How do experienced managers learn?

Wolfgang Grilz, Trigon Development Consultants, is a renowned expert for senior leadership development.

A group of managers from an international company meets at a seminar on leadership. The executives are experienced, have a lot of responsibility and most of them also manage executives.

In the preliminary discussion, the HR department and company management both emphasize that the managers have a high level of practical experience, but that they are mostly active in terms of their daily business, that their performance as regards urgent work is excellent, but that they have given little thought to the long-term development of their employees and that the strategic orientation is rather weak. The HR department is concerned by the fact that agreed management tools are not, or only superficially, used. The appraisal interviews are short, the protocols are seen more as an annoying nuisance than as an aid to staff management.


The group meets for the first time: almost all the participants emphasize that they have already attended many management seminars, know the essential theories and do not really understand why they have been made to join yet another management development programme, and to top it all, one which consists of several parts. Besides, the theories are difficult to implement in practice anyway. One of them says right at the beginning: "I’ll tell it how it is: at the end of a seminar I always think that it has given me some really good ideas for my work. But the next day I am confronted with all the daily problems that need to be solved quickly. There is then no time left for the things I actually wanted to put into practice. When the flipchart protocol arrives a week later, I take a quick look at it and remember quite a few things, but I don't really put it into practice." In fact, of course, all of them are familiar with the tasks involved in agreeing on targets, and they know what elements an appraisal interview includes. They know Herzberg’s motivational theories and the situational leadership model. As it turns out later - when someone asks about it – “knowing” means that they have heard of it but does not mean that even one of them could explain it or briefly summarize it. But: in order to learn, we need to be willing to learn. So how do we deal with this?

Leadership is not easily learned by reflecting on the experiences of others, as Henry Mintzberg emphasizes time and again. That's why it doesn't help if the trainer offers managers with practical experience yet more models and theories which they may not yet know – and which then suffer a similar fate to their predecessors. Leadership is learned by reflecting on one's own experiences, e.g.:

  • When a department head focusses on his or her own successes and thinks about other situations in which these approaches could also be used and which situations they would not be suitable for.
  • When a courageous division manager is the first to discuss a problem with an employee and ask her colleagues for advice.
  • When two group leaders agree to support each other in moderating half-day innovation meetings and to share their experiences with the group at the next module.

And for those who venture even further with their learning setting:

  • When answers and statements are only given if a concrete question is asked.
  • When the learning setting is designed in such a way that on the one hand, concrete topics and problems are worked on – and on the other hand, the requirement is that not only is the problem solved, but the participants learn from it for the future.
  • And finally, when participants in leadership programmes learn to reflect not only on situations, but also on themselves in these situations.

(As always, Mintzberg offers interesting insights, e.g.: Henry Mintzberg: Looking forward to development. In: Training + Development, 2/2011 and Henry Mintzberg: The long view. In: Training + Development 1/2011, p. 69.)