Own your learning (Co-authored by Dhruv Talwar)
Last week, my message focused on the importance of becoming a better learner and why, in today’s ever-changing business landscape, learning isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. Following on from that, this week, I’m going to share a great example of how you can actually put your learning journey into action.
I am very pleased that Dhruv Talwar has written this week’s message, to share his personal learning journey. Dhruv, who joined Godrej as a management trainee in 2013, now leads brand strategy for Godrej Properties.
Please read on…
It is said that while in office, Barack Obama read for an hour every day. Bill Gates has been known to take a yearly 2 week reading vacation throughout his career.
It made me wonder – why were the world’s smartest and busiest people able to find an hour a day for deliberate learning, while I was making excuses about how busy I was?
The answer didn’t come suddenly like a eureka moment; but was a gradual process through a realisation over the past 2-3 years that learning is the single best investment of time that we can make. Or as Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
I started by taking 15 minutes out every evening to read editorials. Once this became a habit, I took it a step further by enrolling for online courses on Coursera and Udemy and dedicating 45 minutes every day to ensure that I complete the programs (and not give up mid-way, like I had in the past!). Slowly, but surely, through this I was gaining in confidence on my ability to manage work and learning together.
With this new-found confidence, early last year I decided to participate in a program called the altMBA – an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by marketing guru and author Seth Godin, for a group of 100 individuals from around the world who want to level up and lead.
The 4-week sprint, conducted entirely online through Slack, WordPress, and Zoom, included 12 projects (3 each week) covering topics such as goal setting, business models, decision-making, empathy, change agents, leverage and constraints, opportunity costs, and boundaries. Each project built off the lessons learned in the previous one. There was an overwhelming amount of reading and many ways to interpret the prompts. However, the coaches urged us to “trust the process” and be willing to be vulnerable.
Why the altMBA?
Before I dive into the specifics of my take-aways, I wanted to talk a bit about why I chose to apply for the program and what it took to make it happen. I committed to the altMBA to regain my hunger to learn, bring about change within my organization, and to level up in my career. This program caught my eye because it seemed like an accelerated intense bootcamp environment that would give me the opportunity to dig deeper into a few areas I’ve wanted to improve on. Also, as a marketer, Seth is someone I have looked up to for years. His ability to see the world through other lenses and empathize with others’ viewpoints is remarkable. As I realised by the end of the program, the altMBA is all about teaching you how to do this.
What I did to prep for the altMBA
While I was excited about the ‘idea’ of altMBA, I realised that getting the most out of this program would require some serious commitment.
1. Planning activities at work
My manager was extremely supportive of my intention to participate and the organisation also encouraged me to give my “whole-self” to this by allowing me to take a month-off. I was quite clear in my mind though that I didn’t want work to suffer at all in this duration – for all the support that I was getting, this was the least that I could do! Therefore, it meant that I had to put in the extra hours for 15-20 days before the program commenced and also have a plan in place for the support required at work during my absence.
2. Altering my sleep cycle
The classes were conducted during evenings in the US, and it meant that I had to stay up all night for 30 days in order to participate. To get into this mode, 5-6 days before the program commencement I gradually changed my sleep cycle such that I was totally fresh and prepared for the sprint by the D-day!
3. Reading (beyond an hour a day)
We were given 7 books to read before the start, as part of the prep work. The most impactful book for me was “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield and its concept of treating your dream like a full-time job. I learnt that the force that made me swallow my urge to pursue my dreams is called resistance, and everyone in the world struggles with it – I wasn’t the only one. Resistance manifests itself in the form of fear of failure and procrastination. I was fortunate to read this book first, as learnings from it gave me the strength to overcome resistance to read the other books! Honestly, it wasn’t difficult once I put my mind to it – yes, I had to say ‘no’ to some social gatherings, wake up an hour earlier than usual and cut down on the time spent binge watching on Netflix and YouTube, but there were no drastic lifestyle alterations by any measure.
4. Committing to be honest about myself
I wanted the learnings to stay with me for life, and not just for that month and hence I felt it was going to be critical for me to be absolutely authentic. Easier said than done, but in order to step up it was important for everyone to see the absolute ‘real’ me – how else would I get inputs that were ultimately going to be sustainable?
My takeaways from the altMBA
During the altMBA experience, I was constantly coaching or being coached. The peers I interacted with daily were going through the same intense exercises and transformation. The vital element that made those 30 days so real was that my peers and I both craved that transformation. We had already decided that it was the time to level up and we signed up to do it together. Here are some of my main takeaways:
1. Give proper attention and time to goal-setting
I used to look at goal setting as an academic exercise that was necessary as part of HR processes. I was also guilty of being amongst those who complained that the ‘form is too lengthy’ or that ‘the process is too time-consuming’.
I was so wrong. During the first week of altMBA, when I found my peers asking me questions and giving me suggestions on how to approach the goals that I had laid out for myself, I realized how under-prepared I was. There was no way I could ‘step up’ by taking short cuts and choosing what the aspects of the goal I wanted to think about and the ones I didn’t – the exercise had to be thorough and holistic.
