Using the Company as the Classroom

Job assignments that provide the critical lessons managers and executives need to be successful may be more valuable than formal training

It's true, experience really is the best teacher. Research from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) strongly supports the conventional wisdom that people learn by doing. Yet when it comes to education planning, companies often put the emphasis on formal training courses as the means to build skills. Companies devote a large percentage of their teaching resources to training courses.

In 2006 alone, U.S. organizations spent an estimated $129 billion on employee learning, according to the American Society for Training and Development. Despite this investment, the reality is that training and coursework account for only a small percentage—around 10%, according to the CCL studies—of the knowledge that managers and executives need in order to develop critical skills.

How does the rest of the learning happen? The short answer for how people best develop skills is: jobs. CCL reports that about 70% of a person's development happens through challenging and, in many cases, first-time job assignments. The important lessons a person learns typically happen when they're forced to move out of their comfort zone. There must be something at stake: Success or failure must depend on the individual's ability to learn something new. Successful executives often report that a boss in their past practically forced them to take a "scary" job assignment they wanted to turn down. That assignment ended up being the most valuable for their development.

Jobs as Opportunities for Learning

Repetition of skills is not the same as development. For a job to be developmental, it has to be more than just a straight-line promotion. It is not enough for the job to be new, it has to be an assignment where the person does not have all the necessary tools at the outset. Instead, he must stretch his current skill set and expend a lot of effort in order to succeed. Development is a "demand-pull": The demands of the job pull the person to develop new skills and not just rely on successful habits of the past.

Even across different industries, some jobs tend to be more developmentally useful than others. These jobs are high-impact, high-risk, and, as a result, provide great opportunities for learning. Examples of what CCL found to be the best developmental jobs, and some of the skills they help build, are listed here:

1. Change Manager: A change manager leads an important effort to change or implement something of significance, such as restructuring a business or leading the cultural integration of an acquisition. Managing complex change develops the ability to motivate others and deal with ambiguity.

2. Turnaround/Fix-it: Here the job is about the last chance to clean up a mess; usually accompanied by serious people issues and morale problems. Fix-its build both strategic and conflict-management skills.

3. Startups: With startup assignments, the person is starting something new, whether it involves building a team or creating new systems, facilities, or products. Startup assignments teach innovation and skills for identifying vision and values (visioning).

4. Staff-to-Line or Line-to-Staff Shifts: Moving from a staff assignment to a job with an easily determined bottom line builds business acumen and planning skills. Shifting from line responsibility to a highly visible staff function develops organizational agility and personal adaptability.

5. International Assignments: These are defined as first-time assignments of a year or more outside the leader's home country. An international job assignment usually involves new language, new business rules, and different cultural norms. These assignments teach perspective and interpersonal savvy.

6. Member of Projects/Task Forces: While much of the work in today's flatter organizations can be classified as project work, this type of job assignment specifically relates to membership in a group with an important and specific goal, working with a high-visibility sponsor on a tight deadline. Here, workers develop problem-solving and priority-setting skills.

7. Significant People Demands: A sizable increase in either the number of people managed or the complexity of people-challenges characterize this job. To achieve results, the leader must increase skill level in people-management competencies such as delegation, managing and measuring work, and informing.

The lessons and experiences found in these types of jobs build skills across many key competencies and equip managers and executives for future success. Starting with these as a baseline, organizations can determine which jobs offer the most developmental horsepower for their particular business, considering criteria like a) what the job requires and will therefore teach in the way of skills; b) what the person can learn about the business; and c) what new challenges the job will provide.

Once identified, these are the jobs that should take center stage in the development planning process. By channeling some of the development resources earmarked for training to a focused job assignment strategy, organizations will get real work done and do right by their leaders by providing them opportunities to develop differentiating skills. Only by using the company as the classroom can average leaders become legendary.