Ask 100 company leaders whether they support a learning culture, and you will likely get 100 affirmative answers. Ask 100 front-line people who report directly or indirectly to those leaders whether they work in an organization that supports a learning culture … and the number is going to drop dramatically.
So here’s a question: how can we as senior leaders close the gap?
I believe we should start by simply acknowledging the reality that telling our employees that we have a learning culture does not mean that we actually have a learning culture in our organization. Our words must be paired with action. Here, then, are five steps leaders can take to ensure a high success rate when it comes to launching and following through on a commitment to a strong organizational learning culture.
1. Change the thinking at the top. Everything starts with how you think about your people. Leaders who are serious about initiating and supporting a learning culture stop treating the professional and personal development of the team as an expense, and start treating it as what it really is: an investment. Think about it. If you consistently invest in a learning culture, you are going to have a superior workforce. That means you will have a major edge in the marketplace, because your people will be sharper; they will be better at connecting dots that the competition doesn’t even notice; and they will be more adept at delivering value to the customer. Why wouldn’t you make that investment?
2. Keep an eye on the metrics. In particular, notice in which direction your retention numbers are moving. If more of your best and brightest are leaving this month than last month, rest assured that the needle is moving in the wrong direction. On the other hand, if more of them are sticking around, then the needle is moving in the right direction. Ultimately, there are really only two reasons why good employees who aren’t dealing with a major life change will decide to leave your organization: either they don’t respect their manager, or they feel like they’re not learning new things and growing. Creating a true learning culture for all employees (including managers) can turn around both of those unfortunate situations – and reduce your turnover numbers.
3. Use your development plan to build your bench. A great sports team doesn’t just have a superior starting lineup; it has a superior collection of rising talent and a deep roster of utility players. They call that “bench strength” – and great companies have it, as well. With a strong learning culture, you have the ability to build up your bench, not just by making people stronger at their current positions and helping them to make more and varied contributions, but also by helping them begin to grow into the right future position before they take it on. It’s been estimated that 43% of sales managers have zero management experience when they’re promoted. That’s not how it should be. To continue our sports metaphor: would you ask someone who has never pitched a single inning to start in a playoff game? Probably not. A learning culture that features appropriate training, mentorship, and project experience can turn around that kind of statistic within your organization. The value and the revenue that can be generated from your development plan is incredible. Make the most of it!
4. Create truly personalized learning paths. Once you know what someone needs to do to be successful in their current position … once you know what they will need to do to move into the next position that makes sense for them and for the organization … create a learning path that is unique to that individual. Never stop asking: what could we teach this person that would help them be more successful? Be careful: learning paths cannot be company-wide. They may be job-specific, but we always need to assess what makes a given employee different from everyone else in the organization. Note, too, that it’s vitally important that people co-create their learning plan. Let them participate. Instead of telling people what they should be or could be getting from their development path, help them discover that for themselves through the questions you ask when you’re one-on-one. That way the learning path they commit to will have more potency, and what they eventually learn will be far more likely to “stick.” Learning will be an important personal priority for them – not just another edict coming from the boss.
5. Start at the top. At organizations with a strong learning culture, the leadership is always personally congruent with the culture. This means showing your leadership team, through both decisions and actions, that you are personally committed to learning and development – yours and theirs. So for instance, when you read a book that has the potential to have a positive impact on your team, pass it along … and discuss it with your direct reports once everyone has read it. When you send people to outside training, ask them to share what they’ve learned with the rest of the team. Never forget that employees emulate the actions of senior leadership and tend to take on the same priorities as the leadership team. When you make learning part of your personal leadership style, it becomes an essential part of supporting a learning culture throughout your organization.
Follow these five simple best practices … and you can back up your good intentions to initiate and support a learning culture with tangible actions!
Learn more about building an impactful learning culture, here.