How I’ve Learned to Develop Leaders

Every once in a while I’ll get a question from a reader, co-worker, or student about how to break into the leadership development field. The reality is, it’s not really an entry level profession, and there’s no one right way to get there.

The leadership development profession includes trainers, coaches, HR generalists, managers, authors, speakers, preachers, and every combination of these. They have degrees in management, organizational development, human resource development, psychology, education, and engineering. Some have certification… some don’t.

So while I don’t have a good answer on how to break into the field, I can look back and share how I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about leadership development. I believe these could be repeatable learning experiences for someone just getting started.

In no particular order:

1. Study real leaders
From the day we play our first sport or join our first organized activity, we are surrounded by opportunities to study leadership and management. We learn from all of those good and bad examples. It’s a numbers thing – the more of them we are exposed to, the more we learn. I started out training first level supervisors – blue collar foreman, nuclear engineers, and accountants – so in the course of just a few years, I was exposed to hundreds of new supervisors from all walks of life.
However, the “studying” needs to be intentional – it won’t just happen by osmosis.
You have to be rampantly curious about what makes great leaders tick – their skills, values, experiences, career paths, styles, etc….
More importantly, you have to be an investigative reporter to find out how they got to where they are. You begin to see patterns on how the good ones develop, and the bad ones don’t. Those patterns can then be replicated for others to follow or avoid.

2. Learn from the real “gurus”
Fortunately, there are already a lot of people out there that have already had all this experience and studying. When you can fit what you seeing and hearing into already discovered best practice frameworks, it all starts to come together and make sense. You develop a proven framework and toolkit.
For my money, the most credible source on leadership development is
The Center for Creative Leadership. They have the best research, models, theories, publications, and programs. No one else comes close, and those that do, tend to have roots that go back to CCL.
To be fair, there are others…. Dave Ulrich, Noel Tichy, Marshall Goldsmith, Morgan McCall, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, and way too many others to mention. I’ve accumulated over 200 books on leadership development, and am constantly looking things up and re-reading them. Good practice based on research is timeless, unlike some of the fads the charlatans peddle.

3. Learn from fellow practitioners
When you work for a big company, chances are, there will be others involved in leadership development that you can learn from. I’ve learned from my managers, peers, and employees. One of my favorite former managers now runs an executive development practice at Monitor. Another ran leadership development programs at GE, considered the best at leadership development.
There’s also lot’s of opportunities to learn from others outside of your organization. I’ve gone to a lot of great conferences and networking events, and am always looking for new opportunities to maintain an external perspective.
That’s one of the reasons I blog… I learn as much as I share. It’s a way to connect with others from around the world that are as passionate about this stuff as I am.

4. Don’t just buy products and services; buy capability
I lot of what I learned came from external suppliers, consultants, and coaches. I suppose this is a combination of learning from experts and other practitioners, but worth calling out separately. I’m thinking more of those that I have hired to do work or provide products for the various companies I’ve worked for. In my early days, I did this a lot, because quite frankly, I didn’t know a whole lot about anything. Each time I did, I tried to soak up as much as I could during certifications and project work. Most were very generous about transferring their capabilities.
Some of the best I’ve learned from are DDI, PDI, Lominger, and a lot of small, niche consultants and coaches.

5. Stay in “school”
There are some good degree programs in this field (HRD, OD,), but that’s not where I’d recommend starting. First get a few years of experience, then the degree.
In addition to at least a Masters, and perhaps a PhD, I’d recommend attending as many university-based executive development programs as possible. Michigan, USC, and Harvard all have deep expertise in leadership development, as well as CCL.

6. Trail and error.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked at companies that have given me a lot of freedom to innovate, take risks, and screw up now and then. I love to tinker with the system, test new ideas, and add to my toolbox. I’ve always considered a 1/3 adoption rate a pretty good batting average.
Earlier in my career I fell for my share of fads and wacky ideas. Now, while I still like to think I’m open to possibilities, I’ll make sure anything new I try is based on research, tested, reference checked, and evaluated.

So while that’s what’s worked for me so far, I realize my experience is limited and there still is lot’s more to learn.

For those of you in the field, what’s worked from you? Where have you learned the most about leadership development, and what advice could you share for someone just getting started?