I learnt that when setting goals, it’s important to identify the most challenging obstacles and detail specifically how you’re going to overcome them. You need to clearly understand why you’re excited about your goal and what will keep you motivated when things get tough. And anything worth doing always gets tough!
During the altMBA, we used Zig Ziglar’s framework for creating effective goals. I’ve since set several professional and personal goals for myself, following the framework to help me tread the path to achieve them. From understanding the viability of getting the ‘voice of customer’ at every step of a home-purchase cycle at GPL, to completing a half-marathon in under 2 hours – with each goal, I thought of –
- why I want to do it,
- what’s in it for me
- the obstacles I must overcome,
- the skills and knowledge required,
- who will help me,
- my action plan and
- the specific deadlines
This process has helped me stay focused and enabled me to overcome the hard parts.
2. Empathy is the currency of change
We had 100 people from around 30 countries in my batch. There was a highly qualified senior executive from Google who decided to participate in order to get exposure to ideas and views beyond the perimeter of the tech world. There was a singer from a rock band who wanted an outsider’s take on what it would take to market his band better. There was a former professional poker player who was taking baby steps into entrepreneurship and used the altMBA as a testing ground to see if he could handle intense pressure. There was a rocket scientist as well (not kidding). While it was clear that everyone was there to step up, it was fascinating to understand the background and worldview of others.
Taking this learning into a corporate setup, it is important to understand the goals of the decision-makers and align what you’re trying to achieve with those goals. When I pitch a new initiative, I first think about the goals of the decision-makers and how this new initiative will be viewed by them. Will it align with their goals? If not, is there another way to pitch it? Is there any ongoing initiative that can benefit from the new initiative?
In my current role as a brand strategist for Godrej Properties, I’m constantly working on new ideas and initiatives across various domains with an ultimate goal to make the brand stronger and more appealing. By understanding the broader goals and pain-points of different departments, I pitch initiatives by tying them back to the value addition it would do to the already established departmental and organizational objectives. By establishing trust and tapping into the world views of the decision-makers, I now believe that real change can happen.
3. Recognise your assets, remove your boundaries and change your narrative
When thinking about what you can do to make your company successful, start by listing out your own assets, both tangible and intangible. In my case, I identified creative thinking, relationship building and communication skills as my assets. While putting these down in your Career Development Planning form is a great idea, it is even better to proactively approach your manager and HR business partner and tell them that you look forward to using these skills if they can help in any initiative, even outside the purview of your goals and KRA.
What are the boundaries that you choose to live with? I realise that often, we find ourselves in a situation where our narrative is blinded by boundaries and the status quo. For example, in my case I’d tell myself, “I want to do it, but I’m too junior in the organisation”, “The cost of doing this initiative is too high – the management will dismiss it at first glance” or “I am too established in my current role to explore any new opportunity that the organisation has to offer”. These were the boundaries that I had created for myself. Having experienced the positive difference after removing these boundaries, I can confidently say that if you can change the narrative to yourself, you can accomplish more than you expect.
4. The importance of finding your tribe
Once the program got over, I was added to the altMBA alumni channel on Slack. This was beautiful because not only did I get the opportunity to continue the interactions with batch-mates in the original altMBA Slack format, I was also introduced to 1,200 other professionals who seek to help others without the expectation of getting anything in return and who care about making a difference. I’ve learned, over the past year, what’s possible when you are surrounded by a group of people who are committed to doing their best work, care so deeply, and take the time to be generous and inspire others.
The altMBA felt like a washing machine of ideas, challenges, prompts, change, emotions, thought and urgency. It was uncomfortable and difficult – but has been rewarding and beautiful beyond imagination.
It has been exciting to take this attitude and learning to the next level. I’m contributing much more in meetings now, possibly because I’m putting in much more effort to understand the worldviews of other participants. I’m now able to gather my thoughts and post them on LinkedIn every single day without worrying about how they will be perceived – as I learned from Seth, just ship it! More than anything else, I’m committed to keep learning and sharing to build the tribe. As they say, “Never stop learning, because life never stops teaching”.
Many thanks to Dhruv for sharing his perspectives. It is wonderful to see his commitment to learning (some of you might recall that Dhruv was recognised at the Godrej Awards last year for “Outstanding commitment to Leading Self”).
Dhruv’s story is a particularly helpful guide for anyone who wants to start out on a serious learning commitment. As he points out, it all starts with you really wanting to make this possible – there’s no such thing as not enough time – and then be willing to stick it out and be honest with yourself. There are so many options available to learn online, not to mention the great benefits of learning across geographies and cultures, which can only make it all the more enriching for you. Another interesting point is the one on finding your tribe. There’s nothing like a peer group to challenge and keep you motivated.
I’m sure that many of you would have similar experiences to share. Do write in with them. As always, I look forward to your thoughts.