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Leveraging Today’s Experiences to Develop Tomorrow’s Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
November 16, 2019

Developing leaders within the public sector isn’t easy. Many managers work in an environment where little attention is given to articulating key leadership skills, let alone any consistent organization-sponsored effort dedicated toward leadership skill development. Within this context, it shouldn’t be surprising that reliance on unstructured experiential learning has delivered tepid results, particularly when the person being developed is expected to intuitively craft their own leadership capacity.

It isn’t that reliance on experiential learning is misplaced.  In fact, learning from experience can be effective in developing valuable leadership capacity and skills. This can occur on-the-job, during acting-in or interim assignments, or by taking on a stretch assignment. Every time an employee is asked to take on unfamiliar responsibilities, create change, assume an increased level of responsibility or manage across boundaries, they can learn valuable leadership skills.

Haphazard Approach to Leadership Development

Unfortunately, when these situations occur, employees are often placed into a role for which they’ve received little or no training. The (overoptimistic) assumption is that an employee will go through an experience, reflect about what occurred and correctly determine what they did right or wrong.

One effective way to ensure that today’s experiences are supporting the development of tomorrow’s leaders is to integrate the social support of senior managers, mentors and experienced peers into the learning process. Most employees welcome social learning, defined as connecting experiential learning with mentoring or peer support. This type of learning not only helps employees make sense of their experiences within the context of the organization. It also supports their confidence as an emerging leader, validates that the new knowledge they have acquired is appropriate and reinforces that others see they are developing the skills needed to advance.

Organizational Strategies to Leverage Opportunities

To better leverage social learning, senior management could begin by identifying valuable leadership development experiences within the organization, then use this list to create an organization-specific matrix of key leadership lessons. Such a list could help tease out the knowledge/skills/abilities (KSAs) employees are expected to achieve as a result of these experiences, particularly when acknowledging that there are different ways those KSAs could be learned.

The organization could then communicate what skills are needed to be successful and possible experiences that can help develop those skills. By providing social support, managers and mentors become a critical link and enhance an employee’s learning by helping extract meaning and lessons from experiences that align with the leadership skills valued by the organization.

Connecting The Dots

Learning from experience could be as easy as identifying a teacher, coach or role model and exploring their impact (positive or negative). Other valuable learning experiences could include dealing with someone difficult to work with, navigating a conflict or crisis, being passed over for a sure-bet promotion or conversely, being promoted into a significantly expanded role with increased complexity, resources and visibility. Other catalysts for learning could include fixing mistakes (yours or someone else’s), moving to a new work environment or culture, or becoming aware of unethical behavior by a leader.

Experiential learning can be learned by asking:

  • What challenges or issues have you experienced?
  • How did you handle it?
  • What strategies do you feel were effective?
  • What would you change or do differently?
  • How might this apply in your current/future work settings?

Multiple leadership lessons can be learned from a single experience—whether it be personal or a work experience. Recognizing the value of both types of experiences, organizations can embrace diverse and different paths to leadership while expanding the definition of valid leadership developmental experiences.

Questions for Your Organization

As the public sector grapples with the challenge of developing future leaders, how does your organization stack up?

  • Are we effectively leveraging experience-driven reflection to promote career-based learning and leadership development?
  • Do our HR processes support stretch, interim and acting-in assignments?
  • What specific actions show that we value diverse experiences within our leadership ranks?
  • Does current leadership personally invest time and energy into developing a diverse leadership base?

Advocating For Equity in Developmental Experiences

One final thought—research continues to underscore the difficulty women, particularly women of color, and their experiences in being given challenging assignments. Supervisors and mentors can intentionally support the advancement of women leaders by ensuring women are provided equal access to developmental experiences and have opportunities to reflect upon and discuss lessons learned. You may want to consider: 

  • Does unconscious bias play a role in my organization in identifying employees who are provided career-enhancing experiences?
  • Does our organization recognize the disadvantages some employees (i.e., women and minorities) have in obtaining key leadership development experiences and make an effort to include those individuals?
  • What specific behaviors and strategies have we used that have been helpful in the professional development and advancement of women within our organization?

While developing leaders isn’t easy, using today’s experiences can be an effective way to intentionally grow our current workforce into tomorrow’s leaders.


Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding top leadership and management positions. As a practitioner and a scholar, her focus has been on organizational effectiveness, financial accountability, and leadership development. Recently retired, she continues to research and advocate for the advancement of women leaders in government. She can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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