Learning how to learn from experience

Executives who can articulate what they learned from failed choices can recover and move on. The key to learning to do that is to ask for and offer clear feedback.

“You have no idea what it is like to have to think about choices.”

My son Matt was 6 or 7 when he was interviewed by a local newspaper reporter about what it was like to be the child of a single parent. He chose to describe the way I coached him to consider his options before making a decision -- a process that always involved thinking through consequences.

For a child of that age, deciding to wait or to buy the first item he saw with the 50 cents in his pocket was monumental. He already had enough experience buying toys to know that a new treasure might break or not perform as he hoped. Each purchase involved weighing possible positive and negative outcomes.

Practicing decision-making at this age was, I hoped, a dress rehearsal for the tougher decisions he would face when I would not be walking beside him to prompt a thoughtful process. Learning how to learn from experience when the stakes are low is a gift we can give ourselves and others, regardless of age. Matt can tell you how that worked out for him.

Making choices and accepting consequences is not easy at any age. Sometimes lessons are lost, opportunities to develop more mature approaches to the process are missed and, sadly, some mistakes are repeated with ever-increasing consequences

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in Greensboro, N.C., has published extensively about the importance of learning from experience as a critical component of leader development.

Researchers discovered through interviews with senior executives that all had stories representing reverses or poor decision choices in their career. However, executives who were perceived as maximizing their professional potential were better able to describe the lessons they learned from their mistakes than those who were perceived as not living up to their full professional potential.

How can you improve your ability to learn from challenges? Seek and accept feedback.

Feedback helps us become aware of the consequences of choices, thus putting us in charge of not only the choice but the way the choice affects us personally, professionally and interpersonally.

The conversations with Matt were not about right and wrong. They were about learning to make decisions based on what he remembered learning from similar decisions in the past.

While they do bear responsibility to ask for and to be open to feedback, leaders routinely tell me that they don’t receive enough feedback to know what is going well or needs to be changed. Do you know how to ask for feedback that is clear and helpful? Do you offer feedback from your own experience that seeks to broaden someone’s perspective while leaving room for learning?

Consider your process for making decisions.

  • Do you seek opportunities to vet decisions with people who will tell you the truth from their perspective before the decision is made?
  • Do you seek opportunities to review decisions with people who will tell you the truth when the consequences of decisions are available?
  • When asked, do you know how to give thoughtful feedback to someone so he or she can understand and learn from it?