Become a better learner

Leadership  Learning
23 July, 2018

Overcome your resistance to learning new things – it’ll make you a better leader

GianpieroPetriglieri, professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, puts it well: “learning is the most celebrated neglected activity in the workplace.”

Oh sure, we all agree it’s important to keep learning, especially for leaders. But when was the last time you actually invested time and effort into picking up a new skill or deepening your knowledge of a new subject? The fact is, most working professionals don’t prioritise learning. The excuses are endless: you’re too busy, you have no time, you already know everything you need to, you’re too old to grasp new topics, and so on…. Leaders also resist learning due to other, deeper reasons: it’s hard to admit you’re a novice, to put yourself in the place of a learner (instead of a teacher), and to deal with not being good at something right away.

So, you simply stay in your bubble, forgetting that in today’s ever-changing business landscape, learning isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. It’s what allows us to keep pace with the rest of the world, stay competitive and relevant (at a personal as well as organisational level), anticipate problems/opportunities, and make more informed decisions. Without it, we come one step closer to becoming obsolete – dinosaurs in a modern age.

In their Harvard Business Review article, The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners, Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche point out that twenty-first century leaders need to acclimatise to learning all the time:

Leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode. Leaders that stay on top of society’s changes do so by being receptive and able to learn. In a time where the half-life of any skill is about five years, leaders bear a responsibility to renew their perspective in order to secure the relevance of their organisations. As we attempt to transition into a networked creative economy, we need leaders who promote learning and who master fast, relevant, and autonomous learning themselves.

So, this week, my message focuses on how you can become a better learner – and, therefore, a better leader. Many people believe that the ability to learn is innate – either you have it, or you don’t. But science tells us that effective learners are made, not born. Learning is a skill, and like any other skill it can be honed with the right strategies.

Here are some key recommendations to help you become a better, faster, sharper learner:

1. Set achievable goals 

The first step is to set clear, challenging yet realistic goals for what you want to learn. Not only does a targeted approach boost your commitment and motivation, but it also helps you deal with any negative emotions – such as fear of failure or anxiety that you’re wasting your time. With a clear, feasible vision of what you want to achieve and why, as well as a timeline, these nagging feelings are kept in check.

In her Harvard Business Review piece, How to Decide What Skill to Work on Next, Erika Anderson suggests a three-pronged approach (based on Jim Collins’ “hedgehog” concept) to identify your ideal learning area:

Organisational success. How can you learn in a way that will fill your organisation’s needs? As a leader, you’ve probably already got a list of areas for improvement – can you link your growth with any of these?

Talent. Now that you have a few useful capabilities in mind, consider which one you are likely to excel at in the future – based on your existing skills and natural abilities. (Remember, you don’t have to already be good at it – you should simply be able to visualise a future in which you can be.)

Passion. Which of the shortlisted areas are you most interested in? That could be your top contender. However, keep in mind that this component allows for some flexibility. Interest and enthusiasm can be sparked by asking questions and focusing on the long-term benefits (more on this later).

2. Pay attention to your thinking 

In Learning is a Learned Behaviour, an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Ulrich Boser highlights a study by cognitive psychology expert, Marcel Veenman, which found that people who focus on how they learn tend to outperform their higher-IQ peers. When it comes to mastering new skills, keeping track of your own thinking is 15 percentage points more important than innate intelligence.

Paying attention to your own thought process is known as metacognition, as Boser explains:

Psychologists define metacognition as “thinking about thinking,” and broadly speaking, metacognition is about being more inspective about how you know what you know. It’s a matter of asking ourselves questions like: Do I really get this idea? Could I explain it to a friend? What are my goals? Do I need more background knowledge? Or do I need more practice?

An intentional learning strategy also includes reflection. Taking a step back allows you to process and absorb your newly-acquired knowledge. In other words, make time for breaks and quiet introspection to reinforce your lessons.

3. Switch to learning mode 

When you’ve been used to being an expert for many years, becoming a learner once again is challenging, even frightening. It’s the reason why many leaders start strong but quickly abandon their learning efforts – they simply can’t handle being “bad” at something.

To avoid getting disheartened, you need to enter learning mode. This means understanding that this is a new area for you: you’re going to be bad at it for a while, and you’re going to make mistakes. And then, you’re going to get good at it! Consider this great motto from David Peterson, director of leadership development at Google: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”

Accepting your novice status will free you up to make the most of your learning journey, from asking “dumb” questions to receiving constructive feedback. If you find yourself getting self-critical or defensive, ask yourself: am I being open to learning right now? Or am I feeling uncomfortable because I’m not an expert at this yet?

As leaders, we can also help our team members stay in learning mode. Treat mistakes as growth opportunities rather than something to be ashamed of and swept under the carpet. Approach each person’s learning and development as an individualised process, in which you benchmark them against their own past self – rather than pitting them against their teammates.

4. Increase curiosity and aspiration 

Think back to the last time a new system/technique was introduced at the organisation. Were you enthusiastic about it from the start? The most common initial response to change is resistance, making it the first roadblock to learning. You can overcome this natural disinclination by building your curiosity as well as raising your aspiration levels.

Instead of instantly focusing on the difficulties, great learners get curious about a new approach. How does it work? Why was it introduced? What kind of impact could it have? Who else has used it? I wonder if it could help me? Asking yourself and trying to answer even a few of these questions could spark your interest and change your perspective. Additionally, make it a point to focus on the benefits of learning rather than the obstacles; this creates the ambition and motivation you need to conquer the new system.

5. Be a leader-learner

Accepting that they still have a lot to learn is difficult for most adults – and even more so for senior leaders. On one hand, you want to master new areas and equip yourselves for the future; on the other, you don’t want to admit that there are things you don’t know.

In her Harvard Business Review article, Admitting You Don’t Know, When You’re the CEO, Erika Andersen offers a couple of helpful tips for being a successful leader-learner:

Excel at the core of your job. Build confidence by being great at your core skills and responsibilities. Seeing that you’re clearly an expert in your domain, colleagues will recognise you as intelligent and capable – and your willingness to learn will be viewed positively.

Be a novice in public. Asking a question that reveals you don’t know something can make you feel uneasy and worried. But as Andersen explains, it’s practically guaranteed that your fears aren’t justified. Simply ask the other person to systematically walk you through what they’re saying or explain it in a different way. By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of the topic, the other person will feel helpful and significant, and everyone else in the room will appreciate the open, learning-oriented environment you created.

At a personal level, I have found writing regular posts for #Monday8am to be a great learning experience – it is enabling to read a lot more, seek and assimilate knowledge from a broad spectrum of people and expand my horizons!

Just a decade or two ago, adult learning was a much tougher, more time-consuming process, involving on-site classes, fixed schedules, and multiple trips to libraries. Today, we have easy access to an incredible range of learning opportunities – well-designed online courses, flexible class schedules, study material adapted for different learning styles, a huge library of e-books and articles, and a growing number of talented coaches. Let’s get rid of the excuses and fears, and utilise these wonderful resources to go on a learning journey that is as joyous as it is necessary.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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