mindful of how advanced technology serves their strategy. Are you?

6. Conduct small experiments. Ask your team members to try novel approaches to improve operations. Then conduct after action reviews.

7. Ask more questions. Listen more than you talk during one-on-one and staff meetings. Broadcasting is not communicating.

8. Find a coach or mentor. Be willing to look at issues from multiple perspectives by asking for diverse opinions. When I was conducting research at University of CA –San Diego, I learned a great deal from a few mentors.

9. Actively solicit feedback. Complete a research-based 360 assessment (e.g., ) in order to lead with your strengths and manage your weaknesses.

10. Try something new every day. Drive to work a different way, change the drawers in your dresser, go to the theater or symphony instead of the movies, brush your teeth with your less dominant hand...

Meanwhile, back at my local YMCA… how did I handle my change? After licking my wounds for several days and realizing Jack was not going to change his mind about my responsibilities, I approached Don, the director of physical education at the same YMCA. I asked him if he had any open positions. He said yes and I went to work for Don the next day. I continued my professional growth under Don and his able successor until I left home for graduate school.

Popular speaker and author Zig Ziglar recently told me, “I wasn’t much of a student in school, but I sure became a good one after school.” What kind of a student are you?

I encourage you to improve your leadership learning by developing your learning agility. Which of these ideas will you try?

Keep eXpanding,


P.S. Read a great article about how my research on 171,000 leaders can help you be an eXtraordinary leader; click on the link below (or paste it into your browser)

  1. Cited in Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger, The Leadership Machine, 2002, page 165.
  2. Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo: Learning Agility as a Prime Indicator of Potential, Human Resource Planning, December 01, 20004, 12 -- 15.
  3. Lawrence Clark: Wanted: fully engaged, learning-agile people, People & Strategy, December 1, 2008.

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