The Three Types of Learning You Need to Excel as a Leader

January 16, 2023 10:30 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By: Daniel Stewart - President & Executive Consultant

No one steps into a leadership role with every skill necessary to lead a team successfully. In fact, no one steps into any role completely prepared to excel in the position. Part of becoming excellent is learning, growing, and maturing over time.

An Individual Action Plan can make the difference between struggling to fully develop and thriving through the process while preparing to take on roles of greater responsibility. When creating your Individual Action Plan (IAP) with your boss, make sure your plan includes three kinds of learning: experiential, relationship, and formal.


Experiential learning is precisely what it sounds like—learning through experience and practice. It will include the obvious forms of learning, such as on-the-job practice, but it can also involve rotational and special assignments, such as projects or committee roles. This kind of learning should constitute about 70% of development.

Just because it’s experience-based doesn’t mean your experiential learning should be haphazard or disorganized. You should track your experiential learning in tandem with other types of learning so that you approach it intentionally and with a focus on holistic development. With the help of your boss, mentor, coach, or colleagues, identify and target specific areas for improvement. Identify metrics that can be tracked and measured to guide your progress and evaluate the overall effort at the end of a defined period. 

Types of experiential learning could include:

  • On-the-job learning
  • Special projects
  • Continuous improvement work
  • Rotational assignments or jobs
  • Developing others
  • Stretch assignments
  • Committee assignments
  • Additional tasks


Approximately 20% of your development should be focused around relationships. This type of learning falls into one of two groups. The first type of learning involves personal, one-on-one development through coaching, mentoring, advising, or relationships with colleagues, peers, or associates. Those personal connections might involve formal or informal feedback, but they’ll also involve ample opportunities for connection, discussion, and real-time problem-solving.

The second type of relationship-based learning comes through assessments and formal feedback tools such as 360° Feedback, Personality, EQ, leadership, or work-style assessments. This kind of learning is still based in relationships, but assessments provide the framework for feedback. Once information is collected, the assessment or feedback can be applied to the IAP for specific areas of development. Assessments can also be used as part of a mentoring or coaching arrangement.

Relationship learning can include:

  • Coaching, advising, mentoring
  • Feedback from colleagues, peers, associates
  • 360° Feedback Assessment
  • Personality, EQ, leadership, or work styles assessment
  • External volunteer activities
  • Personal “Board of Directors”
  • Shadowing other leaders
  • Observing practices in other industries


Formal learning can include obvious avenues such as college coursework, technical certifications, or continuing education, but it may also include the kind of pursuits that don’t result in a degree or certificate. Reading books or articles relevant to one’s profession, writing and publishing thought leadership pieces, or attending or presenting at a conference can all be considered formal learning.

For many people who have spent years advancing their education and keeping relevant certifications current, it may be tempting to pursue only formal learning options for development. After all, formal learning is comfortable and familiar, and when it’s passive, as in reading or consuming webinars or conference speeches, it doesn’t require a lot of interaction or measurement.

Professionals who want to develop their leadership skills fully should limit formal learning to only about 10% of development. This doesn’t mean limiting one’s reading or postponing continuing education. Instead, when designing an Individual Action Plan, ensure that the overall goals are weighted heavily in favor of experiential learning, with only 10% of the formal plan focused on formal education. Learning of this type should be designed to support your long-term goals.

Formal learning includes:

  • Classroom training
  • Webinars/CBTs/Podcasts
  • Books and articles
  • Conference attendance
  • Continuing education/certification
  • Educational degree
  • Writing articles, white papers, or blogs
  • Presenting at a conference

Learning to develop oneself and others is key to thriving in a leadership role. By taking control of your personal development with an Individual Action Plan that includes the three key types of learning, you will be able to deliver excellence in your current role and prepare yourself for the next one—and thrive through the process.

Stewart Leadership offers a variety of assessments and coaching options to help you reach your leadership goals. To learn more, contact us.


1)     Do you currently have an Individual Action Plan? If not, what would it take to develop one?

2)     What is one kind of experiential learning that you have not pursued? Can you identify an opportunity to pursue that in your current role?

3)     What is one assessment that you would like to add to your IAP?

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