Learning by doing: Putting experiential learning at the heart of leadership development

3 minute read

Leaders benefit from being exposed to developmental experiences and three of the best are entrepreneurial activity, change management and special projects

Ines Wichert

Learning by doing

Experiential development, often also called on-the-job learning, is the most effective way of developing emerging leadership talent. Formal classroom learning cannot prepare people for high performance in a world that is increasingly characterised by volatility and technology disruption. As high-potential employees take on more senior and complex roles, they are likely to come across situations for which there is no rule book. Learning agility, adaptability and innovation become key attributes in these circumstances. Being good at one or two things is no longer good enough. Instead, leaders need a breadth of experience.

There are about a dozen developmental experiences that a leader benefits from having been exposed to. I call these experiences ‘leadership experiences’. Let’s take a closer look at three of them: start-up, change management and special project.


Entrepreneurial activity delivers growth and competitiveness for an organisation. Without new products and services, an organisation runs the risk of losing customers and market share. Developing an offering that has not existed before requires a strong vision and outstanding influencing skills. The entrepreneur must convince colleagues to stake their careers on an unproven venture and key decision makers must be persuaded to provide scarce organisational resources. Furthermore, start-up projects demand perseverance, as there will be plenty of setbacks as the entrepreneur tries to deliver outcomes in an environment that may not yet have the right infrastructure, supply chain or skills to deliver the new product or service.

Change management

Nothing is as constant as change; organisations must continually realign their processes, culture and direction in response to external changes. This makes effective change management a vital leadership skill. The key development opportunities of delivering a change project lie in learning how to deal with people’s emotions. Change is a disruptive process and effective leaders must learn how to create urgency for change, how to overcome resistance to change and how to challenge old behaviours and processes and embed new ones effectively.

Special project

Special projects are one-off projects that are time limited and that typically do not have operational delivery responsibilities. They are concerned with strategic and often sensitive topics such as preparing the ground for joint ventures or significant restructuring. In these projects, the job incumbent must often work across functions and at times with external stakeholders, too. The emerging leader must learn a lot of new information fast and deliver outcomes to meet potentially conflicting agendas of different stakeholder groups.

Other leadership experiences are growth, breadth, people management, operational delivery and cross-boundary moves, global remit and turnaround assignments. These experiences allow a leader to develop versatility in leadership style and the readiness to question one’s assumptions. They also provide an organisation-wide view.

Not only are these experiences highly developmental, they also help organisations make better talent decisions as they allow decision-makers to see emerging leaders ‘in action’. The organisation can observe how promising high-potential employees are performing in a new area or when they are confronted with an unfamiliar challenge.

Breadth of experience can be attained either through formal rotation programmes and secondments, or less formal temporary assignments and projects that are taken on in addition to the emerging leader’s main role. Research for my new book Accelerated Leadership Development: How to Turn Your Top Talent Into Leaders has shown that there are two typical points where organisations try to introduce breadth to an employee’s career: either at the start of someone’s career, in the form of graduate schemes with placement rotations, or at mid-management level when organisations are getting talent ready for senior roles. At this level, roles tend to be assigned on a more personalised basis to help fill any blank spaces on an emerging leader’s career.

As breadth of experience becomes an important prerequisite for career success, it pays to start developing leaders early on in their careers and helping them understand the importance of trying new roles and taking on new challenges. As organisations are unable to offer formal rotation programmes to everyone, putting in place a career infrastructure that helps high-potential employees secure access to their own developmental leadership experiences is a good investment. The clearer organisations can be about the types of experiences they expect emerging talent to have gained exposure to, the easier it will be for early career talent to direct their own development. Making cross-functional moves easy, posting all available roles internally and providing AI-enabled technology solutions that guide emerging leaders to and then through the best possible stretch assignment can further help to establish a self-directed, experiential development culture.

Published 27 November 2019
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