Developing leaders: Turning life into learning - SmartBrief

All Articles Leadership Careers Developing leaders: Turning life into learning

Developing leaders: Turning life into learning

4 min read


According to Bersin by Deloitte, U.S.-based companies invested more the $15 billion in 2013 to develop their leaders.

The dollars were spent on a variety of activities designed to build leadership competencies and skills. These activities included external educational programs, partnerships and internally developed face-to-face workshops, webinars and e-learning. They include development experiences, stretch assignments, 360-degree surveys, one-on-one coaching, action learning teams and communities of practice, simulations and assessment centers, job rotations and strategic mentorships.

No expense has been spared in many organizations to surround leaders with the activities, resources, and tools necessary to elevate their capacity to guide, inspire, and influence individuals and business results. Yet other organizations are shifting their focus in a profound way. Rather than dishing up external experiences to build leadership capacity, they’re beginning to explore a new — internal — frontier.

For the average leader, life is filled with an kaleidoscope of challenges that offer tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. Ordinary occurrences during a normal day at work can be as instructive as the most carefully crafted training exercise — for a leader who recognizes this — for a leader who knows how to turn life into learning.

Organizations can redeploy billions of training dollars each year by focusing on helping leaders mine their regularly scheduled lives for deep insights, feedback, strategies and solutions. Rather than offering additional programs, organizations can teach and support leaders to build reflection loops into the work that they do. Some might call it mindfulness. But for hard-nosed business professionals, it’s just about taking a moment and gathering meaningful feedback real-time to efficiently drive personal and organizational change.

What if instead of learning the latest twist or buzz about how to be an effective leader, people learned to mine the mundane events that surround them every day? What if we got into the habit of extracting insights from the daily grind? What if we developed the discipline to look inside for genuine learning rather than outside for the artifacts of it?

This frontier could offer a less expensive, more available and totally customized development experience for leaders at all levels of the organization,as well as a genuine and sustainable culture of learning and performance. The way it works is to support leaders in building a new mental routine or set of habits; and it’s a straightforward as 1, 2, 3.

  1. Leaders set aside 10 minutes at the end of each day for reflection. Depending upon the preferred processing mechanism, people engage in a mental review, journaling or discussion of the challenges they faced, actions they took, and results they achieved.
  2. They then take five or so minutes to crystallize specifically what they learned during that day and how they can use that learning the next day. This needs to be written down because it creates a learning log.
  3. Each week, a 10-minute review of the learning log will highlight themes, illuminating recurring challenges and the skills and practices that best address them.

This practice yields the most visceral and relevant learning experience possible. With time, like anything, these simple steps become habit, allowing for self-generated learning on the part of leaders and others who see how effective the approach is.

So, as summer breaks end and students return to school, let’s help leaders go back to school, too, without attending training or any external event. Let’s help them recognize real life for the powerful classroom it is — and help them develop the internal “study” skills require to go to the front of the class.

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.