The only source of knowledge is experience. Albert Einstein

A story is told about a reporter who was interviewing a successful bank president. He wanted to know the secret of the man’s success. “Two words,” he was told, “right decisions.” “And how do you make right decisions?” asked the reporter. The reply: “One word: experience.” The reporter pressed on. “And how do you get experience?” he asked. To which the banker replied, “Two words: wrong decisions.”

We all recognize the importance of job and life experience, especially for leaders. Experience gives leaders the context for important decisions that they must make and insight into how best to lead, motivate and respond to their people. Experienced leaders have been through the wringer before and can use their past learning and decisions to guide them moving forward.

Yet, for many new leaders, experience can be hard to come by. And in today’s fast-changing, competitive environment in which more and more young people are assuming leadership roles, it can be critical for them to find ways to gain experience quickly in order to ensure that they make as few “wrong decisions” as possible, for their own sake as well as for those who they lead.

What can new and aspiring leaders do to gain the benefits of experience when they simply don’t have much on-the-job learning under their belts?

  1. Put yourself in their shoes – Not too long ago, you were among the led, rather than the one doing the leading. You surely formed many opinions about your leaders and may have even promised yourself that you would never repeat some of their behaviors or decision making practices when you’d be given the opportunity. While leadership responsibilities often require you to take on a different perspective, you should still be mindful of how your behaviors or decisions will be received by others. 
  2. Go for training – Identify educational programs that are reputable, respected, and, more importantly offer cutting-edge instruction and hands-on learning that translates well into real-life situations.  
  3. Volunteer – See if volunteer opportunities exist for such things as such as managing a project for an overworked leader. (If they presently don’t, go ahead and pitch an idea. Someone is bound to take you up on it if they think that you can help.) Use the opportunity to engage in meaningful work as well as reflective conversations about the leadership task. In this way you can learn much about leadership and how to plan for it in a low stakes environment where there is less pressure to perform and risk of backlash. 
  4. Find a mentor/peer group – Mentors can cut down the learning curve significantly by offering their experiences and sharing their views on how they would handle certain situations. Peer groups for young leaders can fill a similar role and offer the benefit of helping people learn and grow together. It also helps new leaders build social networks that can be immensely valuable over time.
  5. Read/watch leadership experts – There is much to be gained by reading and / or watching leaders discuss their craft and their experiences. It is so simple to access nowadays and can really help you accelerate your leadership learning curve. Many leadership and self-help experts recommend reading for at least 30 minutes a day in order to stay current and deepen your skill set and understanding of important issues.  
  6. Reflect and take notes – As you engage in your leadership tasks take the time to think and reflect. What worked well today and what didn’t? What might have happened had I responded differently to that situation or taken more time to learn about the issue before acting? Sometimes we are inclined to try to put failures out of our memory and focus on moving forward. While that may be useful at times, we must be willing to learn from our experiences if we are to avoid making the same mistakes again.
  7. Ask for feedback – Feedback is critical for the reflective process. We may have one perspective on things but we can be almost assured that at least some others see things differently. 

Perhaps most importantly, experience produces wisdom. In the words of Confucius, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach who helps busy leaders be more productive so that they can scale profits with less stress and get home at a decent hour. For a free, no obligation consultation, please call 212.470.6139 or email Buy his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss”, on Amazon. Download his free productivity blueprint at Productivity-Blueprint.

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