This page provides an introduction to Learning Mindset and Learning Practices, actions you can take to accelerate your learning from experience.
Learning to Learn from Experience
“Expertise at learning has become the key capability necessary for survival, success and fulfillment.”
David A. Kolb & Bauback Yeganeh
Adaptive challenges, complex problems, volatile business environments – increasingly these are just some of the circumstances business leaders find themselves in, placing unprecedented demands on their capabilities to be effective. Recently, after a period of faltering corporate performance, IBM Chief Executive Virginia Rometty put the entire company on notice, telling employees “Where we haven’t transformed rapidly enough, we struggled. We have to step up with that and deal with that, and that is on all levels.” (Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2013) Undoubtedly, IBM is not alone in the struggle to keep up with the challenges of changing markets and conditions. Many organizations today are operating in an environment characterized by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA), and as a result their leaders are likely struggling with major challenges they have never had to deal with before. They must be able to quickly size up people and situations, make tough decisions and take appropriate action without complete information, and flexibly change on the fly in order to produce results in new, demanding, first-time situations.
Succeeding in such conditions requires leaders to actively and intentionally learn from their day-to-day experience. They must apply what they are learning to new challenging situations, and continue learning as they go forward. Unfortunately, the ability to learn from experience is a capability that many leaders either take for granted or ignore outright. However, the leaders who consistently practice the skills and tactics of learning from experience are significantly better equipped to deal with the complexities and challenges of modern business life.
“The ability to learn is a defining characteristic of being human; the ability to continue learning is an essential skill of leadership. When leaders lose that ability, they inevitably falter.”
Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas
“Experience is the best teacher.” How many times have we heard that, or said it ourselves? When it comes to developing as a leader, it is widely held that experience is a central component. Unfortunately, having an experience does not guarantee learning from it. Many people do not learn from experience, because they lack the knowledge and skills needed to do so. Research has shown that providing opportunities and challenging assignments to leaders doesn’t automatically result in their development. A study by Fiedler actually found that longer leader tenure and experience was negatively correlated with team performance. Many leadership and learning theorists have found that learning from experience is not a passive process, but requires an approach to living that makes learning one’s primary and most important focus. It may be true that experience is the best teacher, but only for those who actively utilize specific learning strategies and skills to derive the lessons of experience.
The problem is that most of us live our lives on “automatic pilot,” making little or no effort to learn from our experiences. Have you ever gone through your workday, running from meeting to meeting, and suddenly discovered that the day is over and you don’t recall anything you did or said? We all develop patterns or habits of behavior that make it easier and simpler to go through life, without having to think about things every single time. This phenomenon is called “automaticity,” when you can perform a skill without having to consciously think about it. However, this also hurts us because it leads to our sleepwalking through valuable experiences that hold hidden learning, if only we could notice! The speed of business makes it extremely difficult to break the habit patterns that we use to move at pace through our workdays. If we assume that learning happens automatically, and give little thought or energy to learning or improving our learning capability, then we are probably missing out on opportunities to learn, grow, and develop as leaders.
To get the most out of your day-to-day experiences, keep in mind these two key concepts: Learning Mindset and Learning Practices. These two elements of learning from experience go hand in hand: a Learning Mindset (attitude) leads to Learning Practices (actions).
What is “Learning Mindset”?
Think of a mindset as a habitual or characteristic mental attitude that determines how you will interpret and respond to situations. In the context of learning from experience, a Learning Mindset is an attitude that predisposes you to be open to new experiences, to believe you can and will learn, and to intentionally grow and develop from your experience. It includes the set of assumptions and beliefs that govern how you think about and approach experience and opportunities, and whether you generally see them as opportunities to learn and develop, as well as your typical affective stance toward learning, your emotional state or feeling about learning, learning situations, and new experiences.
