animated man standing confidently in front of a maze to symbolize the beginning of his leadership journey


Your Leadership Journey: When Work Gets in the Way of Development

Many leaders stall out on their leadership journey because work gets in the way of their development. But you can change that with the right approach.

Publish Date: October 14, 2020

Read Time: 7 min

Author: Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D.

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One of the unintended upsides of the pandemic is an opportunity to go through old boxes and files. In doing so, I unearthed an article I wrote for DDI 15 years ago, which reminded me of how tough the leadership journey can be.

At the time, I was a new leader. I spent my days developing, facilitating, and launching DDI’s leadership programs. Meanwhile, I spent my nights as a young single mother with an academic milestone hanging over my head. I was working so hard just to stay afloat in so many different areas of my life that it felt like I wasn’t making progress in any of them.

When Work Gets in the Way of Development

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

"I have to get something off my chest. “I’m in danger of failing in my own leadership development plan.” Okay, it’s out, that’s better. I guess I can’t really be too hard on myself; I do have a good excuse. “Work got in the way of my development.”

"Everything started out well. I worked with my manager and my mentor to target my development for the year. We chose two areas for focus. The first was a leadership competency. I needed to increase my business acumen to aid my transition from a learning and development consultant to that of a trusted business advisor.

"Second, I was to work on a technical skill - finishing my long-over-due doctoral dissertation. I have been working on the “final” rewrites for my dissertation for years (yes, that’s years). I love the topic area and my academic advisor has been incredibly patient.

"Furthermore, DDI is very supportive of my goals. I have even scheduled weeks off to make progress. I am very close to being done, so you would think the final push would be easy. But somehow, work keeps getting in the way of my development plans.

"You know how it happens. An unplanned business trip pops up.  A soon-to-be fire is smoldering over there. An emergency meeting has to happen on the day I was holding for rewrites.

"Even my personal life isn’t immune from “schedule creep.” Just when I think I can work on my dissertation over the weekend, I realize I have to get the invitations out for my 5-year-old’s birthday party. Well, I guess to be totally honest, work and life keep getting in the way of my development plans. I am trapped in A.B.D. (all but dissertation) limbo."

Every Leadership Journey Gets Derailed at Times

It’s worth noting that for that dissertation, I interviewed 190 emerging executives who had completed an immersive day-in-the-life assessment center and received focused feedback. A year later their company asked: did they engage in the expected development actions to set them up for success in the next step in their careers? And if not, why?

Many of these new executives did go on to develop. But when they didn’t, the reason they often cited was lack of time.

I suspect you also caught the irony here. I was researching what “gets in the way” of development and … well… I was caught in the spiral myself.

Since then, my leadership journey has changed dramatically. I’m proud to say that I graduated with my Ph.D. the same year my son graduated from kindergarten. And my dissertation won the annual dissertation award from the Association for Talent Development, which was icing on the cake.

Now, I’m lucky that I get to spend my days as CEO leading an incredible global group of talented and passionate professionals in helping clients create better leaders for a better future.

But these early leadership experiences left a long-term mark. For so many leaders (like me!), the pressure of daily tasks gets in the way of the big picture. Sometimes, we can recover and get ourselves back on the right path. But other times, we focus so much on the problems at hand that we end up sacrificing long-term growth for short-term progress.

Making Leadership Development a Way of Work

With only so many minutes in the day, we have to make development a way of work. Let’s return to 2005 and my personal example:

"My first development goal is around business acumen. We have crafted a development plan that has allowed me to conduct and present a financial analysis around the impact of a new business model. And because my personal goal is related to my team’s goals, I have had ample opportunities for application of my skills to the job. My completion of the business model analysis is critical to the success of our team. My development is occurring within the boundaries of day-to-day work. It’s getting done!

"Now, let’s look at that never-ending dissertation. While my organization is supportive of my goals, it’s not critical to my team’s success for me to finish my dissertation. We are getting along quite nicely without those three letters after my name! When I carve out time to work on my dissertation, it’s not within the boundaries of day-to-day work; it’s in addition to my day-to-day work responsibilities."

We see a lot of our clients struggle with this problem when it comes to their leaders. Leaders view development as an extra thing on their list. And on a day-to-day basis, long-term development seems much less important than anything else on their to-do list.

But it’s a backward way of thinking. One of the most important mental shifts that every leader has to make is thinking of themselves as a leader first. Their work completing tasks comes second.

Why? It’s the ripple effect. For every moment that you spend improving your leadership skills, you improve productivity across your team. For example, becoming a better communicator dramatically cuts down on time your team wastes because of frustration, misunderstanding, and misalignment.

Don’t Let the Mountain Stop You From Climbing

I’ll admit: One of the big problems with my dissertation was the sheer size of the project. It was so huge to tackle that I often struggled to work on it in my few spare moments. Instead, I tried to wait for big stretches of time when I could focus on it exclusively.

But as my old article showed, that’s not the way life works. Those long stretches of focus time were inevitably interrupted.

We see the same thing with leadership development. Often, we hear from clients that their leaders can’t possibly spare the time for development. But development doesn’t always have to happen in large chunks. Instead, consider the right learning for the right moments.

The Magic Is in the Mix

What do I mean by right learning for the right moment? At DDI, we say “the magic is in the mix.” That means that different experiences are right for different moments in your leadership journey.

Consider the following types of experiences:

  • Multi-Day Experiences: These deep immersions into development are ideal for big pivotal moments in your career. For example, companies like Progressive onboard all new managers with a multi-day learning experience. These types of experiences are incredibly valuable, and really set the tone for your leadership culture. But they don’t need to happen often. You can save these moments for those big moments of transition into a new leadership role.
  • Half-Day Classroom Experiences: The best way to learn complex topics and new skills is to spend a focused amount of time learning with others. These periodic experiences help to create a common leadership culture among your leaders. And more importantly, they get a chance to practice their skills. These experiences can happen in-person, or as is more common these days, in the virtual classroom.
  • Blended Learning Journeys: One of the most common ways to help people grow on their leadership journey is to take a blended learning approach. These experiences unfold over time, mixing moments of learning together with self-driven digital experiences in between.
  • Microlearning: These short bursts of learning are perfect for keeping leaders engaged over time. In just 10 or 15 minutes, they can dive deeper into a topic, or refresh their skills. While these moments aren’t ideal for learning complex topics, they help leaders continue their growth on an ongoing basis.

So rather than thinking of development as an all-or-nothing approach, think about weaving these experiences into work at the right moments over time.

Don’t Get Stuck on Your Leadership Journey

The bottom line? It’s tough being a leader. It’s hard trying to balance driving team performance and maintaining our own productivity, all while making room for growth.

Everyone goes through times where they are pulled in so many directions. But if we don’t make development a priority, we can get stuck on our leadership journey. And we won’t be ready for what’s next.

But when leaders make development a priority, and their companies adopt a blended approach for learning? Well, the barriers lessen.

You can do it. No one should get stuck in “A.B.D.” (all-but-development limbo) like me. Or at least, not for long.

To learn more about making leadership development a way of work, explore DDI’s Leadership Development Subscriptions.

Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Executive Officer and co-author of Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others. 

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