Most of us have finally arrived at the conclusion that leaders are grown not born. But what's the best way to build your own leadership skills? The current issue of Fortune details the leadership gains from IBM's practice of forcing employees to take on new global risks. IBM sends teams around the world to work with local organizations on local problems.
Essentially, the firm has developed an extensive program of stretch assignments, new work experiences, that force their fast-track potentials outside of their comfort zone. It's been common knowledge for a long time that the best way to gain new insights and learn new skills is through real experience, not in the classroom. There is a caveat to that. The experience will also need to be supported with mentors or coaching.
Although very few of us will ever have the opportunity that IBM provides its potential leaders, locating stretch opportunities within your own firm is available to many employees. It's a very common process for IT workers and those in the film industry. Although a lot of consultants work with just a single shtick, many of us are continually upgrading with stretch work. My business and my expertise have very little relationship to what I started with 25 years ago. A huge proportion of those gains came as a result of stretchwork. I lay out the research in a paper aptly titled Bluff Your Way Into a New Job. You'll find the paper here.
The Fortune article also emphasizes that leadership development is an investment that will pay off only later. With so many corporate cultures addicted to the short term, that's often a hard sell. But that need not be a problem for the typical employee searching for stretch work inside his company or perhaps in better times, at another company. Just remember that leadership development--call it career development--is a continual process. It's not like a game of checkers. It's a game of chess, always figuring out the next five or six moves and taking avantage of them.
(The article is in the December 7 issue, and not yet available on the web.)