Importance of On-The-Job Experiences in Developing Leadership Capabilities

Publication October 1997

The purpose of this study was to explore the importance of on-the-job experiences as a means of complementing and supplementing leadership development provided in formal education programs. Not only do on-the-job experiences have potential to assist persons who are actively involved in leadership programs; they may also be of value in reaching and impacting vocational education professionals who have not had an opportunity to attend these programs.

This study used the following seven questions to guides its procedures:

  1. What are the characteristics of on-the-job experiences that successful vocational education administrator-leaders consider most helpful to their development as leaders? Are there differences that relate to gender?
  2. What leader qualities are perceived to be improved by the on-the-job experience?
  3. What developmental aspects are associated with various types of on-the-job experiences? (What is it about the experiences that make them effective?)
  4. What developmental aspects of on-the-job experiences are associated with improved leader qualities?
  5. What improved leader qualities are associated with various types of experiences?
  6. What types of experiences do vocational education administrator-leaders recommend for preparing future leaders?
  7. What are the perceived developmental aspects of the experiences recommended for future leaders? (What is perceived to make the experiences effective?)

This study builds directly on research findings from the corporate world that indicate how on-the-job experiences relate to leadership development. This research also responds to the need to determine the ways in which these findings apply to education in general and vocational education professionals in particular. And, finally, this study links closely to and builds directly on over six years of leadership research and development conducted by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE). It was the next logical step in NCRVE’s long-term research and development program.

From among the 220 chief vocational administrators who participated in the collection of normative and standard data for the Leader Attributes Inventory (LAI) and the Leader Effectiveness Inventory (LEI), the 78 with the highest scores (top one-third) on the LEI were identified and asked to participate in a study to examine the importance of on-the-job experiences in the development of leadership capabilities. Sixty-nine vocational education administrator-leaders (26 women and 46 men) from 12 states participated in the telephone interview process. The Behavioral Event Interview (BEI) technique was chosen as the data collection method because of its ability to focus on meaningful dynamic behaviors demonstrated by leaders that they judge have had an impact on their development as leaders.

The Interview Protocol asked each vocational administrator-leader to describe two on-the-job incidents that had the most impact on their professional development as leaders. Specific probes were then used: (1) Can you give a brief overview of the incident (that had the most impact on the development of your leadership qualities)? (2) Can you briefly describe what made this on-the-job incident developmental? (3) When in your career did the incident take place? (4) Who or what initiated the incident? (5) How did the incident unfold? (6) In what ways did your leadership qualities improve or develop as a result of the incident? (7) Are there other things I should know about the context of this incident? (8) If I wanted to provide a similar on-the-job developmental experience for someone else, what else would I need to know?

The intent of these probes was to gain as much information as possible about the incident and to obtain specific examples to capture what happened and what the administrator was thinking and feeling during the experience. The ultimate goal was to gain an understanding of how this experience was developmental and how its developmental effects might be replicated on the job for others. A total of 140 incidents were described by the vocational education administrator-leaders.

Five types of experiences were identified by successful vocational education administrator-leaders as most helpful to their development as leaders: (1) new positions that offer new and/or increased responsibilities; (2) special start-up work assignments; (3) handling personnel problems like conflicts and firings; (4) being mentored, counseled, supported; and (5) working with a supervisor. These experiences were perceived to provide the following kinds of opportunities for leadership development: (1) the challenge of new and/or complex tasks or problems; (2) the chance to learn new ideas, practices, insights; (3) the opportunity to apply and practice skills and knowledge; (4) encouragement and confidence building; and (5) exposure to positive role models. The kinds of leadership development opportunities identified were most frequently perceived to result in the development of the following leadership qualities: (1) communication (listening, oral, written) skills; (2) administrative/management knowledge and skills; (3) unspecified interpersonal skills; (4) team building skills; (5) sensitivity, respect; (6) confidence, self-acceptance; (7) a broader perspective about the organization; and (8) the appropriate use of leadership styles.

Men tended more than women to initiate their own challenging experiences, and were more frequently motivated by the risk of failure and/or by the interest and excitement generated by the experience. On the other hand, challenging experiences for women came more often from new and complex tasks, where they had the support of superiors and/or other positive role models, or from job stress and barriers they perceived to accomplishing the tasks. Further, more men than women used their on-the-job experiences to improve their team building, motivational, and use of leadership styles qualities, while more women than men felt they improved their insightful, networking, and organizational skills.

