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© 2018 by nicholas petrie, llc

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  • nicholas petrie

Part III: The Price of Development – Uncomfortable Heat Experiences

Updated: Sep 21, 2018



Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every object continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change that state by external forces acted upon it.

Could just as easily be:

Petrie’s First law of Leadership Development: Every leader continues in his state of rest, or in the habitual direction he was heading, unless compelled to change that state by external forces acted upon him.

The easiest thing for me these days is to deliver standard CCL programs. I have done them many times, I know what works and how to get good feedback. The problem is I don’t grow when I do them. Three weeks ago I had one of my hardest weeks since joining C.C.L. I took a challenging topic, developed all new content, new videos, new simulations and ran it with a group of very smart, driven executives. It had all the ingredients of a heat experience: results mattered, people were watching, there was a chance of success or failure and it was a first time experience.Two things happened as a result; first, we gave the executives a customized program that was targeted at exactly their biggest challenges. Second, I learned more from that experience than any other program I have done in last 3 years. It was uncomfortable. But that is how development works.

It was a real time reminder that it’s not good enough just to write about development, I need to seek the heat.

Which takes me to the second ingredient of vertical leadership development – Heat Experiences. These are those uncomfortable experiences that we try to avoid in life, but look back on later and say, ‘That was my time of greatest growth’. Smart organizations aren’t haphazard about this…… they orchestrate heat experiences.

Based on my research, here are three of my favorite examples for how they (and you) can do this:

1) Give assignments to the least qualified person This one from Google – shouldn’t we be giving assignments to the most qualified person? Not if you want leaders to grow. Google’s director of leadership, David Peterson told me that we usually give assignments to the most overqualified person who will by definition learn the least. His belief is that organizations should give it to the least qualified person since he is the person who will grow the most from the experience. Let’s be clear, you don’t give it to an unqualified person; that would be mad. You give it to the person who could do the assignment but will have to grow the most to succeed. This requires that an organization take on a longer-term growth mindset rather than a short-term task one. Most organizations refuse to do this, which is a huge advantage for the ones that do. Key Design Lesson: Encourage leaders to search out assignments that they can only succeed at if they grow significantly. Invite senior executives to debate to what extent we should staff for development vs. staff for task success. This flushes out the hidden beliefs driving the organization and whether they agree or not, you’ll discover to what extent they really believe in developing their people.

2) Case Studies vs. The Case in Point Most leadership programs have too much comfort and not enough heat. The Case in Point method popularized by Ronald Heifitz at Harvard puts smart, task focused leaders in a workshop with no prescribed goal, no structure and no authority figure to tell them what to do – “You are the leaders, begin”. Chaos ensues as participants realize that to make sense of their situation they must speak up, find partners and work through conflicting agendas in the room. A big aha for many people is that being an authority figure has nothing to do with being a leader (“Why isn’t anyone listening to me, I’m V.P. of sales!”). Participants harvest the learning through journaling, small group dialogues and speaking with a mentor. Tim O’Brien points out that much of the learning occurs as leaders learn how to lead when no one has to follow you – which is exactly what is needed in the modern workplace. For more see http://bit.ly/1stDDA5 Key Design Lesson: Create experiences that produce ambiguity, uncertainty and confusion for leaders, not comfort. This is also very uncomfortable for facilitators who will almost certainly be blamed for the confusion. But for development to occur ‘trainers’ must learn to shut up and step aside; it’s not about you.

3) Fail at Complex Assignments, Rather Than Succeed at Simple Ones 30 years of C.C.L. research shows that leaders rate their greatest development as coming from difficult experiences. The most recent C.C.L. study of leaders around the world identified four big developmental experiences : 1) Increase in scope: You were managing 15 people; you’re now managing 150. 2) Turnaround: You are asked to urgently fix an underperforming business unit with low morale 3) Horizontal move: You did a great job in H.R., so you’ve now been ‘promoted’ to operations 4) New initiative: You’ve lived in the West all your life and now you’ve been asked to open and grow an office in China

All of these challenges carry a healthy chance of failure. How does your organization view leaders who fail on tough assignments? Most organizations create a culture that encourages people to opt for high success/ zero learning projects rather than guaranteed growth/ some chance of failure projects. This is a recipe for organizational stagnation. To succeed organizations need to turn around their culture by aligning talent and rewards systems with a culture that encourages smart risk-taking and doesn’t punish people for daring and failing in the pursuit of growth. Key Design Lesson: In trainings for hi-potentials, ask respected senior executives to tell the story of their greatest ‘failures’; what they learned from them and how this experience helped them succeed in their career. This reminds both the executives and the hi-po’s that price of long term success is experiencing and learning from failures. We all hate failure but in the end it is the price you pay for success.

People don’t grow because they like to, they grow because they have to. Do the leaders you work with experience enough developmental heat? Do you?