Experiential learning: On-the-job training at its best

Plus, six attributes that good managers have.

Professional development in most organizations usually means classwork, whether it be in a conference room, off-site, or online. Training is discrete, tangible, and periodic.

But we all know from experience that the dominant training happens every minute of every day in the workplace; it’s the day-to-day interactions we have with our bosses, first and foremost, that influence us and shape the kind of behaviors we believe the company values.

This is called experiential learning. Yet most companies don’t pay adequate attention to it, despite its extraordinary impact on the enterprise. At the risk of simplifying the concept, it’s all about "the manager." And that means literally anyone who manages someone, regardless of level.

This one column can’t cover the whole category, but I thought it might be valuable to offer some experiential learning management tips.

First, demand more and give back more. Have a high bar for your performance standards. Demand critical personal attributes such as intellectual curiosity, business literacy, collegiality, peer support, and accountability, in addition to core technical skills.

How do you nurture these attributes? Hold discussions, both formal and informal, about business performance, competitive issues, cross-functional projects that worked well due to adaptable leadership, and so on. Demand your staff rise to the challenge and understand the business. They’ll learn core values of the enterprise and witness behaviors they’ll need to model.

In exchange for this, managers must also give back more. They must be deeply involved with their staff about career guidance. Org charts and job descriptions are changing rapidly; help your people make sense of all this and help them imagine a range of career growth trajectories.

Provide real-time feedback. I’ve written on this before. It sounds so simple but it’s done too infrequently. The more often feedback, both positive and negative, is given in real-time, the less intense each conversation is. That’s good. Feedback should be when it happens, not weeks or months later. Virtually everyone says they want to learn from their experiences; good managers must rise to the occasion and assure that. Do not be conflict averse; view these conversations as opportunities.

Offer key staffers stretch assignments beyond their core responsibility. In so doing, help to enhance their own profile and visibility in the corporation. This is all part of the quid pro quo surrounding "demand more, give back more."

There are certain attributes good managers tend to have, and if you manage a manager, you might consider these:

Relationship-oriented…
Are they genuine in building teams and committed to each other’s personal and professional growth? Good managers are committed to their teams and their teams’ success.

Open-minded…
Everyone at every level wants to be heard; are your managers good listeners and facilitators?

Confident…
It takes confidence to lead, but it also takes confidence to acknowledge mistakes or to defer to someone else’s idea. Most strong managers have a healthy level of self-confidence that falls well short of arrogance. Insecure people are rarely good managers.

Courageous…
Efforts that stand out each year usually take a certain amount of courage to initiate. It could be an unusually creative idea, it could be assigning responsibility to someone previously not considered, and so forth. Good managers have the courage to "think new" and drive the effort forward.

Creates trust…
People love to say things like, "it’s okay to fail" or "I really want your feedback," but they don’t always mean that. High-performance organizations usually have a strong foundation of trust among the team members. You need to carefully and consistently nurture that and measure it. Without it, little else works.

Be humble…
We all may have healthy egos, but strong managers take pride in the success of others. Their own persona often skews a touch modest.

Outside professional development is vitally important for most organizations in order to provide opportunities for executive learning beyond the company’s own walls. But the majority of learning happens during the course of every day in the most routine of interactions. Those companies that recognize this, and invest in continuous manager improvement, will see the most dramatic improvement in enterprise management skills.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com.

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