OJT Leadership Development: The Low Cost, High Payoff Solution

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Many organizations advertise that they “value people” or that “people are their most important assets.” Many are sincere, but sadly most don’t get beyond the slogan, and those that do are often focused on day-to-day operational issues rather than developing people for the long-term. For those organizations that do make the effort to invest in their people, particularly the leaders, they often default to formal education like university delivered executive development programs and off-site seminars. Research has shown that the payoff for these formal education programs is only 10% while effectiveness of mentoring is 20% and “on-the-job,” experience is a whopping 70%. Ask any graduate of any MBA program and they will tell you that if they don’t apply what they learned in class, they quickly lose their edge. This is also the experience of people who attend seminars or any “formal” classroom educational program. Additionally, only a small percentage of people who have been identified as “high potential” get invited to attend such formal education programs. So what about the rest of the people? How can you develop a strong bench of leaders at all levels? The answer is to leverage the most effective development opportunities using relevant OJT experiences. Here is how to make it happen in three simple steps:

Understand how experience provides a learning opportunity: Every job in an organization provides an opportunity for learning to some degree. Even entry-level jobs provide learning opportunities; however, the real question is, “what is the degree for potential learning?” The degree to which any job provides a learning opportunity is a function of scope and intensity. Scope is the breadth of the skill set required for the job. Entry level jobs tend to be more task-oriented while higher level jobs require skills like strategic thinking, complex decision-making, and basic leadership. Intensity speaks to the pressure of the job which is determined by time pressure, the organizational visibility, and factors like amount of resources relevant to the size of the organization. Thus, each job offers some degree of both scope and intensity that define what the learning opportunities are for that particular position.

Understand the needs of the employee, the learner. Every individual brings their experience and education to their job. Those people who are in the early stages of their careers will bring less experience, but nevertheless will be “hungry” to learn. More experienced workers may have more skills, but often will be more set in their ways. They may be less likely to learn new things and apply what they learned in the past to their new position. Thus, it is extremely important for everyone to understand their personal skills that they bring to the job. It is also very important that they are aware of where they intend to be in the future and what skills would be required for those jobs. These understandings will help to define the learning opportunities in their current role and also determine future opportunities that they will need to learn new skills.

Deliberately match employees to experiential learning opportunities using the concepts of both scope and intensity. Start with the current role and deliberately define the skills that can be learned by mastering that position. Next, look for additional opportunities by placing people on short-term assignments, cross-functional teams, or projects. If there is a major project, it is unlikely that a less experienced person would be placed in charge since that might be too much of a “stretch” for both the individual and the organization. Nevertheless, they can still learn by being part of the team and sharing the overall experience with the rest of their team. Matching people to roles, assignments, and positions with a deliberate approach to learning is the key to an effective, low-cost leadership development program with high payoff in learning and development.

One of the best organizations that understands the importance of experiential learning in leader development is the US military. At every level from new recruit to senior officer, soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women are provided with experiential learning opportunities that supplement what they may have been presented in formal classroom training. As they advance in rank, young sergeants and junior officers are given assignments where they are exposed to not only new technical skills, but also basic leadership skills. This experience continues as they are promoted into progressively more senior roles. Officers are often rotated between command and staff positions every several years specifically to provide “stretch” opportunities. The intensity also increases when they advance into more senior positions.

These same techniques can be applied in many other organizations outside the military. They can even be applied by individual managers without the benefit of a formal organizational development program. Managers can sit down with an individual employee and discuss the potential learning opportunities within the employee’s current position. They can also discuss career objectives, the new skills required for future positions and the “roadmap” to get there. This would include projects, team assignments, and cross-training with colleagues as well as the next positions within the organization – future positions that include both lateral transfers as well as promotions all with an eye towards learning.

This is also something that anyone can do for themselves, even if their company or current managers don’t fully appreciate the benefits of experiential learning. You can either engage your current manager in the conversation or you can simply develop your own career “roadmap.” If you want to advance your career, don’t wait for someone else to make the opportunity available to you. Apply these three simple steps and be in charge of your own leadership development program. It won’t cost much, but it will offer the chance for a big payoff for your investment of time and effort.