August 13, 2008

Experience, Judgment and Learning Agility

I was sitting in a cramped American Red Cross bus, doing my civic duty and giving blood. As I lay with tubes coming out of my arm, the nurses began to discuss the presidential candidates who apparently both have August birthdays. One nurse commented "Now I really don't know who I am going to vote for---McCain really does have alot more experience" (she sounded like a former Hillary supporter).

So I wondered: What is experience worth in a Leader? How much is enough? Can one have too much experience or not the right kind?

These questions are critical today given the looming baby boomer retirement issue and concerns about filling the leadership pipeline, both in government and business. If experience is the critical factor in choosing a leader, than all leaders should be as old as possible since they will have the most experience. I know that is simplistic, but it does sort of follow from the argument.

On the other hand, there is the question of the right kind of experience. In politics do we want leaders who are former military people, have many years in the senate, experience governing a state or leading a company, community organizing, public interest law? In business, do we need leaders with specialty expertise like engineering, technology, finance, biotech or will we be better served by leaders with more general management and business experience?

I believe experience is important, but what is even more important is what one learns from that experience which is captured in the concept of Learning Agility. Learning agility , as defined by Lominger, is "the ability and willingness to learn, change and gain from life experiences; use failures, successes and feedback to form rules of thumb, models, maps, paradigms......" --basically to apply your learning to new situations.

So the question becomes, not "How many years of experience do you have?" but instead, "What have you learned from your experience? How have you applied that learning to better yourself and the world around you?"

Unfortunately, too much hiring today focuses on the first solution--- years of experience---rather than the second which, granted, is a little harder to define.

We are living in a time of rapid change and complexity, and we do not know all the challenges we face in the future. When you consider the daunting tasks ahead for a new President, Governor, CEO, College Chancellor or others in high places, do you want the person with the most years of experience or someone who has demonstrated the ability to learn from his/her experience and apply those learnings to new and unforeseen situations?

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