How to Accelerate Your Growth as a Leader (and Use Science to Do It)

I was planning to drive my youngest son Casey to Winthrop University in South Carolina last month for the start of his freshman year. That is, until one Sunday evening about a week before we were set to leave, when he told me he wasn’t comfortable moving to campus. Casey’s concerns were understandable: Universities that had opened were already reporting outbreaks of COVID-19 and, in many cases students were being sent home. 

 “I’m pretty sure I can opt out of in-person classes and work the entire semester virtually,” he told me.  

“If that’s what you want, I support you,” I said. “Now you need to figure out how to make it happen.” 

He agreed and immediately got to work. First, he needed to ensure that it was even possible for him to switch to virtual. Several calls later, he determined it was. Next, Casey spent two days emailing and calling university officials to navigate his way through the less-than-straightforward process to unwind his on-campus semester—from course re-registration to housing.

 Just 48 hours after our initial conversation, he had completed the entire process to become virtual for his first semester, including cancelling his housing contract—which was the final step. 

I was proud of him and made sure he knew it. “When you start college,” I said, “you think your education comes from attending lectures and reading books. But in reality, the most profound growth occurs when you do things like you just did and learn how to make the world bend to accommodate what you want.” 

This process was a major milestone for Casey, as he experienced the most powerful kind of education there is: applied learning. 

Learning for Leaders

Like my son, many of the CEOs and business leaders I encounter are unaware of the sources of their most valuable learning. They focus almost exclusively on data transfer—a mode of learning that supports the absorption of information via books, seminars, conferences, and the like.

The problem is, data transfer isn’t at all effective to build skills. 

For example, you’d never expect a six-year-old child to watch a video about how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle, then hop on their bike having already mastered the skill!

Data transfer is far from the totality of how we learn and quite removed from the reality of how we receive and internalize our most valuable and enduring lessons. 

So how do leaders accelerate developing skill-based capabilities such as decision-making, leading, planning, communicating, creating accountability, coaching, and team building. 

Experiential Learning

To unpack how we really learn, let’s begin with David Kolb, an educational theorist who developed Experiential Learning Theory. Kolb’s widely accepted theory posits that all learning occurs through the following four-stage cycle: 

  • Concrete experience: You do or encounter something new.
  • Reflective observation: You consider any inconsistencies between your previous understanding of a concept and insights brought on by that new experience.
  • Abstract conceptualization: You come up with new ideas or revise previous considerations based on the experience and your reflection on it.
  • Active experimentation: You test out strategies and evaluate the results.

Learning only takes place when all four stages of the cycle occur. As such, the “doing” portion of the cycle—or active experimentation—is an essential ingredient. It’s how you learned to walk, ride a bike (without video instruction), be a parent, and run your company.  

It’s also how you’ll grow yourself to be an even better business leader. 

Doing via Deliberate Practice 

The best “doers” out there—those who make it to the very top of their field—get there through deliberate practice. This term, coined by psychologists Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer who researched how experts become “expert,” is defined as “effortful activity designed to optimize improvement.” Their data identified deliberate practice, rather than innate talent, as the primary accelerant of an individual’s learning and expertise. 

Deliberate practice requires three conditions:

●   Motivation to stretch one’s capabilities

●   Extreme repetition

●   Flow of feedback 

American professional basketball legend Larry Bird was an excellent example of deliberate practice in action, as he would not leave the practice floor until he shot one hundred free throws in a row, of which more than ninety usually went in. Bird was already at the top of his game but insisted on keeping himself in the learning zone. Making 90+ of 100 shots required intense repetition, and from every shot he made or missed, he gleaned a bit of feedback and learned something important about his technique. 

By the way, if you are able to ride a bike, you learned that skill via deliberate practice: You wanted to succeed and be more like the “big kids” (motivation), you tried over and over and over (extreme repetition), and you certainly had a constant flow of feedback, likely from a parent and from your own experience during each attempt (along with the occasional skinned elbow).

These examples illustrate something vital about how you should be learning as leader: Move beyond data transfer and also incorporate deliberate practice.

Consider: What leadership skill do you most need to develop through deliberate practice?

Failure Matters

Nothing worthwhile is completely free of effort or some degree of discomfort. Whether it’s your ego (and perhaps the voice in your head), struggling to grasp a concept, frustration, freezing when you need to perform, or even feeling physical pain from a wipeout, there’s always a price to pay for meaningful learning. Each of these is a form of failure or system breakdown that is a prerequisite to advancement.

