vertical development

How To Keep Your Learning Alive

You know and I know that training courses aren’t where we do most of our learning. But how deliberate are we about ‘doing our learning’ the rest of the time?

Yesterday I wrapped up a leadership development programme that I’d been running over the past six months. Inevitably, participants want to know “how do we keep our learning alive now that the formal programme has finished?”

So, we brainstormed a bunch of ideas. Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Get a mentor: Find a mentor from outside of your day-to-day environment to provide you with perspective and guidance.
  2. Be a mentor: find someone who’s interested in learning about how you do what you do. You learn a lot by mentoring – it challenges you to unpack what you instinctively know, and think about it with fresh eyes.
  3. Get exposure to different people: Seek out people that think differently to you. They might be in-the-flesh, or maybe you’ll find them in magazines, podcasts, on TV. Don’t judge right or wrong, good or bad. Be curious as to how they see the world they way they do.
  4. Share what you’re learning: When you learn something new, the best way to embed it is to teach it. Find an audience, share your insights, ask for their perspectives too.
  5. Write: get a journal, write daily. This isn’t to share, it’s to help you get stuff out of your head and make better sense of it. Seeing your thinking helps you shift your thinking.
  6. Get a coach: different to a mentor, a coach provides you with thinking space to make sense of your world, understand yourself better, think through your choices and plan your next steps.
  7. Have a ‘Beginner’s Mind’ project: Find something where you’re a complete beginner, where you have no sense of how to do it. Here’s a great post on how to do that.
  8. Try doing things differently: Example: sick of the way your meetings are working? Find ways to mix it up. Rotate the chair. Stand up. Stay curious about what works, keep evolving.

Here’s the model I use to teach this stuff:

Ingredients of Learning

Action: when you do stuff, you create opportunities to ‘bump up against the world’. I find the best actions are the scary ones, the ones on the edge of your comfort zone. They invite and challenge you to do things differently. Trying new things, having a Beginner’s Mind project, sharing what you’re learning are all examples of ‘action’.

Connection: similarly, connection with other people provides great opportunity for growth. Mentors and coaches are very useful resources. And, my colleague Nick Petrie and I think the real ‘accelerant’ in this circle is to get some Colliding Perspectives – the people who challenge your view of the world and offer a different one to consider.

Insight: this is the practice of engaging with what’s in your head and making sense of it. It’s about stepping back from game, and noticing the mindset you’ve been playing with. Seeing your thinking that’s guiding your behaviour. Perhaps exploring the assumptions you’re holding, and how useful they are. Trying on some new assumptions for size. Working with a coach and using a journal are both powerful ways to step out of the game to some deeper insights.

Deliberately combine these in ways that work for you, and you will keep your learning alive.


P.S. My theme for the year is “Be curious, be connected, be courageous.” Can you see how those three things fit the model?

P.P.S. If you’re curious about more of the thinking and research behind this model, check out the CCL whitepaper ‘Vertical Development Part 2’ by Nick Petrie (with input from yours truly). I think this paper provides some very practical approaches to accelerating development both for individuals, and organisations.

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P.P.P.P.S  Are you a Change Maker? Find out when the next intake of my Change Makers programme is. Want to Learn more.


Spiral Leaves picture by Sulabyrinth as seen on



Avoid The Flat Line


What’s better: when good stuff happens to you, or bad? Mull on that for a bit as you read on.

I’ve just spent three days on an emotional rollercoaster. I was attending a workshop with Thought Leaders Business School to help me sharpen my thinking for how I run my business. Hugely beneficial. But not always fun. I reckon I experienced the full range of human emotions, from elation to anger, and everything in between.

Here’s a cross-section:

  • The morning of the first day (full of swagger): “yeah, I’m energised and engaged. This is good”.
  • Lunchtime on the second day: “this is doing my head in. I hate this. This is bad”.
  • The end of the last day: “I’m focused and calm. This is good.”

What’s interesting about this is not so much the range of emotions, but the judgement I was putting on them.

