The Power of the Stretch

The world of people development has changed considerably since I first began my leadership journey, many years ago. What has not changed is the responsibility of leaders to participate directly in the development of other leaders.

The primary job of leaders is to create more leaders.

I appreciate that leaders have multiple responsibilities (strategy, innovation, stakeholder engagement, etc.) but none is more important than the responsibility to ensure that the pipeline of future leaders in their organization is full and constantly growing and evolving to meet the future leadership demand of the organization.

When I first joined Conexus, there was not a single internal candidate for the CEO role. The good news about that is that I had a much better chance at getting hired with less competition :-). But seriously, I would suggest that an organization of 1,000 people should have had several candidates who were ready and able to take on this leadership role and who had been actively developed for consideration when the role was vacant. Fast forward a decade, now when we post very senior roles at Conexus, it is normal to have between more than 50+ candidates for these roles including multiple internal candidates. This allows the organization to choose a great candidate from several that might be able to fulfill that role but to be able to choose one that has the skills that are most required at that particular time given the current business climate, organizational performance, future strategy, etc.

Part of this development journey for Conexus has been the creation of “experiential learning” as a key part of development planning for leaders.  Today, at Conexus, we use a 70/20/10 model for leadership development.  This correlates to the relative amount of investment (time, money, resources) in different learning activities.  The numbers correspond to:

  • 70% Experiential Learning
  • 20% Self Development (Lead Self Activities)
  • 10% Classroom Training

You might be asking why we have such a heavy focus on experiential or applied learning? The reason is simple – our experience has been that it provides a much richer learning environment where leaders can apply new skills in real life settings. Why does this matter? When building new skills, it is one thing to read about (from a book) or hear about (from a mentor / coach / leader) a business problem and how it was solved. I would also suggest that it is a completely different learning experience for an emerging leader to be directly involved in working on the business problem — The one making real decisions having impact and consequence and experiencing real accountability for those decisions. This isn’t to suggest for a minute that you take emerging leaders and throw them into the deep end of the pool without the requisite skills. On the contrary, it is taking the training wheels away from leaders as they grow so they feel the real emotion of executing at a higher level, the real satisfaction from getting results and sometimes the real pain of falling down and “skinning a knee”. Think of the first time you rode a bike and either successfully made it into the arms of mom or dad at the end of the street or fell down and had to get back up a few times to ultimately make it there. In either event, you always eventually made it to the end, by yourself without any help. I appreciate that over-simplifies the process of experiential learning but it is a helpful analogy.

On larger applied learning opportunities, we frequently hear from leaders that they might not feel perfectly ready for the opportunity to take on greater responsibility. I know that feeling well and have lived it several times throughout my career.  My first day as a CEO at Conexus included a 20 minute trip to the bathroom, to stand face to face in a mirror wondering what I was doing there and how long it would take me to fail, to then splashing cold water on my face, to telling myself I’d be fine and then getting back to work. Everyone who has taken on greater responsibility or new challenges has those feelings and guess what, they are completely normal. Just like the feeling on the bike when mom or dad let go of the back of the seat. You first feel a little wobbly, then you find a rhythm that works for you, then you speed up a little, then you start to try new tricks, then you are crushing the little jump that you begged your mom or dad to make for you out of spare wood.

We have talked openly about this feeling at Conexus to normalize it for all of those who are trying to stretch themselves. We have named that yucky feeling in your stomach “GROWTH” to make it easier and normal to talk about the feelings of anxiety that come from learning new things and admitting that you are are not the expert and need to learn a few skills for a new opportunity. The worst thing you can do as a leader is to pretend you have it all cased, not admit there are a few new tricks to learn and that you are the “expert” at this new area of the organization. PS – the rest of your Team know you are are’t the expert either, just ask them :-).

Today, at Conexus, we regularly review our list of successors and mentees and consciously match them to opportunities within the organization that need leaders and that offer an ability for them to develop while doing important work. Some recent example are having a high potential finance employee work in retail banking to review all of our processes to serve members.  Another would be having a senior member from our risk area lead the project for our new HQ in Regina that involved considerable work with outside stakeholders and involvement from across Conexus, including our Board. The only promise we make to them when taking on roles like this is that we won’t let them make catastrophic mistakes and that we trust them to lead this work. Then we engage in active coaching and feedback as they walk through new responsibilities, learn, make mistakes and then ultimately, grow.

We have seen a few direct benefits of this kind of leadership model, namely:

  1. Leaders have a much more well rounded view of the business having worked in different areas, and
  2. Leaders rely much less on being “experts” and more on involving a broader group of diverse perspectives given they are not the technical expert in those new areas, and
  3. This approach creates leaders that are a bit more likely to listen, to learn, to be curious and to ask first before simply “prescribing” the answer

In a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous), I would rather have a stable of leadership candidates that are actively learning new skills, engaging broadly and harnessing the power of others to create solutions than those that rely solely on their own technical expertise learned over many years applied to the business problems of today.  Would you rather be a leader with twenty years of diverse experiences or a leader with one year of experience, twenty years over?

I speak frequently on leadership development and in those presentations, frequently point to recruitment based on potential. These thoughts were formed years ago from practical experience and an HBR article that speaks to how to assess “potential”. John Harvey from ANZ Bank in Australia said it well in the article when he suggested – “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens. But we want well-rounded, values focused leaders who see the world through a wide-angle lens, and the right stretch assignments are what helps people get there.”

I couldn’t agree more.  What are you doing today to stretch yourself and others around you? When was the last time you felt “GROWTH” in your stomach or had to splash a little water on your face?

Is it time for you to get your hands on some new handlebars and try to get to the end of a new street of growth and learning? Comment below on some of the areas you have explored in your own journey and how you managed the “GROWTH” feelings while doing it.

3 replies
  1. Dave Pettigrew
    Dave Pettigrew says:

    Great piece Eric! We’re launching a new Emerging Leaders Development program at Harvard Western Insurance, and you’ve given me some great ideas on how to be more purposeful / explicit with respect to the role of Experiential Learning. Thanks! Dave


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