Tool for the Executive's Organization:
Unique Issues in Executive Learning

an article by TECF Board member
Susan Ennis


Members of The Executive Coaching Forum have found this resource helpful, but we have not formally reviewed it for complete accuracy or endorsing the claims made by the creators.

Executive learning is critical. Preparation for more senior roles, effectiveness in current positions, and success in meeting the increasing challenge and pace of the business world are dependent upon senior executives’ ability to learn and to use that learning in problem-solving, decision-making, and leading others. Executive learning is a worthy goal—but it is often tough to achieve.

Six key factors make learning especially tough for executives.

The Demands of the Position. Being an executive has always been a time-consuming, demanding position. This is true even more today than ever before. The accelerated pace of business, the 24/7 schedule, the explosion of information and penetration of telecommunication into personal time have created an upsurge of workload and “mind share.” Trying to tuck in development activities to this schedule can seem daunting to executives, and many prefer to hire staff to support their own areas of weakness. Another strategy is to incorporate learning with work. Whether hiring a consultant or staff, or using other available resources, executives can choose if, when, what, and how they want to learn. As with any business decision, the decision to learn comes with costs, benefits, and consequences.

Executive as Royalty. Once you become an executive, it is as though you are wearing a crown. It is hard not to be seen as an executive, in your own or other organizations—or even in your own mind. Your relationships with non-executives change, and the balance of power shifts. You may receive less candid and forthright information. Often you need to develop new and different business or social networks. As with a member of royalty, your performance is public. Your actions are amplified and carry more weight and impact. An off-handed request or comment can generate unanticipated consequences—new projects, task forces, and increased workloads to meet “your demand.” This megaphone effect can make you feel vulnerable and less willing to expose what you don’t know by engaging in learning or development activities.

Reflection in Action. Executives, as a rule, are highly action-oriented. You like to get things done. So much so, that slowing down long enough to figure out what just happened and how you and your organization can learn from it is often extremely hard to do. The preceding factors, Time Demands of the Position and Executive as Royalty, make reflection nearly impossible! Yet, this is where you can have the most control of your behavior and greatest impact on your learning. The U.S. Army has noted that great combat leaders have had the ability to “Reflect in Action.”

General Sullivan, retired Chief of Staff, asks these three questions in the heat of battle (actual and metaphoric):

  • What is happening?
  • What is not happening?
  • How can I impact the action?

These questions are useful and can be translated into longer-term learning concepts as well:

  • What did I/we learn?
  • How will/could it impact business operations and results?
  • How do I/we disseminate and use this learning quickly?

Strengths Becoming Limitations. It is hard to understand how the strengths of style, personality, or perspective which underlay your success and were reliable anchors for so long, could actually become detriments to future success. At executive levels, being versatile—having a broad portfolio of approaches, styles, and behaviors designed to fit the situation and need—is often more important than using those behaviors that got you there. In studies of executive derailment, one of the major causes was that executives “overused” their strengths. Conversely, one of the biggest predictors of long-term executive success was “learning agility” or the willingness and flexibility to quickly and continually recognize, adapt, and use new behaviors, perspectives, and skills.

Role Models Limited. You are being asked to coach your direct reports, role model the behaviors of successful leaders, and work through others to get great results; yet you have few role models to learn from or rely on. Often, you are blazing the leadership path and sometimes wonder if you’re setting the right route. Most companies don’t have a large cadre of exceptional leaders at the senior levels that newer executives can learn from and emulate. This means that you need to take more responsibility for your development than perhaps is warranted, but it also means that you can build your own leadership legacy and set the tone for those who follow you.

Lack of Feedback. As noted in the Royalty factor, and as you rise in the organization, you get less candor and bad news from others, and even less feedback about you—your behavior, style, and impact. This, in turn, skews your own self-assessment, generating a problematic cycle that can lull you into a false sense of accomplishment and certainty. A few degrees of difference in perspective can have a large impact on how you are perceived, and on your success in creating results for your company.


Executive development professionals have responded to the increased challenges executives face. There is now help for executives trying to make the “transformational work” of learning within the constraints of time and demands of the job. Executives can have greater access to learning opportunities that meet their individual needs, within the context of company goals

Learning from Feedback. Taking 360 surveys based on your company’s leadership success model or a generic one provides you with structured, empirically based feedback on criteria critical for executive success. Using support mechanisms such as debriefing with trained coaches and this resource guide, you can build on the feedback to focus your learning and develop goals and direction. By creating learning experiences centered on your strengths and job-related responsibilities, you can best use your time in addressing your development needs.

There are also intensive, off-site feedback sessions run by human resource consulting companies in which you spend days reviewing the results of feedback surveys, personality tests, and themes from interviews with key people in your work, and sometimes, personal life. This type of program is useful to someone who likes to be immersed in an issue, or needs an in-depth analysis, or is in a critical transition period.

Learning from Peers. Executives learn best from peers, especially those they are not competing with. Networks of all sorts offer extremely effective learning opportunities. Networks may be formal or informal, professional or personal, internal or external; there are alumni-based networks, as well as local, national, and international interest groups. Participation should be preceded by a clear objective, and coupled with Reflection in Action during attendance and afterwards.

If you are considering attending an executive education program, especially one that is university-based, explore not only whether the content is a development fit, but also whether and how you will learn from the other attending executives. Most executives say the greatest benefit of external education is working with executives from other companies, countries, and industries—listening to their issues and perspectives and getting their feedback. Also, find out if there a strong alumni program or post-course networking opportunities.

Board of Director positions exists in all forms of organizations with many levels of complexity and responsibility. You can begin your ascent in this arena by joining organizations of interest to you, volunteering for committees and board positions. Nonprofit organizations usually seek and appreciate experienced for-profit managers and leaders. Boards tend to cull new members from other boards. If you join a board to address your development needs, be purposeful about choosing assignments.

Learning from Experience. Learning from experience is easier said than done; yet it is the most common and useful approach to executive learning. Much of this guide focuses on this form of learning. The most effective way to learn from experience is to

  • have a purpose or learning goal.
  • “reflect in action” during the work or event.
  • clarify the results or the “so what.”
  • apply the learning to new or similar situations.

Organizations as different as GE, SONY, and the U.S. Army use this learning approach to develop their executives, along with all employees and the organization as a whole. The questions noted earlier apply here as well:

  • What did I/we learn?
  • How will/could it impact business operations and results?
  • How do I/we disseminate and use this learning quickly

Many organizations also hold “after action reviews” or project debriefs to glean learnings and get issues on the table. Then they use these findings to guide future work and organizational changes.

Learning from an Executive Coach. A growing number of executives are using executive coaches (professionals trained in helping people learn and change behaviors, especially those related to leadership style) to focus their development and make the effort intensive, concentrated, and lasting. Good coaches provide candid, constructive, and actionable feedback to executives, and then assist the executive in learning new ways to lead and manage through addressing the executive’s own behavior and impact. You will experience some of this during your 360 feedback debrief with your coach. You can determine if this is an effective and efficient method for you, even though it may be costly at times.

Developing and Mentoring Others. Sometimes the best way to learn is to help others learn. You undoubtedly have people in your organization who could benefit from your experience, perspective, and accumulated learning. By gathering what you need so that you can pass your learning to others, you’ll discover what you know and don’t know, and how to achieve mastery. You’ll also meet a growing need to focus on the next generation of leaders, while building your own and the company’s legacy. This approach leverages your strengths and builds your company’s inventory of talent.