For instance, at lunchtime on the second day, I was like a fly in a jar, bouncing around trying to get rid of the frustration and anger I was feeling. I wanted to run away to somewhere that gave me back that ‘good’ feeling I had on the morning of the first day.

I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, I checked in with a mentor, who helped me to stand back and see that what I was experiencing was pretty much normal. I began to realise that my angst was a signal that I was at my learning edge. I was being challenged to examine some of my beliefs about what I was about. And a part of me didn’t want to do that. My mentor encouraged me to sit with the feeling, be curious, and let go of everything needing to be OK.

And of course, that made all the difference. If I didn’t stick with it, I doubt I’d have grown from the experience, or got to the focused and calm mindset I had on the third day.

Back to the initial question. A trick, of course. Loaded with judgemental words. Better, good, bad. It’s not about what’s better. It’s how you use the experience.

Our western culture has a meme, and it goes like this: move towards ‘good’, move away from ‘bad’. I say “No”. Life will throw you ups and downs. That’s what makes it interesting. Flat line = death.

Those highs and lows are where the opportunities lie to show what you’re about. How you use those experiences, how you grow from them, is what makes you, you.

Savour the peaks, embrace the troughs. And avoid the flat line at all costs.


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Work With The Patterns

IMG_4453_Antman _JamieScott

Late in 2015, I published ‘Three Things I’ve Learned This Year’. The most popular of those three with readers was the idea of ‘Be The Flower, Not The Bee’. In essence, strive less. I’m going to build on that idea here by showing you how to see and work with patterns to be more effective with less effort.

One of my favourite movies is ‘Surf’s Up’. It’s about a penguin wannabe surfer, Cody Maverick, who finds himself in the thick of the action at a world surf contest. He gets himself a mentor in Big Z, a legend of surfing in days gone by. Big Z has some wisdom for Cody:

“You let the wave do the work. You don’t fight the wave. You can’t fight these big waves.” (more…)

Are You At Boiling Point?

I’ve been working with a lot of clients lately who all seem to be in a similar space. Work is just crazy, and won’t let up. It’s not merely ‘busy’ – it’s something more. It’s not just a volume problem, it’s a complexity problem, and navigating a way forward is harder than ever. As someone said “all the easy problems have already been solved. Now we’ve got to solve problems that we’ve never faced before.”

Sound familiar?

This state is what I call the ‘boiling point’.

Think of water. Before the heat’s on, water will quite happily just sit there, maybe moving around a bit, but essentially unchanging. When you put the heat on, you get movement. If you’re a liquid water molecule that enjoys the relative stability of being ‘water’, you’ll get uncomfortable as things heat up. Maybe you hope that everything will to go back to ‘normal’. Except the heat’s not letting up. It’s around 99 degrees now. What to do?

Of course, what happens is that water transitions to steam. It’s still water, but with new qualities.


I see a lot of leaders in systems that are nearing boiling point. And they’re mostly operating with ‘liquid water molecule’ mentalities – ways of making sense of the world that work in relatively stable times, but not so effective when things are approaching boiling point. A new way of thinking is needed.

So how do we create that? Here’s what I find works for people:

The first step is to name the assumptions and beliefs you use to make sense of the world. For example, you might assume “to be a respected leader, I need to have all the answers.” Of course, this assumption can both help and hinder you.

Second, ask yourself how well is that assumption serving you? If you assume you need to have the answers, a downside could be that you constantly have a line of people, and a pile of emails, waiting for you to provide people with the answer. How well is that assumption serving you?

Third, try on some new beliefs and assumptions for size. For example, “If I give other people the opportunity to take responsibility to come up with their own ideas, we’ll get better solutions.” Make it an experiment. Test it out for a couple of weeks. What difference does it make?

You don’t know until you try. It’s this ‘probe – sense – respond’ approach that we need to adopt if we’re to make sense of, and navigate through, the complexity we face.

