Adversity and Experience as Management Tools

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- A core task of every leader -- manager, coach or parent -- is to accelerate the growth of those in his or her charge.

Most leaders tackle this challenge by direct instruction -- telling people what to do. Direct instruction is also the method-of-choice for most training departments. Although instruction is often necessary, it is rarely sufficient for teaching people to cope with life's challenges. Experience is life's great teacher.

Just before I left graduate school, my wife's manager asked for my advice on handling a problem supervisor. It was a very simple question.

By that point, I had read more than 5,000 articles on leadership, yet I had no idea how to answer his question, because I had never managed a supervisor.

I learned that knowledge without experience is of no practical value.

Disseminating information is relatively easy. But how do we, as managers and parents, accelerate growth through experience? Humans grow from diversity (i.e., many different kinds of experiences) and adversity (i.e., tough, nasty times). Successful managers and parents accelerate growth through diversity and adversity.

Growth Through Diversity

Life is complex. Every day we encounter new and unique problems that we must diagnose and resolve. A diverse set of experiences enables us to use bits of information from past events to understand and resolve new challenges.

Let's take, for example, a man who grows up in a small town. After graduating from high school, he works 30 years for a small manufacturing company as a machine operator. Is this person learning to adapt to new challenges? Maybe.

Relative to the outside world, however, he may be lagging. As a rule of thumb, personal growth is not possible when we live inside our comfort zone. If you go to work each day fully confident that you can handle the day's challenges, you may be inside your comfort zone.

In a recent column for The New York Times, David Brooks wrote about his experience reviewing autobiographies of Yale University 50th reunion attendees. He found that some attendees were very satisfied with their life while others were not. The most common cause for dissatisfaction was lack of diverse experiences. These were people who stayed at one company all their lives, those who chose not to take risks, etc. They passively let their lives happen to them.

In contrast, many of the most satisfied attendees changed life directions multiple times. One man who had several different careers wrote, "Career wise, it was a rocky road, but if diversity is the spice of life, then mine resembled hot Indian curry."

Growth through Adversity

M. Scott Peck's pop-psychology bestseller The Road Less Traveled begins, "Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult -- once we truly understand and accept it -- then life is no longer difficult."

Life is a series of problems. Problem-solving excellence requires problem-solving experience. Yet many well-meaning parents try to protect their children by correctly solving problems for them. Parents who try to keep their children free from discomfort (i.e., inside their comfort zones) impair their growth.

Similarly, we often read about heartless managers who fire people. In many cases that I have personally witnessed, those who are terminated for performance are both devastated and relieved. Most know that they are failing and come to work each day emotionally distraught. If the manager can fix it, then he or she should. If not, he or she should get the employee to a job where he/she can succeed. Removing people from jobs where they are failing is merciful.

Adversity also builds empathy. When my daughter Ashley was 4 years old, her best friend was Katie, an 8-year-old. Of course, no 8-year-old wants to be friends with a 4-year-old. But Ashley saw Katie as her soul mate. When another 8-year-old moved into the neighborhood, Katie acted as if she had never met Ashley. It broke Ashley's heart. But if Ashley's heart had never been broken, how could she have developed empathy for others?

The same is true in our careers. For some reason, years ago, my avocation became helping people manage career changes. After coaching more than 500 people, I believe that everyone has at least two soul-crushing career crises. Those who haven't had theirs yet do not see the world as those who have gone through it. They do not realize the gift of a good job with a good manager and tend to nitpick company policies, saying things like, "If they don't ... I'm going to quit!" As if their departure will bankrupt the company!

Accelerating Growth: as Parents

All parents want their children to succeed. But some put their children in regimented schools before kindergarten. If their goal is impressing the neighbors with feats of memory, then this works.

But the research is unmistakable: Memorizing math equations and country names does not increase IQ.

Young children learn best by investigating their environment (i.e., diversity) with a caregiver: new smells, sounds, tastes and different types of people. There is so much to learn before they are ready for math. Older children also grow best from diverse experiences -- sports teams, student government, clubs, etc. As they reach their early teens it is time to begin narrowing those experiences to areas where children have real talents -- diversity with boundaries.

Accelerating Growth: As Managers

Managers nurture employees most effectively by providing a wide range of complete assignments. A complete assignment is one in which the employee struggles deeply to understand and resolve fundamental problems. For example, a new hire who serves as a bank teller for six months experiences a complete assignment. A management trainee who observes a bank teller for several days does not.

After finishing several complete assignments, the employee will have an ability to approach new roles from multiple perspectives. A commercial lender will likely be more successful because of the six months she spent as a teller.

How do managers and parents accelerate growth? By diversity and adversity. Diverse experiences help us adapt to new and unique challenges. Adverse experiences provide us with lasting lessons.

Experience is life's great teacher.
Hall is managing director of Human Capital Systems (, a firm that designs systems for improving workforce performance. He is also an instructor in Duke Corporate Education's teaching network and author of The New Human Capital Strategy. Hall was formerly a senior vice president at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness. During his tenure, IBM was twice ranked No. 1 in the world in Hewitt/Chief Executive magazine's "Top Company for Leaders." Hall completed his Ph.D in industrial-organizational psychology at Tulane University, with a dissertation on people management practices of Japanese corporations.