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The Apprentice Leader: Making the Most of Learning on the Job
by Wally Bock

Leadership is an apprentice trade. You learn some of it in the classroom and from books. You learn most if it on the job. You learn it from others and you learn from experience. Here's how to get the most out of what you learn on the job.

Improve your Odds of Getting it Right the First Time

Get some training in supervisory skills. Classroom training and reading can give you ideas of how to analyze situations and what practices to try. They can be the basis for your on-the-job experiments in leadership.

Identify role models you can use to help you figure out what to do in a leadership situation. Find a mentor who can help you.

Discuss leadership situations with other, more experienced leaders. They can give you perspective on what may work best and on pitfalls you may not see.


Forget "trial and error." That sets up you to think of something that doesn't work out the way you expected as a "failure." And it assumes you only learn from failure, which is silly. So, instead of "trial and error," think "experiment."

When scientists experiment, there are three steps. First you set up a hypothesis or what you think will happen if you act in a certain way. Next you act in that way and observe what actually happens. Then you compare your hypothesis with reality and decide how you'll do things next time.

That's how Thomas Edison worked. When he was asked if he was discouraged because he'd tried filament after filament for his electric light bulb and failed to identify a good one, Edison had a classic reply. "I haven't failed. I've found lots of things that won't work."

If you consider your tries as experiments, you should learn from things that work and from things that don't and you'll avoid that emotionally charged word: "failure." The only experiment that fails is one you don't learn from.

Experiments give you feedback. And feedback is important if you want to get better.

Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions

In 1988, researchers took workgroups and applied different tactics to see how those tactics affected baseline performance. Feedback was the most powerful of all.

Feedback alone increased performance over the baseline by 50 percent. The more feedback you get the faster you learn.

Develop the feedback habit. Analyze your experiments. Ask your boss, your peers and the people who work for you for feedback on your behavior and performance. Critique your own supervisory performance. All that feedback will help you decide what to work on to get better.

Deliberate Practice is How Champions Train

My friend Jack and Tiger Woods both play golf. Tiger plays much better. Talent is part of the reason. But Tiger and Jack practice golf very differently.

When Jack practices, he heads down to the driving range and hits a couple of buckets of balls. When Tiger practices it's likely to be something much less fun and much more specific.

Tiger, and most top athletes use a technique called "deliberate practice." It helps them accelerate their learning. It can do the same for you.

Deliberate practice was developed by Professor Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. It involves three things.

Work on a specific skill or skill cluster and get a clear target for achievement. Instead of just banging away on the driving range, a top golfer might work on using an eight iron to get the ball within 20 feet of the pin.

Observe how you do. That's feedback. And adjust what you do on the next try. Do it over and over until you get the results you're after.

You're going to learn most of your leadership trade on the job. You'll learn faster and better if you do four things. Improve the odds of making the right choice the first time. Think of your actions as leadership experiments. Get lots of feedback. And use deliberate practice to develop specific skills.

Wally Bock may be contacted at

Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale by selecting and developing great leaders at all levels. He coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences in the US and elsewhere. This article first appeared in the Three Star Leadership Blog ( ). Check out Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit ( ).



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