bring on

In my daily working practice I began to notice a huge contrast between the preferred learning styles of high potentials and the design of talent programs.


High potentials, especially future leaders, have two preferred modes of learning, of which observing role models is one (the other, unsurprisingly, is learning by discovering, by doing) (Manon Ruijters, 2006). Through observation potentials learn what works best and how to build their own best practices. Potentials are not afraid to make mistakes and are driven by results and challenges. Learning in a safe, classroom environment holds little appeal and is even perceived as childish.

Career planning and career development is based on the former preference: offer potentials attractive jobs, positions and projects and this will undoubtedly lead to a superior learning experience. In fact, a better learning experience may be difficult (if impossible) to find. A company I visited some time ago embodied this principle perfectly. For each job of importance (for which career planning was either meaningful, or a necessity) HR offered ‘‘experience navigators’’. These navigators provided an attractively and visually designed map of mandatory, optional and required work experience, whether those are projects, assignments, jobs, countries or divisions.

Besides relevant work experience, it can greatly aid the potential’s development to observe a more experienced colleague – a role model. And in this regard I notice an omission in what HRD is able to offer. Whether you are a leader, manager or specialist, the better you get, the smaller the group of role models from which you can learn. In addition, the higher you get promoted, the less ‘‘exposure’’ to role models you will have in daily working life. When do potentials meet their role models during their work?

Don’t get me wrong: organisations do spend quite some time, effort and money in this area. Mentoring (Jones, 2008), coaching, action learning and supervision are all examples of interventions that bring peers into contact with each other to exchange their work experiences. My concern isn’t whether anything worthwhile is learned during these interventions. It is an often hugely effective practice of reflection on action. What we direly need besides reflection on action, is reflection in action. Why? Because quite a few thought leaders who apply neurological insights to learning, (van Dinteren and Lazeron, 2010) propose that learning about your work in your work environment is very effective. The neurological explanation stems from the fact that our brains are wired with mirror neurons that will literally mimic the real life examples of role models. This mimicry aids helps you transfer the ‘teaching’ back to your real-life work environment, simply because the learning and performing environment are one and the same. Beautiful really.

My plea is therefore for mentoring to take place during work time and in the working environment. Not by philosophising with a board member on decision making processes, but by attending board meetings together.

What are your experiences in this regard? What has been the most powerful learning experience you’ve had so far and where did it take place? Let me know some of your thoughts.