If you're like many leaders, you're constantly on the lookout for a new job to expand your leadership ability. And there's nothing wrong with that; new positions typically offer many opportunities to learn and grow. But they don't come around that often, and in constantly scanning the horizon, you may miss seeing growth opportunities much closer to home.
How close? Very. At the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), we have interviewed hundreds of leaders about their developmental experiences, and we have surveyed many more to find out about the learning opportunities offered by their current jobs.
Our research convinces us that a leader, at any time, can take on challenges that can substantially expand their leadership knowledge and skills without significantly increasing their workload. They can do this by expanding the definition of their current position, by signing up for temporary assignments, and by embracing leadership roles outside the workplace.
But wherever you seek fresh leadership challenges, choose them wisely - certain types of challenge stimulate learning more than others. The following five types offer the richest potential to deepen and expand a leader's capabilities. To help you get the most from each new challenge you take on, this article closes with suggestions for generating vital support and feedback.
1. Handling unfamiliar projects
Jenna, a marketing research director at a health-care company, and Kim, a colleague in public relations, felt they were getting stale in their jobs. They hit upon the idea of trading a couple of projects and sold the idea to their respective bosses as on-the-job development. The outcome was that both learned new skills and gained a wider perspective on their organisation and its industry.
Other ways to take on new responsibilities:
* Perform part of a colleague's job while they're on leave.
* Represent your group on a task force or committee doing work you know little about. If you come from the operations side of the business, for instance, find ways to interact with sales or human resources.
* Volunteer for a task that you've never done before in a community or professional organisation, such as organising a fund-raiser, recruiting volunteers or moderating a panel discussion.
2. Leading change
Leading change is about taking initiative, tackling problems and organising people to make things happen. When you lead change, you increase your ability to think strategically and your comfort level with ambiguity.
Mitch, a manager in an accounting firm, took on the challenge of repairing his office's relationship with its largest account, a commercial bank that was threatening to terminate the relationship. Mitch spent time figuring out what wasn't working and why, and engaging others in fixing the problems.
But the biggest stretch for him was what he called "re-energising the relationship" - getting the customer and the firm's employees to want to work together again after so much turmoil.
Leading this change involved changing stubbornly embedded attitudes. It was a tough assignment, but Mitch welcomed it for all it taught him about team-building and replacing scepticism with commitment. And his success helped propel him into a senior management position in his organisation.
To strengthen your aptitude for leading change:
* Take on a fix-it role: volunteer to deal with the most dissatisfied customers or most difficult suppliers, take over troubled projects or supervise cost-cutting initiatives.
* Join a project team that is breaking new ground in your organisation, for example, one that is opening a new market or installing a new system.
* Champion a change your group has been resisting. One hospital administrator was concerned about his employees not using the organisation's new medical-error reporting system. He took on the challenge of figuring out why there was resistance and changing the staff's attitude from fear to pride in improving patient safety.
* Start something new outside work - a new volunteer program for your child's school, a new sports league in your community or a new professional network in your region.
3. Embracing higher stakes and accountability
Stepping forward to manage work with tight deadlines, pressure from above, high visibility and responsibility for critical decisions increases your decisiveness and your ability to work and learn under pressure.
In an interview, Margaret described how she increased her accountability when she took over the management of a large multi-site research project with a tight deadline. "Not only did I get better at working at a fast pace," she says, "I learned a lot about how to use my boss as a resource and was energised by working more closely with him - practically as a peer."
Margaret's boss was so impressed with her work that he nominated her for the company's high-potential program and supported her advancement in the organisation.
To gain experience working for higher stakes:
* Volunteer to manage high-profile customers or business partners. You'll learn to deal with accountability from multiple directions - from your own organisation and from external sources.
* Chair the board of a large or highly visible community or non-profit organisation.
