By Vicki Swisher, Med, Korn/Ferry International, 2011 Conference Presenter

It’s true–experience really is the best teacher. Research from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) strongly supports the conventional wisdom that people learn by doing. CCL reports about 70% of a person’s development happens through challenging and, in many cases, first-time job assignments. The important lessons a person learns typically occur when they are forced to move out of their comfort zone; when success or failure depends on the ability to learn something new. Successful executives in the CCL studies reported that a boss in their past essentially forced them to take a “scary” job assignment they wanted to turn down. That assignment ended up being the most valuable for their development.

For a job to be developmental, it has to be more than a straight-line promotion. It is not enough for the job to be new. It has to be an assignment where the person does not have all the necessary tools at the onset. Instead, the person must stretch his or her current skill set and expend significant effort to succeed. Development is a “demand-pull”: the demands of the job pull the person to develop new skills and not just rely on successful habits of the past.

Even across different industries, some jobs tend to be more developmentally useful than others. These jobs are high impact, high risk, and, as a result, provide great opportunities for learning. Below are three examples of what CCL found to be the best developmental jobs, and some of the skills they help build:

  • Change Manager: A change manager leads an important effort to change or implement something of significance, such as restructuring a business or leading the cultural integration of an acquisition. Managing complex change develops the ability to motivate others and deal with ambiguity.
  • Staff-to-Line or Line-to-Staff Shifts: Moving from a staff assignment to a job with an easily determined bottom line builds business acumen and planning skills. Shifting from line responsibility to a highly visible staff function develops organizational agility and personal adaptability.
  • Member of Projects or Task Forces: While much of the work in today’s flatter organizations can be classified as project work, this type of job assignment specifically relates to membership in a group with an important and specific goal, working with a high-visibility sponsor on a tight deadline. Here, workers develop problem-solving and priority-setting skills.

The lessons and experiences found in these types of jobs build skills across many key competencies and equip managers and executives for future success. Starting with these as a baseline, organizations can determine which jobs offer the most developmental horsepower for their particular business, considering criteria such as what the job requires and what the job will teach in the way of skills, what the person can learn about the business, and what new challenges the job will provide.

Once identified, these are the jobs that should take center stage in the development planning process, allowing organizations to get real work done while providing existing and emerging leaders with opportunities to develop differentiating skills.

Vicki is one of more than 100 presenters sharing his or her knowledge and expertise at THE Performance Improvement Conference 2011, April 10-13, in Orlando, Florida. If you would like to learn more, you may attend her 90-minute presentation, “100+ Job Assignments that Hyper-Accelerate Learning.”

Vicki Swisher PhotoAbout the Author
Vicki Swisher is a senior intellectual property development consultant for Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting. She is coauthor of the Lominger publications FYI for Teamsª 2nd edition and FYI for Insightª. Vicki has extensive experience in the areas of human resource development, change leadership, performance management, team effectiveness, and competency modeling. She may be reached at