Reflection—Getting the most from experience

November 20, 2003
By: Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Leaders, what have you learned about yourself, your employees, and your company in the past year? What were your business blessings? What did you learn about your leadership style or methods? What do you intend to take into the new year, and what will you leave behind?

As a sharp leader, you look for ways to evaluate progress. You know how essential it is to benchmark activities that make you successful and eliminate those that do not. You understand that it's advantageous to evaluate where you have been and where you want to go. This evaluation provides the critical information you require to make adjustments in the way you lead and the way you do business.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with a no-hassle approach to evaluating the past and preparing for the future. It will be the most insightful and inexpensive exercise you do this year. It won't require a consultant, facilitator, or a lot of time and money. What it does require is thoughtful consideration concerning what you experienced this past year and what you intend to change. The result will be an increase in energy as you move into 2004.

The Value of Experience

Strategic planning can be costly in terms of time and money. I contend that many leaders overlook a much more effective method of planning and an opportunity for change – personal and corporate experience evaluation.

The dictionary defines experience as "direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge." Actually, I like John Whiston's concept of experience: "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment." No matter how you define it, experience is an excellent teacher, and when its lessons are used effectively, a company can reap big benefits.

Experience as a learning tool became a reality for me while raising our children. Jinger and I have five boys, and we learned early the value of their many and varied experiences. It became apparent to us that they would learn best if they understood the value of their experiences. My fatherly advice was, "Education is important, but experience teaches. You need an education because it's society's merit badge. But always remember that it's the experiences of your life that will ultimately provide life's greatest lessons. Accept each experience as learning."

For the most part, the boys accepted the advice hook, line, and sinker. A couple of them overextended the experience thing, which was a little frustrating for my wife and me, but the results were positive. They also realized that the most important part of going through an experience is reflection – what was it about the experience that worked and what didn't.

Reflection – Catalyst for Learning

Learning from experience and putting the knowledge to use requires reflection. I contend that 95 percent of leaders don't evaluate their progress by asking reflecting questions. Those who do find this process valuable for adjusting activities and behavior. If you already know the value of reflection, you understand that it's a catalyst for change. If you haven't taken the time to reflect, this is a new opportunity that will offer excellent benefits to you and your company.

The Big Four

Consider four questions as you go through this activity. They are listed in order of importance. The first question is the most important, so give it as much thought as possible. After you complete the process, have your direct reports answer the questions. It might be interesting to see how the answers compare.

1. What were your blessings this year?

2. What were your learning experiences?

3. What will you take with you into 2004?

4. What will you discard or leave behind?

To illustrate this process, I sent the questions to several of my clients and business associates. Here's how they responded.

Reflection 1 - What were your blessings this year?

Charles Dickens said, "Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many; not on past misfortunes, of which all men have some."

One of my client companies is going through some very difficult times. To make matters worse, the company leadership has opted to be more critical than collaborative with its employees. One of the managers of this company e-mailed me the following response to question 1: "The best medicine is reality. You can get bitter or you can get better. The blessing I found in this difficult situation is to refocus my attention on the good things going on in my life – my personal purpose and my family."

Another leader said his blessing was "watching my top performers step up and do what is required to get the job done."

Not all companies experienced a down cycle in 2003. One company I work with drastically increased its production. The employees became overworked, overwhelmed, and frustrated. They complained about how much work there was and how much farther and farther behind they were becoming. During my work with them, I asked them to consider the alternative. Would you rather not have the work? When they thought about that alternative, they saw a busy schedule as more of a blessing than a curse. It was interesting to witness the energy shift as they reflected on the blessing of too much work.

Identifying the good things that have happened and sometimes the good things that come from a bad situation is a major energy refueler. It's easier to list the negative activities but much more energizing to recognize the blessings. Other responses to the blessing question were:

"I found that letting go and trusting was a blessing."

"Our people kept the faith and hung in there when things got really tough We found that as we saw the good in each situation, things always got better."

"I'm blessed that we stayed flexible and adaptable in a rough market also, that we didn't get hung up on having it my way or having everything right."

"I was blessed because I learned how to direct all my energy into making the best of every effort."

Reflection 2 – What were your learning experiences?

What did you learn from your experiences? Learning and making changes are at the heart of reflection.

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, are you doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results?

Each experience has a lesson to offer. When we learn and accept the lesson, we grow; when we don't, we are destined to experience the same situation and outcome until we learn, accept, and change. Here's what leaders said they learned in the past few months:

"People have to know the goal. When they do, they step up to the task."

"Things neverhappen on my timetable."

"To keep on keeping on without immediate gratification is a gift and takes tremendous fortitude and optimism."

"Decisions must be made you can't just expect opportunities to follow the path of natural selection."

"Working 80-hour weeks, week in and week out, is crazy we all need time to re-energize."

"Nothing stays the same - balance is impossible. Business and life are dynamic balancing versus balance is the key."

"I learned to maintain a positive attitude and positive energy, even in poor situations. My attitude and energy have a direct domino effect on employees, co-workers, family, and friends."

Reflection 3 – What will you take with you into 2004?

When asked what lessons they learned from 2003 that they will take with them into 2004, leaders responded with the following:

"Continuously look for new opportunities, but not lose focus on what's currently on the plate."

"Follow my heart, maintain a spirit of giving and acceptance, and treat everyone with respect."

"Look for positive aspects of each situation, instead of the negatives."

"Encourage people with positive comments and show respect and gratitude."

"Take the right people with me and quickly let those who don't want to go off the bus."

"The fact that people will work long hours, etc., if they are shown appreciation and have a common goal."

"Let things go and not harp on things that drain my energy."

"Even if I believe I am losing a few battles, my outlook will be that I will win the war."

Reflection 4 - What will you discard or leave behind?

We all have ideas and behaviors that we should discard as we move into the new year. Here are a few from the leaders who responded:

"Things that steal my energy, such as negative reactions to problems with co-workers and employees."

"Preconceived notions about what is the definition of success."


"As much negative energy as possible."

"The noise from headquarters."

"My poor attitude toward things that are not in my power to change."

"Trying to please everyone."

"I'm going to leave this negative attitude of mine. I know for a fact that my personal attitude affects my direct reports."

Now It's Your Turn!

It's time to reflect, but before you do, think about what Hubert H. Humphrey said after cancer surger: "Oh, my friend, it's not what they take away from you that counts – it's what you do with what you have left."

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

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