With two exceptions, men and women agreed upon the qualities most frequently perceived to have been improved by on-the-job experiences. Women included networking and organizing rather than team building and using appropriate leadership styles among the seven most frequently perceived improved qualities. It is also noteworthy that a higher proportion of women than men reported gains in insightfulness, while a higher proportion of men than women indicated the quality of motivating others to have been developed.

The five most frequently recommended types of experiences for future leaders were (1) mentoring, counseling and advocate support; (2) formal training programs (e.g., leadership academy); (3) internships; (4) various special assignments (while on-the-job); and (5) simulations/case studies. Missing from this list were three of the most frequently mentioned types of on-the-job experiences that respondents had reported were effective in developing their own leadership abilities: (1) providing new and/or increased responsibilities, (2) special start-up assignments, and (3) handling personnel problems like conflicts and firings. Men and women differed somewhat in their recommendations for the types of experiences that future leaders should have. A higher proportion of women than men favored mentoring, counseling and advocate support as well as formal training programs and simulations/case studies. A greater proportion of men than women favored internships.

Based on the results of this study, on-the-job experiences can certainly be promoted as one effective, and perhaps indispensable, means for developing future leaders. Successful leaders participating in this study all had vivid positive memories of experiences which they said significantly effected their development as leaders. Further, the successful leaders advocated on-the-job activities that they believed could be used effectively in developing future leaders for vocational education. The findings of this study are consistent with studies in business and industry which also report that certain kinds of on-the-job experiences are effective for developing leaders. Thus, it is important that current vocational education administrator-leaders take advantage of the opportunities they have for using on-the-job experiences to develop and improve the leadership capabilities of persons on their staffs who are preparing to assume new and more advanced leadership roles.

Not all on-the-job experiences are equal in their potential effectiveness for leadership development. Two characteristics of effective experiences have been consistently revealed by this and other research. On-the-job learning is most likely to occur for both men and women when

  1. Individuals are placed in a variety of challenging situations with problems to solve and choices to make under conditions of risk. These situations (1) motivate individuals to learn, (2) provide opportunities to gain new ideas and knowledge and to practice skills and apply knowledge, and (3) encourage new insights through reflection on prior actions.
  2. Individuals gain their experiences in a supportive environment with supervisors who provide positive role models and constructive support and mentors who provide counsel. Some examples of challenging situations include the provision of new or increased responsibilities; special start-up assignments such as initiating a new program or project; and handling personnel problems such as hiring and firing.

Given that men were more likely than women to be the initiators of their developmental experiences, vocational education administrator-leaders may need to be more aggressive in identifying and providing appropriate on-the-job developmental opportunities for women preparing for leadership roles.

The most important kinds of outcomes from on-the-job experiences for both men and women appear to be growth in personal and interpersonal leadership skills, knowledge, and values. These outcomes most typically include improvement in communication (listening, speaking, writing) skills, sensitivity to and respect for others, team building skills, appropriate use of leadership styles, self-confidence, networking, planning, organizing, and decisionmaking.

Additionally, it is common for on-the-job experiences to further develop administrative and management knowledge and skills specific to the context, as well as to broaden one’s perspective about the organization.
Vocational education administrator-leaders participating in this study were not asked to identify examples of formal education program-related experiences through which they developed their leadership qualities. Thus, relatively few (9%) reported formal training programs (e.g., leadership academies) and the use of simulations/case studies as significant leadership development experiences in their own development. Yet, about 30% of them recommended the use of formal preparation programs for future leaders. Formal preparation programs should not be considered as a substitute for appropriately challenging on-the-job experiences, but only as a very useful supplement to them.

It is safe to conclude that when using on-the-job assignments for leader development purposes, the key is to provide multiple opportunities to assume responsibility for challenging assignments and to reflect on the meaning of these events for accomplishing important common purposes within given communities of practice.

Lambrecht, J. J., Hopkins, C. R., Moss, Jr., J., & Finch, C. R. (1997, October). Importance of on-the-job experiences in developing leadership capabilities. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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