The Critical Importance of Critical Experiences in Career Development

Growth and development usually come at a cost. They are important for us both personally and professionally, but that does not mean they are always pleasant.

Typically for us to truly build new skills as leaders in a chosen field, we have to stretch out of our comfort zone.

These opportunities are gems in one’s career — truly chances to pivot when you take advantage of them. Think of them as critical experiences. They are almost like a refiner’s fire for precious metal.

In talking with a business leader recently, we were discussing how both she and her entire team of direct reports had been going through a critical experience in their development. They had some incredibly difficult messages to deliver to their organization. It was far from easy, but necessary nonetheless.

3 ways you know you’re in a critical experience

Once you have completed a particularly difficult assignment, you can look back on it and recognize with much greater clarity all the things you have learned from it. While you are in the middle of it, you often do not realize the myriad benefits taking place in the moment.

My client and I agreed she and her direct reports may never have a need to replicate this exact same experience again in their careers — and that’s OK. The leadership lessons gleaned from this experience will help them become better leaders every day for many years to come.

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So how do you know if you are in a critical experience? Or about to find yourself in one?

Critical experiences are:

  • Repeatable – More than one person in the organization can go through the experience across business units and geographies. They may not happen frequently, but they are not isolated incidents either. For example, working on a merger/acquisition, or a joint venture could be a critical experience.
  • Developmental – They support and accelerate your career development as you progress over time, based on predetermined criteria for success in your organization. For example, leading a cross-functional team that operates on a global scale might be particularly important for someone interested in moving to the next level in a multi-national enterprise.
  • Timeless – They stand the test of time. For example, they are not tied to a specific technology, since technology changes so rapidly. However involvement in changing the way your company operates due to business advantages gained from technology may result in a critical experience. Rolling out new technology to field operations is often an important experience in one’s career.

What critical experiences would you like to share below? I’d love to hear which ones have shaped you and your progress the most.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

Betsy Winkler is Partner at PeopleResults a human capital consultancy focusing on change, organization, talent and communications/new media. She has been working as a business consultant and change leader for 20 years, and previously led the Change Leadership Center of Excellence for PepsiCo.

Contact her at


6 Comments on “The Critical Importance of Critical Experiences in Career Development

  1. Great observations Betsy! I think often times people don’t realize they are having a critical experience until it’s over and may miss out on fully utilizing the learning that is happening. I appreciate the tips on knowing when you may be in the middle of one!

  2. I really like this framework and reminder that critical experiences are at the heart of growth. I agree with you that it often comes from a place of discomfort. That can be the best learning!

  3. I love the framework you outline, Betsy. I also think it’s really interesting when you THINK that you are going to get a critical experience and you don’t, vs. when you think you’ve got a run of the mill assignment and it turns into a critical experience!

  4. Great post, Betsy. Critical experiences can be career accelerators even if painful at the time. Interesting!

  5. A good reminder to always be thinking about what you can learn from an experience to take to your next role or assignment.

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