Bridging the Skills Transfer Gap

MIT Sloan Management Review just published the 2020 Future of Leadership Global Executive Study and Research Report with a pretty stark declaration:

“Executives around the world are out of touch with what it will take to win, and to lead, in the digital economy. Digitalization, upstart competitors, the need for breakneck speed and agility, and an increasingly diverse and demanding workforce require more from leaders than what most can offer.”


The good news from our perspective is that there are plenty of leaders who are aware of their skills gaps. They just aren’t being fully served by the bulk of executive education solutions. According to HBR, one of the major gaps in executive education is the skills transfer gap: “Simply put, few executives seem to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to their jobs—and the farther removed the locus of learning is from the locus of application, the larger this gap becomes.”

We like to think of this in terms of how medical residents learn to deliver babies on their OB rotation. The first delivery, they just watch. The second delivery, they assist. The third delivery is their time to shine! Senior leaders need learning structured so that they have the opportunity to watch, assist, and then execute in the context of their unique roles and organizations.  

Today we’re going to focus on two ways to make executive learning useful in context.

Take Advantage of the Experience of Others

As pointed out by the Society for Human Resources Management, decision-making is guided by intuition, and intuition is based on experience. In a business environment of constant change, leaders need access to relevant and up-to-date experience in order to guide the execution of critical initiatives within their organizations.  Of course, it’s wildly impractical to expect executives to gain all the necessary experience first-hand. With so many leaders in the same boat, we see a positive, growing trend in senior executives asking for and giving help. If you’re feeling stuck on something, look for an organization where you could mimic the observation stage of that med student OB rotation. We previously wrote up some tips for making a connection, but Spencer Stuart has further identified the dimensions that make learning more contextual. Ideally, we suggest you pick someone whose previous experience aligns with what you’re trying to do in at least two of the following aspects: business environment, strategy, culture, organizational complexity, or stakeholder needs and expectations.

Set up a conversation where they can walk you through their process. What did they do that seemed especially helpful? How did they measure success? Were there any surprise setbacks? This is your opportunity to listen, but be sure to ask them to frame their answers based on the shared dimensions of the project which you’ve identified.

Create space to practice new mindsets

After you’ve benefited from others’ experience, it’s critical to get some assisted practice. The authors of the MIT study identified four mindsets which represent “the hallmarks of great leadership in the digital economy” and can be developed. They are the producer, investor, connector, and explorer. You can read their descriptions here. It’s highly likely that you could reach senior leadership by mastering only one of these mindsets. But as we are increasingly seeing, your role may suddenly require you to build competency in a second (or even a third), and quickly!

This is when it’s helpful to reach out again and do some further contextualized learning with someone who demonstrates the mindset you need to build. This time asking for constructive criticism of strategies you bring to the table. Sound nerve-wracking? We actually find that these conversations can be the most fun. That’s because you can reach further outside your industry and role networks to work with someone who developed their mindset in a totally different context.

For example, executives looking to build the investor mindset often benefit from talking to people in the Venture Capital or startup spaces. Or maybe someone who runs corporate innovation in a different industry. The idea is to find someone working under different constraints, who is not automatically going to accept your industry’s standard, and can examine your strategy with a more critical eye.

You can also work to develop a new mindset with your team. Have a project meeting where you only propose solutions through a connector filter. Or set a new metric for the quarter that rewards explorers. At GXG, we are each always tracking at least one personal goal that sits outside of our comfort zone.

What mindset are you most interested in developing this quarter? Drop us a note at unstuck@gxg.co or sign up for our monthly newsletter for more resources, including recent examples from clients learning to lead in the digital age!