By Richard Citrin and Michael Couch

As organizational psychologists, we always pay close attention to the Tech Council’s C-Suite of the Year Awards, particularly the descriptions of why the finalists are seen as “Tops” in their fields. We hope you do too. This best-in-show data is a great source for insights into two key factors that are core to the performance of any organization: culture and leadership.

We’ve delved into what we’ve learned about organizational culture from Top Leaders in past TEQ editions (see “Culture Counts: Lessons from the Culture Leader of the Year Finalists,” September 2017). We’ve also touched on the unique competencies of Top Leaders (see “What Makes a Great CIO,” April 2018). But what have we learned about how a leader becomes one of the best and brightest? Not surprisingly, what we hear from the Top C-Suite Awardees matches the evidence we’ve garnered from leadership development research.

Top Leaders Move Around, Not Just Up.

The best and brightest seldom, if ever, spend all of their time in a single function or unit of a business. It’s just not possible to understand the complexities of today’s organizations without being exposed to a variety of assignments and perspectives. Experiences like switching from a staff role to operations (or vice versa), starting up a new unit or department, closing down a chunk of the business or negotiating a major sale or supplier contract are hallmarks of successful careers. These varying experiences not only help build perspective and business insight, but they are the experiences from which other critical leadership competencies are gleaned. Competencies that are highly related to future leadership potential (such as being comfortable with ambiguity, actively learning by trying new things and making sense of complex and contradictory information) can only be developed by navigating experiences that demand that they be learned and effectively applied.

Top Leaders Are Nimble Learners.

Top leaders not only navigate a variety of challenging and complex situations but they learn from them; they are learning-agile. Being learning-agile means that you are not just able to pick up and apply technical knowledge. It also involves being curious and considering novel approaches, gaining insight on people-related matters, being comfortable with risk and change and enjoying the challenge of delivering results in tough situations. Interestingly, we find that development occurs not just from success but also failures: Top Leaders sometimes goof up. The difference is that learning-agile leaders learn from the mistakes so that they are never repeated.

Top Leaders Are Self-Aware.

A large global study found a strong positive relationship between the prevalence of the competency of self-awareness among an organization’s leaders and overall business performance. Top Leaders know their strengths and weaknesses by using a regular combination of requesting feedback and reflecting on their experiences. Research has shown that, without regular feedback, what we learn from developmental experiences is significantly reduced. The feedback also needs to be requested from others, not imposed or unsolicited, or the human brain reacts to the feedback as a threat. In addition, research has confirmed that regularly reflecting about the actions we have taken and what we learned from the experience significantly improves how effectively we apply a new skill. In fact, the same field and laboratory research showed that increasing the amount of reflection had more impact on learning than having more experience with the skill. Reflection and feedback build intentionality into a leadership development.

Want to be a Top Leader someday and stand in the spotlight on the Tech Council stage? The formula to achieve that goal is very clear. Strive to have a variety of jobs and assignments in all parts of the organization. Ask for opportunities outside of your comfort zone. Not only have a wide range of challenging experiences but learn how to learn from them – both successes and failures. And take the time regularly, maybe even daily, to solicit feedback from others and to reflect on your progress. Be intentional about your learning.

Not surprisingly, what we hear from the Top C-Suite Awardees matches the evidence we’ve garnered from leadership development research.

Richard Citrin (www.citrinconsulting.com) and Michael Couch (www.mcassocatesinc.com) are the co-authors of the soon-to-be published book, Retooling Leadership Development: An Executive’s Guide to Driving Results through Strategy-Driven Leadership Development.