The Compelling Case for More Targeted Developmental Assignments

Morgan McCall of USC recently spoke at our Thought Leader Series on “Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent”. The session was based on research about assignments that contribute to developing leaders.  While at CCL, he published High Flyers, where he identified specific assignments and learnings leaders would get from them. This sounds like common sense, but was viewed as a step forward in leadership development.   Research results fit “The 70/20/10 Learning Model” (Mike Lombardo- CCL).  It shows 70% of individual learning from direct experience, 20% from others (managers, peers, etc.) and 10% from education and training.  This strategy supports the 70% of learning from direct experience.  Assignments have high impact when they address a leaders’ development gaps; more so when supervised by a manager with a leader development reputation.   Leaders with cross functional/cross boundary experience view things more strategically than those lacking that experience.  This skill enables General Managers to better understand the organizational effects of single events. It requires a broad organizational perspective, which targeted assignments provide. With this much value – learning from targeted experiences, why is its use limited?  Some reasons:  Rotational new location assignments are expensive, especially international ones.  Dr. Edward Lawler of USC claims removing a global general manager costs up to 5 million dollars. Relocation costs and impact on school age children also limit their use. And some organizations are unwilling to transfer talented performers.  Many division managers actually “hoard talent” and refuse transfers to other divisions. Further, HR leaders see few senior leaders with the skills to close development gaps among talented performers.  Few HR leaders have that expertise as well. Organizations espouse developing leaders; few provide executives training for that “developmental leader” role. McCall’s research showed HR cannot identify their best bosses for developing leaders, though successful assignments require “mentoring” by a supervising manager. Few organizations set learning goals for developmental assignments and fewer evaluate whether those goals are achieved. Too often, the person in the developmental assignment experiences a “sink or swim” outcome. Contrast that with university executive programs, 1 -4 weeks long , well-funded by senior leadership.  They often require 6 figure financial investments, with many custom designed. The Harvard  “B” school  requires organizations to contribute  to  school research as a “pre-condition for program design”. These programs rely on reading, lecture, case discussion and action learning projects. Yet a cross boundary assignment for a general manager/functional manager will produce more relevant individual learning. Still, rotational learning experiences are limited in large organizations.  Few organizations “train’” executives to “enhance leader development”, so they do not fully benefit from targeted experiences where leaders learn the most.   Mc Call’s suggestions:  expand targeted assignments, set learning and evaluate goals for assignments, fit the assignment to the development need, identify bosses with a reputation for developing leaders and provide leaders with the skills to become “developmental managers”. Developmental assignments may seem common sense, yet their full potential still remains to be realized.

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