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For best results, apply through experience

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While on-the-job learning is undoubtedly the most effective form of building knowledge, this doesn’t always happen automatically. Learn how to use experience as a leadership engine.

Inspirational leader Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Knowledge gained through experience is far superior and many times more useful than bookish knowledge.” How applicable this is when it comes to developing leaders at work.

Leadership is best learned from experience, as we know from decades of research. In fact, leaders have consistently identified on-the-job assignments as a major source of development, hence, so many of them follow the 70-20-10 framework where 70% of learning occurs on-the-job.

However, learning from experience is not always automatic. The key to maximising on-the-job opportunities that prepare leaders, develop employees, and advance business goals lies in making experience-driven leader development intentional. What this requires leaders to do is to enter into every experience with a plan – and leave with an understanding of what they are gaining from their experience, what is missing and how to fill any gaps. When channelled effectively, such everyday experiences can be transformed into an engine for leader development.

Learning from experience is a continuous career-long process. Persevere and you will find cumulative returns over time for you, and by extension, for your organisation.

A new lens: Build, broaden, benefit
It was to fulfil this need that the return-on-experience (ROE) framework was developed in partnership with thousands of executives. Rather than assuming work will automatically teach them what they need to know, the ROE mindset helps learners strengthen their ability to learn and develop important skills on the job.

Build: Heightening mastery

Author Malcolm Gladwell famously said that devoting 10,000 hours to a subject will make you a standout expert in that field. For HR leaders, that means seeking experiences that stretch their capabilities through strategic assignments, job rotations and action-learning projects. At GE, for example, the action-learning process requires managers to contribute ideas to build the business, and then work in teams to implement the ideas.

Broaden: Increasing versatility

While mastery represents a move toward depth of expertise, versatility represents a move toward breadth of capacity, that is, expanding your repertoire of skills. Think mentorship roles, cross-functional projects, working with vendors, management of geographically dispersed teams, and more.

Benefit: Enhancing impact

As the saying goes, the true measure of learning is one’s ability to apply it. To create impact and show a return on a leader’s experience, learning must be transferable to different situations and people through the application of the lessons learned and new knowledge to others.

For a transfer of learning to happen, there must first be a period of facilitated reflection to make sense of and assimilate the learning. This must be followed by a just-in-time process of knowledge capture to codify the lessons learnt; concluding with a method of dissemination for the lessons to be communicated across the organisation.

Learning from experience is a continuous career-long process. Persevere and you will find cumulative returns over time for you, and by extension, for your organisation.

By using the return-on-experience framework, you have at your fingertips a systematic, easy-to-implement way to get the learning you and your team need as you spend your hours on the job.


Reference / Return on experience: Learning leadership at work, by Jeffrey Yip. The Center for Creative Leadership.

[READ MORE] Future-ready toolkit: CHRO 3.0
Brought to you by Center for Creative Leadership and Human Resources

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