Learning by doing can help you grow into a new leadership role, or even a new career, says Herminia Ibarra, author of Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader, and Cora chaired professor of leadership and learning at the Insead business school in France. Part of the reason, she suggests, is that the world of work is changing. When faced with a business problem that didn’t exist till five years ago, you might find it more rewarding to try new things than depend on old habits or ideas.

Ibarra’s book is based on an executive education programme called The Leadership Transition, which she has been teaching at Insead for 10 years. In an email interview, she explains her “outsight principle" and provides some actionable tips for managers. Edited excerpts:

What is the outsight principle?

Today we have companies, jobs and kinds of careers we didn’t have five years ago. The world of work is changing too fast. Without a strong external perspective on your job and your self, you cannot be successful. Outsight paves the way for radically new patterns of thought and action.

Why do you suggest an executive “act" like a leader before she starts “thinking" like one?

Anyone who has ever read the latest book about how to lose weight or exercise knows there’s always a huge gap between what we know and think and what we do. This is especially true when it comes to the kind of learning involved in becoming a leader: It’s tacit, behavioural, connected and personalized knowledge.

Take, for example, becoming more strategic and visionary. Many people get stuck on this because they can’t picture what it means. It takes small steps, trial, adjustment, and iteration. Each time you try something new, you learn, and it changes how you think about the problem the next time around. The abstract idea you can think about or even try to hone in your mind is a far cry from the flesh and blood strategist you need to become.

But conventional wisdom cautions against acting before thinking.

Could you share two-three tips on how leaders can learn and apply the outsight principle?

u Sign up for one new project, task force, professional association or extra-curricular professional activity that takes you a bit outside your usual area of expertise,

u Reach out to three people in your company you always wanted to get to know and ask them for lunch or coffee,

u Identify two people whose leadership you admire and start watching them closely. What do they do especially well? Try to adopt some of what they do.

What are the common networking blindspots?

Most of us get advice, information and support from a fairly narrow range of usual suspects, size and this circle doesn’t grow nearly as fast as the environment around us is changing. You need to make networking a critical part of your day job and diversify your network so that you connect to, and learn from, a bigger range of stakeholders. Here are three quick tips to do so:

u In the next three days, talk to three people outside your business unit or company; learn what they do, how it helps the company, and how it may apply to your work.

u In the next three weeks, reconnect with people outside the company who may shed useful light on your work, industry or career. Have lunch.

u Make a list of five senior people you need to get to know better. Figure out ways to strengthen your relationship over the next three months.

You advise leaders to “be more playful with" themselves. Could you elaborate?

Stepping up to leadership requires all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, it can also trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities. When we are unsure of ourselves or of our ability to perform well or measure up in a new setting, we often retreat to familiar behaviours and styles. Getting past that impulse requires a playful frame of mind. Think of leadership development as trying on possible selves rather than working on yourself—which, let’s face it, sounds like drudgery. When we adopt a playful attitude, we’re more open to possibilities. It’s okay to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake. That’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for the new challenges and circumstances we face. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.

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