Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger
Some people, maybe only a select few, have the initiative, developed talent and the career aspiration to get to the top of the house in academia, military, for profit, not for profit, athletics, government, community or politics.
Research shows that the path includes about 30 different Roles to play, 90 or so Practices (competencies or behaviors) to learn and use, and 22 types of Jobs to move through three levels of service. Simply put, one has to learn to manage things and lead people and that takes some time.
Because of the near infinite number of obstacles along the way, one needs to have or develop more resourcefulness, determination and grit.
While the need for talent moving to the top is great, only a few of the many who make the effort are legendary successes.
Getting to the Top
The journey to the top is well documented. From the initial publication of Lessons of Experience (McCall, et al., 1988) to today’s plethora of books and research articles, the pathway to gain the knowledge, skills, and attributes needed at the top are clearly identified. The path starts with the right stuff. It’s the Nature-Nurture debate. The debate is mostly resolved and the reality is that it’s Nature and Nurture, and the proportions are approximately 50-50.
People are different at birth. Genetics plays out in infinite and interesting ways. There are child prodigies in art, music, math, athletics, empathy, crafts, and many other things. Some people were born with predispositions to do something well, with a little nudge from Nurture. Some are born with the predisposition to learn. Some have special interests. Some have broad or varied interests and some have no interests at all–until Nurture takes hold.
As with a math child prodigy, an individual must be given the opportunities to learn to make something of the gift of being a lifelong learner and maximizing their natural math capabilities. Having the gift of being a learner gives a person a leg up on the journey to the top. Yet some with the gift are not seen as ambitious. They learn for the sake of learning. Some earn three college degrees and then live in a bookstore (and that’s their prerogative).
Those with less of the gift of being a natural learner can still get great things done. It is just going to be a little harder and take a little longer.
What About IQ?
Before we outline the journey, let’s call out one more natural gift. It’s IQ, or intellectual horsepower. Heavily genetic, everyone has a number of IQ points, from low to high, and there’s not much we can do to earn more points. We can, however, use the points we have more effectively. IQ determines the complexity of what we might be able to learn, from wood working to quantum physics and many things in between. There are people with high IQs who don’t learn much of anything because of lack of motivation and/or opportunity. For others, we might wonder how they’ve accomplished as much as they have (it’s because they learn, apply that learning and navigate well).
The journey starts with a set IQ range, motivation (curiosity), and being a learner. Then, Nurture takes over the job of making something out of the talents provided.
Variety in Experiences
The general research points to the importance of variety and diversity of exposures and experiences. Think of these as “more experiences = better experiences” for learning.
The research also shows that many high learners go through a process of sampling before they specialize. They don’t seek to be excellent at one or two things, but they get acceptably good at many things. If, after the sampling period, they decide to “get to the top” of anything, then the learning gets deeper and more serious.
In pre-collegiate education, high learners do well enough but tend not to be the national honor society types, nor the valedictorian. They sample the curriculum to get broad exposure to potential areas of high interest.
Research says that extracurricular activities are very important to high learners. Things such as student government, band, athletics, school patrol, cheerleading, theatre, community service, clubs, jobs and social life all satisfy their sampling needs. Outside of school, it’s things such as scouts, 4-H, YMCA, youth groups and hobbies.
It is helpful to have a stable home life, with the resources to allow for exploration and variety of exposure, yet one can still make the most of what exposures they do have when the appetite to learn is present.
When a person with the right stuff and the right development and upbringing decides to try the journey to the top, then two additional gift requirements surface: wresting meaning from experience and the tendency to see pieces and parts in patterns.
Based upon near infinite exposures and experiences one could go through, there are a limited number of lessons of life, management and leadership. The number isn’t exactly known, but it is indeed limited.
For Learning, More is Better
When individuals have intense and diverse exposures and experiences, they have more opportunities to learn life and career lessons. The more things we know about, the more lessons we can learn. The more people we interact with, the more we can learn. The more things we risk trying, the more lessons about ourselves and life we can learn.
Even though one’s journey starts soon after birth, it really gets ramped up in higher education and in one’s first real jobs. Selecting majors, minors and/or technical tracks matters. High learners may switch frequently. Again, extracurriculars, internships, and friends matter. International study matters. One’s first boss matters. The chosen organization, industry and geography all matter.
Starting with the first real full-time job, performance matters, as does organizational nurturing, because not all organizations do well in developing their employees and members. The need for variety and diversity continues until you get to the top. High learner career paths tend to zig-zag. They change assignments more frequently.
Moving from Individual Contributor to Team Leader to Supervisor to Manager to Director gives the person the opportunity to prove they can get great things done, learn new things and accumulate the best practice lessons of managing things and leading people. Along the way one builds a reputation and a network of key relationships that will matter even more as they ascend in an org chart.
After all these things the door to the top opens, yet competition is fierce because there are others on a very similar journey. Organizations with healthy talent pipelines ensure that they have options, which may include, for example, having as many as seven qualified candidates to consider for each C-suite job. And when one earns a senior role such as Dean, Lieutenant General, Head Coach, Commander, Mayor, Managing Director or a Senior VP, it starts the second segment of the journey to the very top.
Most will have left tracks in the sand; they have been part of getting great things done. The remaining question is who, among the candidates, has learned the most lessons of life? Compared to the lessons needed at the top, who has either all of them or most of them? Since they are learners, they will continue to learn the lessons and solidify their knowledge and capabilities.
The lessons directly lead to how to live out the 30 Roles, 22 Jobs, and 90 Practices identified as critical to the journey, and for dealing with the unknown. The unknown is VUCA–the uncertainty and ambiguity of the future. The real benefit of collecting the lessons (or patterns or mindsets or schemas of careers and life) is that even VUCA events, which no one before has ever experienced, still have patterns. The more schemas we have stored (learned from and about), the more likely it is that we can see the patterns and manage and lead an organization out of the chaos—even during a black swan VUCA event like Covid.
If you have the gift of “learning at the speed of life” and have the ambition to manage and lead great things, look to diversify your work and life experiences along the entire journey. The dividends will be many.