Want to Be the Boss Someday? Teach Yourself to Lead

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  • Want to Be the Boss Someday? Teach Yourself to Lead

    Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 3:30 PM EDT

    Linda Hill is the co-chair of the Leadership Initiative at the Harvard Business School and a formerchair of the Organizational Behavior Department. She's the author of many books, articles and e-learning programs on leadership and professional development. She spoke with us about how bosseslearn to lead -- and why aspiring leaders need to take their career development into their own hands.

    BNET: How do people learn how to lead? What are the misconceptions about the ways people dothis?

    Hill: One of the things I had to face as a professor is that people do not learn how to lead at school.As an institution, our mission is to educate leaders to make a difference in the world, but you don'tlearn to lead at school, but rather, on the job, when you're faced with real problems with realconsequences. That being said, by having students in sections that they stay with their entire firstyear, we do try to create some experiences from which they can be drawing leadership lessons,particularly how to lead when you don't have formal authority in a peer environment.

    So, what schools really should do foryou is to give you the tools to learn better on the job and to learn from life experience. With thatframework in my head at all times -- which can be pretty humbling because you want to think youare teaching people what they need to know when they are right there in front of you -- the mainthing I try to get across is that throughout their career, people need to take charge of their owndevelopment. You need to really think through what type of experiences you are going to try to haveprofessionally, because you can only learn what you get the chance to do. Be very strategic whenyou assess a new career opportunity and think about what you are going to be doing on a daily basis.

    You need to be forward-looking as you assess this. What trends do you see? Are you developing thekinds of skills your organization will need a few years down the line?

    The other part of this equation is what you get to do is definitely based on who you know. This canbe very frustrating to people because sometimes you don't get access to opportunities. But, unlessthey know you, you're not going to get the chance to work on interesting things.

  • BNET: How do you make sure you arerecognizing the opportunities alongthe way and drawing the necessarylessons?

    Hill: Yes, just because you are havingan experience doesn't mean you are going to learn from it. It's not by accident that we callexperience "trial and error learning." This goes back to whom you have relationships with. Can youget good feedback from others about your impact? You need to have a range of different peoplearound you who will give you insights into yourself and your impact so you can develop over time.

    BNET: You've worked with and interviewed literally hundreds of top executives. Did any of themhave interesting approaches as they tried to learn to lead?

    Hill: Something I want to emphasize about many of these executives I see is that their exercise offocusing on their learning agenda is in no way a selfish exercise; they also focus on the way theirorganization and the people they work with can benefit. We developed [some educational materials]a few years ago about Craig Weatherup ,the man who was the top executive of Pepsi North America.His boss, the CEO of Pepsi worldwide, had essentially taken a year off to study how the great leadersaround Pepsi had been developed and shaped. He also wanted to learn who the best teachers in theorganization were. The CEO of this big global corporation thought that these questions were soimportant, he needed to take time off to study them.

    Weatherup talked about another experience, when he was sent to Japan in his early 30s to set upPepsi Japan. He didn't speak Japanese or know much about the culture. It was a crucible kind ofexperience, because there was so much uncertainty. He made a number of missteps. What heappreciated was that his boss stuck with him. The boss didn't punish him, but tried to be a soundingboard as he worked through what he could do differently the next time. Later, he started to use thiskind of inquiry when he helped people adapt to new roles.

    Next week, we'll learn more about how leaders develop and the importance of "managing up."

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