LEADERS AS PERPETUAL LEARNERS
As a leader, do you see yourself as a perpetual learner? Do you treat your employees as learners? And is fostering a “learning identity” one of your organization’s strategic imperatives? It should be. Organizations that excel at learning are best equipped to innovate, sustain and grow.
Not surprisingly, organizations with learning identities are led by leaders who model “the learning way.” These leaders have four attributes.
• They learn from experience instead of acting on the basis of fixed notions.
• They seek out new experiences that will challenge old ideas and assumptions—including their own.
• They frame mistakes as opportunities to learn.
• They learn from others’ successes. (Kolb & Kolb, 2002)
Thomas Edison surely had a learning identity—over a thousand patents, companies spawned, and many, many “mistakes” that spurred innovation. As counter-examples, think of people you know of who base decisions on fixed ideas, cultivate a narrow circle of people, spurn new approaches, and ignore successes they can’t claim as their own. You probably know from experience, and studies support it, that where there are managers like this, there is low morale, little creativity, and high turnover.
In interviews with leaders, researchers have found that the learning
way is contagious: “…those who have a learning identity tend to create
relationships that stimulate it in others.” (Kolb & Kolb, 2002)
Let's think first about the ramifications for you as a leader.
Then I'll give suggestions for encouraging a learning identity in
yourself and your organization.
First, if you cultivate a learning identity, you will tend to choose and attract fellow learners. I’ve seen this happen. A client, the new CEO of a national public health organization, chose senior team members with attributes like learning from experience (including data), constantly seeking new information to learn from, using mistakes for adaptation, and celebrating a variety of successes. The team’s positive focus and creative energy fed its ability to expand the organization’s influence.
A second ramification of the learning contagion is that your learning identity motivates people around you. I’ve worked with organizations where managers hand employees greater responsibility, supportively coach them through mistakes, and celebrate their successes. These are places where people and the bottom line flourish over time. And I’ve also seen the opposite: managers who deflate talented people by typing them, micromanaging and frequently criticizing them. The result? The most talented employees leave.
So what can you do to encourage a learning identity in yourself and your organization?
Hire people whose approach points to having a learning identity. Use interview questions that help you find perpetual learners: “Talk about a mistake or setback and how you responded.” “Tell me about something you’ve learned recently and why it is important.” “What are you passionate about, and how does it show up in your life?”
Observe your self-talk. The next time you have a setback or make a mistake, take a few minutes to notice what goes through your head. Do you notice a lot of self-criticism, a desire to hide, or strong emotions like shame? These may be signs that you have fixed notions about yourself that block access to a learning identity. Try experimenting with self-talk messages that reframe your reactions, such as, “Wow, that is really useful information” and “What is the opportunity here?”Work with a coach. It is easier to make and act on self-discovery when you have a coach-partner. Reporting on a recent Stanford University CEO coaching survey, Harvard Business Review concluded that “the key takeaway is that seeking out a coach or advisor is not a sign of … weakness, but instead a key attribute of being a superior leader.” CEOs responding to the survey captured the essence of having a learning identity when they said they use a coach to help them frame important issues, challenge them, and support learning through reflection.