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Leaders are made, not born. Not only that - they are made over and over again throughout their lives and careers. The capacity to learn and develop is critical. What is staying the same today? What is untouched by economic, technological, social, regulatory, and environmental concerns? Not a thing! As the world grows more complex, our ability to master new skills, incorporate new ideas and techniques will decide if we, and the companies we're leading, keep up.

Doug Snetsinger of the Institute of Market Driven Quality (University of Toronto) wanted to see if there was a link between the personal development of senior leaders and their organizations' performance. He found that companies headed by "learning leaders" were far more likely to achieve their operational goals than those who were not.

"The CEO's personal development is not personal," Snetsinger writes. "It is fundamental to sustaining and rejuvenating the health of the organization." I would add that it is fundamental to sustaining and rejuvenating an individual's career.

What are the ways for leaders to learn?

Here are the most prominent continuing education options open to CEOs:

  1. Peer Groups
  2. As a Vistage Chair, I have a clear bias, but CEOs who choose to participate in a peer group can only get better. They learn and improve with the support, advice, and input of other high-level executives. By putting themselves into that type of environment, they're saying, "I don't know it all." This is when the real learning starts to happen.

    Are peer groups for everyone? No. For leaders of public-owned companies, the peer model presents some difficulties. These CEOs have to be careful about information and details they share with "outsiders." The potential for litigation can be high, and, while peer groups do have confidentiality agreements among their members, there is no legal protection for these leaders. In some cases, it's simply impossible to participate. CEOs of privately held companies do not face those same pressures, and peer groups present a terrific opportunity for learning.

  3. MBA Programs
  4. While the learning that takes place in peer groups is development-based, MBA programs tend to be more theoretical. Participants learn about something rather than how-to. It doesn't have that critical real-life context of a peer group - for one thing, no one's money is on the line, i.e. the proverbial "skin in the game."

    With that said, MBAs can be great for individuals who want to pursue careers revolving around a "larger" company. They facilitate valuable, "big-picture" thinking, and open doors to new contacts and opportunities. They acquire skills and tools, then determine for themselves where and how to hone them. That happens on the job or in a developmental-learning situation.

  5. Training and Workshops

  6. The goal of these short-term events is to acquire a specific skill, and if you are seeking a particular outcome, they can be quite effective. If you need to sharpen your public speaking skills, for instance, a two-day workshop can provide training for handling presentations and speeches easily and confidently. Just ensure you're planning to reinforce this learning with some real-world practice. Are you going to be giving any speeches? If not, you can't expect to cement - or benefit from - such short-term learning. Reinforcing the skills you acquire in short-term training is critical a part of retention.

Choosing A Path Is Part Of The Learning Experience

In sum, an individual's development is his or her own responsibility. You have to know or investigate which pursuits will make you more effective and more valuable. Are you lacking a skill set in which you need training? Are you interested in exploring a theoretical concept on a deeper level? Are you more likely to achieve your goals with personal development and peer support?

Just remember that taking a leadership course doesn't necessarily make you a leader. You can read a book about leadership; you can join a leadership peer group. But only by applying, developing, and practicing the techniques you learn can you truly grow into an effective leader.


Larry Hart

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