Keep learning

Leadership  Learning
09 November, 2015

Stay ahead of the curve with an appetite for learning

Every couple of weeks or so, many of us receive an email from D. Shivakumar, with a book summary of one the latest books he has read. Shiv, as you know, leads PepsiCo in India and is on our GCPL board. Shiv’s summary usually consists of 35-50 slides and includes his reflections and learnings from the book.

You may wonder – how Shiv finds the time to not only read prolifically but to also put his thoughts down in a presentation? After all, he is leading a major MNC in India, not to mention his commitments on various Boards, chairing the CII FMCG committee, speaking at various campuses and conferences etc.

It boils down to Shiv being an insatiable learner. Even though he has achieved so much, he believes that learning is a lifelong journey.

Increasingly, leaders are recognising that in order to stay relevant and ahead of the game, it’s important that we keep on renewing ourselves. Keeping pace with change is no longer sufficient. We have to anticipate change. We have to refresh, upgrade and acquire new skills.

We have to keep on learning, un-learning, and re-learning. We have to embrace learning.

So, my message this week focuses on the need to cultivate a growth mindset and make learning an ongoing, iterative process that you enjoy. Why is it so important for you to constantly look for new ways and things to learn? How can you make learning a habit? How is the process of learning itself changing and how can you use this to your advantage?

Bottom line, if you want to grow as a leader, you have to commit yourself to learning.

Acquiring new skills and knowledge to ‘learn a living’ as some people put it, is arguably one of the most important habits that you need to cultivate. The problem quite often, is that the more senior you get, you think you know most of (if not all of) what you need to. You have got to where you have because you worked at it. But are you earning your right to be in your role, every day? Even as things change? Are you still best-in-class? As American basketball player and coach John Wooden put it, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”.

The rules of the game from when you started out to where you are now, have changed significantly. And they will only change more. You can’t learn everything all at once and you don’t need to. But what you should invest in is learning how to learn. Here are some suggestions on how you could go about it:

1. Build in reality checks

Like with any journey of personal growth, here too, you need to start by assessing yourself. Take stock of where you currently stand. Are you learning? Are you even interested in learning? When was the last time you made an effort to learn something new? What holds you back? What is it that you need to be learning more about? Be honest with yourself, because this will only work if you truly commit to it. And if you’re looking for more data points, just to be doubly sure that your inferences are correct, then reach out to your team members and peers. It is always very helpful to get their perspectives too, not just about what you need to personally invest time in learning, but also about the kind of learning space that you are encouraging for them. This can be difficult though, because a large part of this approach involves admitting to yourself that you don’t know it all.

2. Find the time

Your learning is not going to translate into anything concrete unless you have a plan in place. Of course, you will be busy with the many things that demand your attention. But you can’t make not having enough time an excuse. You need to carve out time for it. Some of the more structured inputs like formal training, developmental projects, cross-functional or cross-business assignments, can be planned for and scheduled in.

3. Step out of your comfort zone

There is only so far that you can go, despite your best intentions, if you don’t push boundaries and start getting a little uncomfortable. Being surrounded by the same people, the same ideas, the same conversations, won’t help you learn faster or better. It won’t give you the edge that you need to stay ahead of your game. So, start experimenting. Dabble in something new. Ask more questions. You will learn much more from people and ideas and even industries that are different from what you are familiar with. They will make you question your assumptions. Bottom line, you need to be curious.

Bill Taylor, in his Harvard Business Review article Are You Learning as Fast as the World Is Changing?, says that the best leaders (and learners) have the widest field of vision. He uses Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as an example.

As Jobs talked about the original Macintosh computer, he talked less about semiconductors and software than he did about painting, music, and art. “Ultimately it [creativity] comes down to taste,” he explained. “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then trying to bring those things in to what you’re doing… I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

4. Make it part of everything that you do

While of course you can (and must) set aside dedicated time to learn, it doesn’t have to be restricted to just that. You never really know when you could be learning something. Learning is a process. You can apply it to just about anything. That’s what makes it so powerful.

So, figure out a way to make learning less planned and more innate to what you do. Start with your job, because that is where you probably spend most of your time. Are you carving out enough time here to reflect? Are you ideating and debating? Are you exposed to enough new ideas and feedback? Are you challenging yourself? Are you being able to offer any of this to your team?

5. Get creative

One of the great ways in which learning is evolving, is to offer you a plethora of choice. You can choose what you want to learn, when you want to learn, how you want to learn, how fast you want to learn and who you want to learn with.

Close on the heels of increased mobility and digital media, the world of education too is undergoing an amazing revolution. Learning-on-the-go is becoming increasing popular. You no longer need to be in a classroom or reading books to learn. You can do all of it off your mobile phone. Not just that, there is so much information available online and so many places where you can find it. YouTube and TED have always been popular. You now also have options like iTunes University and the many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) available. Several leading schools across the globe are now sharing their content on these forums. All of this world-class material is available for you to browse through and learn at your pace. And just because they offer choice, doesn’t mean there isn’t structure. There are follow ups to all the learning you do and you can even get accredited.

So, what this next wave of learning style demands is for you to commit and make a choice. The content and platforms are all being designed and set up for just this.

6. Pick up something that excites you

Given the choice and the breadth of content up for grabs, this can be very exciting and engaging. Think about it. Sure, there will be things that you need to learn given the kind of work that you are doing and the expectations that come along with your role. But there is lots more that you can add to this. Here is your chance to pick up something that you have always wanted to, but just didn’t end up doing for various reasons. It is a great way to learn how to learn, because you will naturally be much more involved in something you are passionate about. You can find courses, videos, discussion groups and lots of different learning material to help you along.

7. Practice

Learning can’t stop at just reading or watching videos. You need to start putting what you learn into practice. So, whatever it is that you are signing up to know more about – find a way to start using or demonstrating it. Teaching is a great way to do this. Why not volunteer your time or mentor someone who can benefit from these new skills that you are picking up? It is a wonderful way to give back, while building on your own learning. The exchange will also help you figure out your own gaps in learning and push you to explore more.

Why not start now? As you know, we are launching our new online Learning Management System. Through this, we are making a wide range of learning resources across different topics and in different formats available to our team members. So, check out the options available. Get your teams involved too. Each of you could even select a different topic and then share what you learn with each other, as you go along.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions on how we can become a better learning organisation.

P.S. Over the weekend, while I was working on this piece, I had plenty of suggestions from my family on my personal learning agenda. My wife suggested that we learn a new language. My son (who had spent many hours at a stretch trying to solve the Rubik’s cube on his own) added that it was not late for me to learn it. And my older daughter who was practicing the oboe for a music recital at school chimed in that perhaps I should pick up an instrument (knowing fully well my musical limitations :)). So, certainly, there is going to be no dearth of learning counsel for me from my family!


  • Tarun Girdhar says:

    Very well written. Touches the very important fact that we tend to stop learning as we grow up, but learning should be a never ending, iterative and life-long process.

  • Tejwansh Singh Bedi says:

    Dear Sir,
    Thanks for reminding us every week to learn and keep improving. Amazing thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  • Meetu Grover says:

    Indeed, the article is profound. I recently picked up a language to learn, which I had been wanting to learn for many years. The journey is splendid. I used to chuckle triumphantly, when I was able to speak sentences in French. As grown ups, we stop thinking creatively and somewhere ‘childlike’ curiosity takes a back-seat. We need to start thinking ‘childlike’.


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