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The Experience Effect

Does tenure as a manager grow or slow leaders?

Does experience actually translate into increasing leader strength, and how does this vary across leadership skills? The bottom line is there is no single answer for how much time it takes to achieve expert level for every leadership skill.

“We found two skills that even long-tenured executives rarely master: coaching and selling the vision. These skills often must be relearned with each new group of employees that needs to be developed and for each new strategy requiring a leader to chart a compelling course.”

The Experience Effect

When—and If—Leadership Practice Makes Proficient

To varying degrees, a leader’s path to and through the management ranks can be complex, unpredictable, and challenging—but it is nearly always lengthy. In our research, average years of management experience ranges from 12 years for mid-level leader candidates to 18 years for those in C-suite candidate pools.

Years of experience often is used as an indicator of expertise, based on the assumption that more time being a leader means more skill as a leader. Because our behavioral assessment database included candidates with varying experience levels, we tested this assumption by asking the questions: Does experience actually translate into leader strength? How does this vary across leadership skills?

Evidence

We correlated years of management experience with proficiency in each of 10 key skills. These skills clustered into three types:

  • High-growth skills where experience translates into strength: driving for results, inspiring excellence, and leading teams. These require both goal achievement and team motivation. On average, high-tenure leaders were 4.4 times more likely than low-tenure leaders to be strong in these skills. New leaders struggled most with leading teams, as success becomes increasingly dependent on the capabilities of others versus oneself.
  • Moderate-growth skills: coaching, driving execution, and global acumen. High-tenure leaders were 2.6 times more likely than low-tenure leaders to be strong in this cluster. These skills are developable, but not easily or quickly. Development assignments may be needed to grow in driving execution and global acumen.
  • Low- or no-growth skills with virtually no connection between tenure as a manager and strength: executive disposition, selling the vision, operational decision making, and customer focus. On average, high-tenure leaders were only 1.7 times more likely than those with low-tenure to be strong in these skills.

We also gauged how many years an average leader needed to exhibit expert-level skill during the behavioral assessment. In the Skills by Years graphic, for each skill the size of the bubble shows the experience range when most leaders demonstrated mastery, including two that even long-tenured executives rarely perfect: coaching and selling the vision. These skills often must be relearned with each new group of employees and for each new strategy requiring a leader to chart a compelling course.

Action

  1. Experience alone won’t grow your leaders. Only three skills were substantially stronger in experienced vs low-tenure leaders.
  2. Design high-quality developmental assignments for early-tenure leaders to take advantage of natural growth trajectories for driving for results, inspiring excellence, and leading teams.
  3. Align hiring and promotion processes toward low- or no-growth skills. These skills are best targeted through assessment rather than development programs.
  4. Recognize that some skills, while they are developable, can be mastered only through sustained focus and extensive support. Two clear examples are coaching and selling the vision, which grow slowly with experience, and few leaders ever excel in these skills.
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High Resolution Leadership
A Synthesis of 15,000 Assessments into How Leaders Shape the Business Landscape

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