The date was January 1998. I’d been out of school for a mere 8 months and suddenly found myself the leader to a team of 10 individuals. This was a critical heat experience in my career. Heat experiences are those intense moments in a leader’s life when the heat gets turned on.

Criteria for a heat experience include:

  1. Disorientation: I was still trying to figure out how best to function in my initial job duties as well as synthesize the theory I’d learned from school with the practical day in day out of my job. Suddenly, I was thrust into a management position I hadn’t been looking for.
  2. Disruption: I’d never managed anyone in a work environment before. My job no longer was just about my individual contribution. I had to carve out time for team meetings, one on one’s, as well as administrative meetings. I didn’t know how to get everything done, let alone how to effectively manage those on my team.
  3. No Longer Good Enough: My way of working up to this point had always been about me. I focused on what was in my control and doing a great job at it. Suddenly, I was forced to release control by delegating, and trust that people on my team would do the job like I would.

Heat experiences are essential to the development of leaders. Rarely do we progress in neat, incremental steps. Instead, we take big leaps because these types of experiences come along and don’t give us the opportunity to take our time. We have to step it up or fail.

The discomfort that comes with heat experiences isn’t necessarily something many voluntarily choose for themselves, but most leaders reflect on these times in their careers and recognize it’s when they grew the most.

As I think back on the scenario above, I remember what a disaster it was. But at the same time, it laid the building blocks for the leader I am now and continues to shape my development.

  • I learned humility – I quickly accepted that I didn’t know enough. I made myself sick at the beginning trying to make everything perfect, but it was disastrous. I had no training or support from my supervisor. I’d just been thrown into this. As a result, I was bossy and micromanaged just about everything. Fortunately, I had people on my team who were kind enough to point out errors in my thinking and offer alternatives.
  • I learned the importance of trust – Those individuals, who were courageous enough to speak up, earned my trust. They pointed out my mistakes, but they did it in a way that instructed rather than embarrassed. They genuinely wanted to help. They understood I wasn’t just an ogre. I was ignorant of their talent. Once I relaxed and stopped micromanaging, I quickly saw their talents, backed off and let them do things their way.

I’m hugely grateful for that team of 10. While I had the title, they had far more experience and maturity. I fell on my face more than once, but their willingness to hang in there and stay committed allowed all of us to create a culture in which we could safely fail, learn and develop. Each of us thrived in that environment, and so did our clients and the company overall.

How about you? Reflect back on one of your heat experiences. How did that situation cause you to develop and grow?

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