Buckminster Fuller said “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

So, here’s a useful tool that I use with my clients to help identify their assumptions that might hold them back. It’s called ‘Immunity to Change’, developed by adult development thought leaders Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. Try it out and see what happens.


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Seek, Persist and You Shall Find

I started my career as a Chartered Accountant in one of those big firms full of suits, ties and protocol. Like many of my peers, not long after I qualified, I resigned and took off overseas to see what the rest of the world had to offer. The well-travelled path led to working in accountancy in London, living with your mates from back home, and doing a bit of backpacking around Europe. Ho hum. I chose a different path. At some level, even though I didn’t consciously know it at the time, I wanted to see what I was capable of.

First up, my path led me to working as a camp counselor on a summer camp in Pennsylvania, then to running a ski rental shop at a resort in the Canadian Rockies. Next was riding pedicabs around the city of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, while also busking to earn a bit of extra cash. These were all great experiences where I got out of my comfort zone and learned a lot, but nothing compared to what was next.

By this time, I’d been away from the corporate world for 18 months or so. I felt as though I’d done some interesting stuff, but something inside me wanted to really test myself. I was feeling restless and bored in mainstream society, and I was looking for something out of the ordinary. One day, I found myself down at the fishing boat harbour in Victoria, where the salmon fishing boats were getting ready for the season. Something clicked – this was it. I must have approached 15 or 20 skippers, all who told me they wanted people with experience. I had none in this game. Eventually, after a few days of badgering, one skipper took a punt on me.

The next three months were some of the most testing times of my life. Starting with a crew of three, the other mate left after a week because of a major personality clash with the skipper, who was a grumpy, crusty old seadog. This left the two of us to be at sea for up to two weeks at a time on a 42 foot boat, the ‘Deltaga’, with me doing 18 hour days working the long lines, landing, killing and gutting salmon. The skipper spent his time in the wheelhouse steering the boat and drinking tea, occasionally sticking his head out to oversee my progress, chiding me if I made mistakes, or wasn’t working fast enough. It was exhausting, and demoralising.

The boat broke down one time, and he had me down in the cramped engine room trying to fix the compressor. Being a former ‘white collar guy’, I didn’t have a lot of experience in fixing compressors. After he criticised my poor efforts , we got into a screaming match, which ended up with me going and sitting on the bow for three hours, refusing to speak to him. I even surprised myself.

Over those few months, I don’t know how many times I rehearsed my resignation speech in my head. But I never said it, and I stuck with it. What I did do was spend a lot of time writing down what I was experiencing, trying to make sense of it. Over time, I got to grips with the work, the skipper, and how to deal with new and unexpected challenges on a daily basis. As the season came to a close, and I got paid my hard-earned cash, I found myself experiencing a mix of relief and wistfulness. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I felt like this was the end of a profound period in my life.

Looking back now, my experience on the ‘Deltaga’ helped me to believe that I could approach any new situation with confidence, and has helped me forge paths that have led me to some amazing experiences in my life. It has helped me to understand that I (and people in general) are far more capable than they think they are, and that capability is there to be discovered, but only if they have the curiosity and courage to test the possibilities.

I also look back at what I did to help me go beyond merely ‘surviving’ the experience to make the time something I could learn from:

  1. Having a ‘growth mindset’ made a huge difference. I sought out an experience that was going to test me, and I got it. I can only speculate about the fellow who left after the first week, but I suspect that he didn’t see the challenge as an opportunity to learn. I stuck it out to see what I could learn.

  2. I had no support network, and that didn’t really matter. I didn’t have a coach, a mentor, or a great boss. My support network was me. What was important was that I challenged myself, I backed myself, and took responsibility for my choices.

  3. I made time to make sense of things. Those precious minutes between work and sleep, where I could write down my thoughts and attempt to extract some sense from the tough time I was having, helped me stay the course, and benefit from the experience.

Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  1. How do I approach new and potentially challenging situations? Do I have a ‘growth mindset’? How could having more of a growth mindset make a difference?

