Today’s training industry knows that the most powerful source of leadership development is “learning by doing.” Instead of absorbing information in the classroom, emerging leaders build critical knowledge, skills and relationships in the crucible of live action. As this approach has become more accepted, corporate training organizations have supplemented traditional workshops and seminars with a variety of real-time learning laboratories and project-based experiences, where leaders intentionally work on stretch assignments on their own, in teams or as part of a strategic initiative. Participating leaders then reflect on these experiences and work with trainers, mentors or coaches to extract learning and incorporate it into their ongoing leadership approach.

Learning Needs to be Focused.

The only problem with learning by doing is that it’s not always clear what leaders are meant to learn. Gaining some tangible results is fantastic, but without parallel articulation and prioritization of what they should be doing differently, the gain is random, and the chance of sustaining and replicating the new skills is limited.

The best way to make sure that learning is intentional and focused is to view the experience through the lens of six fundamental leadership practices, which we uncovered through our research for “The Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook”:

  1. Building a unifying vision: setting out broad goals and a picture of success that can excite, and even inspire, people to work together – and to achieve something that they wouldn’t be able to do by themselves
  2. Translating the vision into a strategy: creating and integrating a coordinated set of actions based on choices about what to do, and not to do, and how best to allocate time and resources
  3. Getting great people on board to execute the strategy: recruiting, engaging and developing the best possible talent, as individuals and teams and also meet their expectations for growth, reward and relationships
  4. Achieving results: creating the demands, disciplines and accountabilities necessary for continual high performance
  5. Innovating for the future: keeping an eye on both the present and future simultaneously so that the organization can creatively keep pace with changes in markets and the industry and stay ahead of competitors
  6. Leading yourself: continually investing in themselves as leaders in order to build on their strengths, offset their weaknesses and thrive as human beings

These practices are co-dependent and largely overlapping in actual work, as shown in the diagram below. They are developed in parallel, in different situations, sometimes emphasizing one more than others. Ultimately, good leaders must develop their abilities and keep making progress on all six. In fact, we call them leadership “practices,” because leaders need to keep practicing them over the course of their careers.

6 leadership practices

The Six Practices as a Lens for Learning

If learning professionals use these fundamental practices as a backdrop for any and all on-the-job learning, they can help guide leaders in their development. Here’s how.

First, you can use the six practices to help leaders organize their personal learning agendas whenever they start a new project or begin a new position (which is also learning through doing) in the company. For example, when a senior business leader was promoted to head a division, she realized that she would need to develop more “strategy chops.” She then made a conscious effort to learn how to build a disciplined strategic planning process during her first several months.

Another idea is to map the practices to the key performance challenges of the project or new position to help the leader identify where he or she might need help. One leader, for example, took on the job of shifting his company’s services from analog to digital. One of the keys for making this change happen was to retrain existing product managers or, as a last resort, replace them with more digitally-savvy people – which is part of the practice of getting great people on board. Knowing that he was not a digital native himself, the leader hired a “fellow” to teach him how to understand digital and then replicated this approach with other product managers as a way to strengthen the team’s capabilities without having to fire anyone.

If you are the head of a learning function, you also can use the six practices to structure and unify the work of the executive coaches at your company. Often, coaches work with their clients in isolation, without looking for ways to leverage learning across multiple executives. By asking all of the coaches to identify aspects of the practices that they are focusing on, you can find patterns. In one company, for instance, a number of coaches all reported that they were helping their clients give tough performance feedback, an element of the “driving for results” practice. The learning team then developed some webinars and work sessions on that subject for all of those executives to participate in.

A fourth possibility is to use the six practices to develop a company-specific body of case examples and personal stories for emerging leaders to exchange and discuss with one another or with colleagues in other organizations (e.g., using a “community of practice” approach). The learning function could also use them in other workshops and classes. The six practices provide a way of organizing these cases so that others can access their lessons.

Learning through experience is a critical approach to leadership development. To make it as impactful as possible, learning professionals should work with leaders to be intentional about what practices they are trying to strengthen.