It’s helpful to think of Learning Mindset as a set of prescription eyeglasses through which you view the world and your experience. If I operate with a mindset that leads me to view work projects or tasks only as things that I need to do in order to fulfill my job responsibilities and to succeed, then I will most likely focus only on producing the desired results “on time and under budget,” using my current knowledge and skills to accomplish the goal. Now, these are good things to achieve. But operating with a Learning Mindset leads me to view those same work projects and tasks as opportunities to learn something new while achieving the desired outcomes. As a result, I will focus both on expanding my current knowledge and skills and taking creative action to produce the desired results. The conceptual lens of Learning Mindset leads you to see every experience as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop.
Leaders who have a Learning Mindset see opportunities to learn in all aspects of their work life, and tend to learn more than those who are closed to learning. According to research conducted at the University of Virginia, “Managers with a ‘learning mindset’ are characterized by a continuous sense of ongoing learning and transformation and receive the highest job performance ratings of all those studied.” Leaders whose attitude or stance toward learning embodies openness to experience; motivation, willingness, and desire to learn; curiosity about others and how they do what they do; an attitude of discovery and exploration; and an intention and willingness to gain something positive from experience, experience more growth and development than leaders who do not have this attitude toward learning. Their Learning Mindset leads them to consistently and intentionally demonstrate certain behaviors, or “Learning Practices,” so that they are constantly seeking to learn from experience in every situation, and naturally apply what they learn in new, emerging experiences.
What are “Learning Practices”?
“What can I do to ‘get better’ as a leader?” This is a question that leaders frequently ask after receiving 360-degree feedback or attending a training program. It’s one thing to know that you need to “think more strategically” or improve at “giving performance feedback and coaching” to your direct reports. It’s something completely different to translate that down to practical actions that you can take to bring about lasting change, growth, and development.
Since most of us spend over 90% of our work time working, not in training programs or workshops, time on the job represents our best and most accessible opportunity to learn: from our day-to-day experience. We just need to know how to use our experience to grow and develop. This is where the Learning Practices come in.
Learning Practices are actions you can take to accelerate and enhance your learning from experience. Your actions determine whether you proactively pursue learning in your day-to-day work life, or focus only on getting the job done. Leaders who consistently, intentionally, and rigorously use the Learning Practices learn significantly more, faster while achieving better results. My research and experience, and an extensive review of the learning and leadership development literature, has revealed the following ten key learning practices that have significant potential for growing and accelerating your ability to learn from experience:
Take responsibility for your own learning and development
Approach new assignments/opportunities with openness to experience and positive intention to learn
Seek and use feedback
Develop a clear understanding of your strengths and areas of development
Ask great questions and demonstrate curiosity
Listen transformatively (intently, deeply, empathically)
Respond to experience with adaptability and flexibility
Actively reflect and practice mindfulness
Actively experiment with new approaches to learning
Closely observe and learn from others
As you face the challenges of leading in today’s world of increasing complexity, rapid change, and rising uncertainty, remember that the most effective leaders have the ability to transform their experiences into on-going growth and development. And the greater the challenge, the more significant is the opportunity to develop as a leader. If you have a Learning Mindset and consistently, intentionally, and rigorously put the Learning Practices into action, you will learn significantly more, faster, and as a result you’ll perform at a higher level and create greater value for your company and for yourself.
To Learn More
In our online shop, you will find helpful resources that are intended to help you increase your ability to learn from experience. Our developmental guide, titled "Learning Practices: A Guide to Intentional Learning from Experience," provides a more detailed description of what the Learning Practices look like in action, as well as recommended actions you can take to more effectively learn from experience. The guide is available to purchase in its entirety or, alternatively, you can purchase individual digital downloads of each of the Learning Practices.
 Fiedler, F. E. (1970). Leadership experience and leader performance: Another hypothesis shot to hell. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance(5), 1-14.
 L.A. Isabella and T. Forbes, “Managerial Mindsets Research Project: Executive Summary,” Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, April 1994; and interview with the authors, 13 June 1994.