Learn by experience

N°203b – Synopsis (8p.) – Learning
Learn by experience
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Conventional training, whether educational or continuous, only accounts for 10% of leaders’ learnings. They learn most from field experience. How can we make the most of such experience?

Leaders learn 70 percent of their professional skills from experience, as measured by the Center for Creative Leadership. The ability to learn from each situation one encounters is thus the primary factor in the development of leadership performance. Interviewed in the article “I Think of My Failures As a Gift,” the former chairman of Procter & Gamble, A.G. Lafley, even describes this aptitude as a prerequisite for the survival of business leaders: “It's Darwin's theory. When you stop learning, you stop developing and you stop growing. That's the end of a leader.”

Leadership skill development is thus largely dependent on the ability of the concerned individuals to analyze experienced events with clarity and learn from them. We must ask ourselves: Whether things turned out well or badly, where did we go right or wrong? What were the influential factors? What could we or should we have done differently? This sort of careful analysis can turn every experience into a springboard to help us cope with future situations more effectively.

However, it is very difficult to benefit fully from our experience. Indeed, there is nothing natural about learning in the heat of action, quite to the contrary. We reflexively tend to focus on moving forward and avoid potentially paralyzing soul-searching and questions. Our natural self-protection mechanisms also lead us to erroneous interpretations. For example, if we make a mistake, but luck still goes our way, we tend to consider that the success is our doing. Unless we make a deliberate effort to structure the learning process, we may very well learn the wrong lessons from our experience.

Learning from experience thus requires a methodological approach and persistence, to withstand not only the pressure to move forward quickly, which prevents us from putting our experiences into perspective, but also the psychological biases that lead to erroneous conclusions. Still, experiential learning is probably the most fundamental discipline for ensuring the lasting success of a manager or a leader.

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