4. Managing across boundaries
Mike was a senior executive with a long career in a Fortune 500 company. Knowing Mike's skills at organising people and getting them to think in new ways, the chief executive asked him to spend two days a week with a consortium of government and non-profit organisations dedicated to curbing the drug problem in their city.
Mike agreed because he thought he could add value to the group and he knew the work would stretch him: he wouldn't have the benefits of formal authority or solid relationships.
Assignments that require you to collaborate across functions and business units or to work with people over whom you have no authority - such as customers, vendors, partners, unions and regulatory agencies - will strengthen your ability to influence others.
To stretch your leadership across boundaries:
* Seek opportunities to work with external groups. Participate in customer or vendor negotiations, for instance, or lead a benchmarking team that visits and learns from other organisations.
* Jointly lead a project with someone in another function. Shared leadership sets up additional challenges in roles, authority and expectations.
* Play an active role in an advocacy organisation. One leader told us of joining an environmental group not only because he was passionate about the cause but also because it was a setting for negotiating with multiple, equally passionate stakeholders - very much like those in his workplace.
5. Dealing with diversity
Today's leaders need to work effectively with diverse groups of people, to honour differences while building common ground.
Ways to develop your ability to lead across diversity include:
* Taking on a short-term assignment at your organisation's office in another country. Many organisations support this type of assignment to temporarily fill personnel gaps, to broaden managers' experiences and to create better connections across the organisation.
* Serving as a coach or mentor for people of different genders, ethnic groups, or countries. You'll learn as much from them as they will learn from you.
* Serving on a team or committee with members from other countries. This is a way to get international exposure without leaving home.
* Volunteering for a non-profit organisation that works abroad. For example, Ted spends two weeks each year with a service group that builds homes in developing countries. Each year, he works at a new locale with new people. "It is a constant reminder to me," he says, "of the power of a unifying set of values for motivating diverse people to contribute to a team."
Set yourself up for success
Before you sign up for new responsibilities in your organisation, take measures to set yourself up for success. You'll need support as you stretch yourself as well as feedback to enhance your learning from the experience.
If you take on a temporary assignment that increases your workload, talk to your boss about moving lower priority responsibilities off your plate. Look for ways to work more efficiently - for instance, let go of tasks that could and should be delegated, create better systems for monitoring and tracking work so that you don't need to "touch" projects at so many points, and so on.
Also bring supportive co-workers in on your plans; they may be quite willing to help you out. For instance, a colleague interested in expanding their own horizons and increasing their own visibility might take your place at a regular meeting.
Be sure to consider the pros and cons from others' viewpoints and gain their buy-in. Jenna, the marketing research director who temporarily swapped job responsibilities with a colleague in public relations, says that she made the mistake of not talking first with her new project team members.
"I encountered some subtle resistance that took me a while to pick up on," she says. "They thought this project was just a playground for me. I reassured them and worked hard to demonstrate my commitment to the work."
Seek coaching and feedback
You'll make fewer mistakes if you have a coach who has done the work themself; they can give you advice, answer questions, and point you to other resources in the organisation.
Let your colleagues and boss know the skills you are trying to improve; they then can pay closer attention to this aspect of your work and deliver richer feedback.
And it's helpful to have a trusted sounding board - a person more removed from the assignment who can help you reflect on your own assessment of your progress and make the most of others' feedback.
This should be someone who knows you well, for example, a close colleague, a former boss, or a friend outside work.
Find new leadership challenges
* Reshape your job to find new challenges within it. Rethink your approach to a current responsibility, trade tasks with a colleague or take on a role that is needed but is currently being left undone.
* Take on temporary assignments that offer fresh challenges. Seek out projects, task forces, and one-off events and activities that you can participate in for a short period of time.
* Seek challenges outside the workplace. Look for ways to develop your leadership capacity in non-profit, religious, social and professional organisations.
Cynthia McCauley is the author of Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences Without Changing Jobs (CCL Press, 2007) and a senior fellow at the Centre for Creative Leadership.
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