Learn from experience and others

We live in a world of rapid disruption. For many in the talent arena, a myriad of changes are constantly occurring. We play a variety of roles, so the change may affect what we do, like moving from designing content to facilitating learning experiences, or maybe it’s an internal transformation and your projects change. Other times, you can switch teams to become a Business Learning Advisor for a division. And other times, you play a similar role, but with a different organization.

To accompany change, new skills are needed to learn something new and learn more about a current skill. With all the options available for learning, there are plenty of ways to achieve this. You can take the traditional route, such as training courses, or the non-traditional route, such as the lattice career path or rotational assignments.

One area that needs constant attention, no matter what role or where we work, is leadership. In the recent Closing the skills gap report, 53% of talent development professionals reported a lack of leadership skills.

To develop leadership acumen, it is essential to understand who we are, how we learn and the impact we have on others. Creating self-awareness involves understanding the forces that have shaped and informed us. One technique for gaining this understanding is to reflect, write, and record the lessons you have learned from your personal experiences and from others.

You may have heard the quote from Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I think.” The purpose of this journaling activity is to document some of the ah-ha! moments in your life and document what you learned from them.

The trick is not just to capture a few, but to intentionally write 50 unique episodes. Why so much? The amount makes you push your thinking. Also, remembering so much takes time, and most likely those memories will resurface during unrelated activities, like when you’re hiking or driving.

To start, think of a few ah-ha! times when you learned a life lesson. It can be something you have experienced, read or heard. One of my favorite stories related to this type of activity is that of Bill Treasurer in his book Leaders open doors. Her five-year-old son was delighted to have been chosen by the teacher to lead the day. When Bill asked him what he was doing in this role, the child exclaimed: “I have to open doors for people!” That’s what leaders do.

Think about what you have learned from your many experiences, parents, teachers, coaches, friends, colleagues, bosses and opinion leaders. As you remember, keep a list with as much detail as time allows. Whether you learn from personal experiences or from others, the method of documentation is the same, but they are two unique activities. However, you can have both activities at the same time.

When you have more than one, expand your notes to document the lessons you learned from those experiences and who you learned them from, if any. Write in such a way that these episodes can be easily expanded upon and detailed in future blogs, presentations, or stories.

Example of a list of lessons learned from personal experiences:

Course Role and context
Impact of focusing on behaviors and actions, especially when giving feedback As a project manager for managers, I used the assessment center methodology to assess young leaders.
Focus on results, but with a deep understanding of the people and processes needed for success Serving as a reviewer for the National Baldrige Award Program required extensive practice in both evaluating a case study and writing actionable comments related to the standard criteria.
Creativity is not easy but can be learned. In a leadership class, we were given a tea bag and challenged to write down as many ways as possible to use it. Surprised at what I thought and the variety of ideas in the small group.
Perseverance through many ups and downs I took on big projects and brought them to fruition. Coordinating and leading a visit to the Baldrige site.

A sample list of what you have learned from others:

Course Person and context
Supporting others is not doing their job. “I will do everything I know how to help you Do your work.” Quote used by a colleague in learning: When we help others, our role is not to do their work for them, but to support their efforts with questions, coaching, suggestions and feedback.
Always pilot a new project with a group of “friends” interested in making it a success. Suggestion from a colleague during a pilot project: “Friendlies” will be more receptive to a new idea or a new process. They might also be more likely to ask questions that think differently about success rather than just being judgmental. Basically, it will be easier.
End meetings on a light note. Action from former boss: Staff meetings can be contentious or demanding. A boss always ended meetings with a funny question. It would make everyone laugh on the way out.
“First Things First” ensures that you start with the highest priority. Stephen Covey used the example of filling the jar to emphasize the need to start with the big rocks and continue to fill with smaller rocks, pebbles and even sand.

Once you have your list of 50, review it to determine how you could use the lessons to develop and support those you lead. How could you flesh them out with more detail? How have you used these lessons to develop your personal skills?

The benefits of this project are numerous. First and foremost, it documents many of your accomplishments, and therefore your strengths. Using personal lessons learned in stories, blogs, interviews and facilitation is a valuable way to help others learn. Second, some of your examples will document painful experiences where things didn’t go as planned. Reflecting on and evaluating how you learned through pain can help you empathize with others. Finally, it is an interesting exercise, because it reveals all that you learn not only from your daily experiences but also from others.

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