  2. How much responsibility do I take for the situation I find myself in?

  3. How do I make sense of things in tough times? How often do I step back and reflect on what is going on?

Got a scary yearning? Go and seek it out. You might be surprised what you’re capable of!


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Thriving In The Heat Of Experience.

“I’ve really been out of my comfort zone these past two weeks. It felt like I was learning a new job from day one. But I’ve learned and grown so much!”

So said a client of mine on a coaching call earlier this week. She’d just finished a secondment on a high-profile project in an area of her business that she knew very little about.

I was curious about what sort of things she did to help her to learn and grow during the secondment:

“Well, seeing I didn’t have the experience or knowledge that I usually rely on, I had to trust rely on other people to give me the information I needed. I tapped into the support networks around me, and through that I built some wonderful trusting relationships. I also asked a lot of questions – some people might call them naive questions – and I found that having a ‘beginner’s mind’ helped me learn a lot more quickly than if I’d tried to pretend I knew what I was talking about.”

In other words, she allowed herself to be vulnerable. She opened up to ‘not knowing’, and connected with people that she needed to trust. Brene Brown gives a great TED talk on just this idea.

Growth happens in the crucible of experience. Or at least that’s where the potential lies. Sadly, I see way too many people who, when confronted with what I’d call a ‘heat experience’, just try to get through it. They see it as an experience to survive through, rather than one to learn to thrive in. What a lost opportunity!

What might happen if we could learn to embrace, or better yet, seek out, the tough experiences that will allow us to grow? Research by the Centre for Creative Leadership, amongst others, suggests that this practice is critical to developing more effective leadership. In particular, learning from heat experiences helps us to develop a broader perspective, and a wiser mind, that can help us lead effectively in complex, ambiguous contexts. Which is, frankly, what leaders at all levels are facing these days.

We instinctively know it’s true. So what can you do to make the most of heat experiences? Here are some ideas to try out:

  • Have a beginner’s mindset. See the experience as an opportunity to grow. Ask yourself “what could I learn from this experience?” Be open to ‘not knowing’ and discovering more about yourself.

  • Pay attention….to how you ‘show up’ in the thick of the experience. How do you respond when you’re feeling the heat? What choices do you tell yourself that you have? What assumptions and beliefs drive your behaviour? What might you do differently?

  • Connect with useful people. Not just people who can help you get the tasks done. Just as important are people who can help you step back, test your assumptions and understanding, and make sense of what you’re feeling, thinking and learning.

  • Teach others. One powerful way to consolidate your new learning is to teach others about what you’ve learned from your experiences. You gain and they gain.

Got a story of your own to tell about how you’ve learned from ‘heat experiences’? I’d love to hear about it.


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A Real-Life Development Story

Recently I hosted a breakfast session where the guest speaker was a well-respected senior leader. He’s regarded as a future CEO and has an impressive track record of delivering results, working across boundaries in gnarly situations, and developing people. And he’s never done any formal leadership training.

The focus of his presentation was his own leadership development journey. What forces and activities had shaped him into the leader he is today?

Here’s what made the difference:

  1. He actively thought about what he wanted to excel at a leader
  2. He deliberately sought out ‘stretch’ experiences that would test his abilities and beliefs
  3. He had bosses and mentors who believed in him, helped facilitate his development opportunities, and provided feedback and reflection time.

Decide. Do. Connect. Reflect. Or something like that. He took it upon himself to grow, and he sought out the experiences and people who could help make it happen.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes for people to be this deliberate and, you could say, courageous. I came across this video with Keith Eigel talking about leadership development. Right at the end, I think he nails it: “the people who accelerate their development…are those folks who seize the intentional little challenges every single day.”

Here’s another good post by Penelope Trunk on the same idea.

Try putting this approach into practice for yourself:

  • What’s one thing you want to excel at as a leader?
  • What (scary) experiences can you seek out today that will test you in this area?
  • Who can help you step back and reflect on what you’re learning?

I’d love to hear what you try and what you learn. Get in touch with me at


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