If you aren’t able to frame failure as an integral part of how you learn and improve, you’ll constrain your thinking and actions to within your comfort zone. Progress will be slow and inchingly incremental at best or, more likely, you’ll get frustrated and quit altogether. As psychologist and author Carol Dweck outlines in her book Mindset, this is the domain of those with a Fixed Mindset.

On the other hand, according to Dweck, those with a Growth Mindset view failure as feedback and, therefore, an essential part of the learning process. And we already know that a constant flow of feedback is one of the three critical elements defining deliberate practice.

So if you’re not failing, you’re not really learning.

Consider: Where do you need to take additional risks and fail more to accelerate your learning?

Applied Learning for Leaders

I’ve never observed a business in which the sustained growth rate of the company exceeded the personal growth rate of the people running it, so the stakes are high to get this right.

The key to accelerating your growth is to acknowledge and balance all three modes of learning:

●  Data transfer, which occurs when you read a book, attend a conference, or watch a TED Talk, for example.

●  Experiential learning: thinking or talking more deeply about a problem, solution, or new idea.

●  Doing via deliberate practice to build expertise. 

Each learning mode requires different actions and yields different benefits. To illustrate, here’s a condensed behind-the-scenes look into how I incorporate all of them into a full-day quarterly client executive team meeting:

Data Transfer: There is always a learning segment in the form of something to read or watch, an opportunity to discuss it, and a chance to commit to act. Since this is a relatively passive element of the meeting, we schedule this during our lunch together. 

Experiential Learning: We allocate a significant block of time—typically 4+ hours—for deep thinking about strategy, opportunities, challenges, and people. This is non-tactical, expansive, and the highest value use of the leadership team’s time together.

Deliberate Practice: The team learns by doing as they debate, create constructive conflict, experiment, and plan throughout the day. I provide a constant flow of feedback and guidance to keep them productive, on track, and improving—as individual leaders and collectively as a team.

Like I do for my coaching clients, be sure to consciously allocate time and space for all three learning modes. They will not just happen on their own!

Consider:

What should your team be reading, watching, and sharing? 

What topics or opportunities require more time and deeper thinking? 

How can you add more experimentation—or doing—to your learning processes?

Who, What, How, Now. 

As you contemplate implementing the ideas I’ve presented, I’d like to leave you with a simple four-step process to follow:

1.  Identify who first. Who is best positioned to support each of the three learning modes for you and your team? It could be one person, like a coach, or three distinct individuals—each with expertise in a specific area.

2.  When you have your who (or who’s,as the case may be) identified, collaborate with them to consider what you should be doing to accelerate your learning. Once the elements of what you will do are clarified…

3.  Next define how exactly you’ll go about activating them. 

4.  Now get started.

You’ll be on your way to accelerate your growth as a leader and to better bend the world to meet your desires!

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Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Accelerated Learning: Learn Faster and Remember More (FS Blog)

“The greatest enemy of learning is what you think you know. When you think you know something, learning something new means you might have to change your mind, so it’s easy to think there’s no room for new ideas. But not wanting to change your mind will keep you stuck in the same place. Overcoming our egos can be one of the big challenges of learning. Therefore, being willing to admit when you’re wrong and adjust your thinking is the thing that will help you learn the most. The first step to learning is recognizing your ignorance and deciding to do something about it…”

How to Hire a Coach (Mark’s Blog)

“You make decisions every day based on some degree of incomplete information – you simply do the best with what you have and move forward. You are able to function this way because you possess deep knowledge and context of the day-to-day operation of your business.

Hiring a coach isn’t a day-to-day decision for you. In fact, it might be a once in a lifetime decision for you! And a risky one at that: You are contemplating a potentially large investment of money, time and energy that will also require a leap of faith.

There are six factors that I’ve consistently observed to separate “cream of the crop” coaches from the rest. Use them to tip the scales in your favor to find the “right” coach for your business…”

Why Success Won’t Make You Happy (The Atlantic)

“Imagine reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Booze.” You would likely expect a depressing story about a person in a downward alcoholic spiral. Now imagine instead reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Success.” That would be an inspiring story, wouldn’t it?

Maybe—but maybe not. It might well be the story of someone whose never-ending quest for more and more success leaves them perpetually unsatisfied and incapable of happiness…”

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Want More? Consider These Next Steps…