Be a Lifelong Learner
By Karen Wright
I’ve never met a leader with a big vision who didn’t also have a huge commitment to his own development. Anyone who’s trying to stay at the top of his game never stops learning—he never presumes he knows it all, and he’s not embarrassed to seek wisdom from others. In fact, outstanding leaders know that the best way to stay sharp is to constantly pursue learning and new ideas.
This concept of always staying in a learning mindset was best highlighted by Stephen Covey in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which put forth the idea of “sharpening the saw.” Focusing on your own growth will ensure you have an ever-expanding set of tools with which to solve problems, build relationships, and generate new ideas. Your thinking will be improved by new stimuli, whether the source is people, books, courses, conversations, or experiences. Exposure to new ideas in any form will keep you sharp and help you stay creative.
There’s an expectation that those in leadership roles have some sense of the world beyond the end of their nose. And, given the ambassadorial role of business leaders, you’ll often find yourself in situations where you will have to converse with people of different backgrounds and interests. So it’s practical and useful to have some knowledge of what’s going on in the larger world. You never want to be the only one at a cocktail party who hasn’t heard about something big that happened on the world stage.
In “How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere,” Larry King reveals that his ability to ask great questions comes from being informed. The best way to build an authentic relationship with people is to ask genuinely interested questions about something they’re involved in, and you will be better equipped to do this if you have at least a passing knowledge of current events and common topics.
Form some habits that help you stay current. Have the newspaper delivered to your house and read it over breakfast, or spend 10 to 15 minutes reading when you first get to the office. You can read the paper on the subway, use a news app on your mobile device as you ride the commuter train, or listen to an all-news station on your drive to work. News is so accessible that there’s no excuse not to have a basic knowledge of the day’s events. On the weekends, you can dig a little deeper into subjects and events of particular interest.
To stay abreast of current thinking related to your role and responsibilities, you will find it valuable to create a habit whereby you are consuming new ideas in the areas of leadership, motivation, human behavior, and business thinking regularly. In addition, many leaders I know make a point of reading biographies and histories to understand how great leaders of all sorts thought, behaved, and strategized. Fiction can provide an excellent change of pace from the analytical thinking you do all day long. No matter what you choose, reading helps expand your vocabulary; improve concentration, focus, and reasoning skills; and reduce stress, so take a technology break and learn something new.
I have several CEO clients who consume at least one book a week, as well as Executive Book Summaries (summary.com) or Philosophers’ Notes (entheos.com/philosophersnotes) of several others, proving that no matter how busy you are, you can always find time for something that proves itself to be useful and enjoyable.
The idea here is focus. Ideas and information are everywhere. Leaders who put themselves in a learning mindset and constantly expose themselves to new ideas are strengthening their knowledge base, but they are also susceptible to distraction and loss of focus. There’s so much to learn and nowhere near enough time to learn it all. You’re going to come across fascinating things you want to pursue, but with only so much time in the day you must remain focused on your priorities.
Use a tool such as Google Alerts to hone in on five key topics you want to follow. Subscribe to some podcasts, RSS feeds, and magazines in your chosen topic areas. Don’t set your horizons too wide. At some point, an item on your list will cease to be important or useful, and if that happens, you can take it off your list—and be sure to drop an item before you add something new. The things on your list can be a mix of business and personal interests if you like and if you feel you have sufficient space after the work topics are covered. I know one professional who has three work-related topics on his list, but the other two items are about Broadway, a passion of his.
It’s easy to get tempted, and you can lose time quickly traveling from one topic to another, skimming across the surface like a water bug and never knowing any one thing very well. Skimming is useful if it gives you conversational fodder about a wide variety of things, but be sure you’re diving deeply into the priority topics before letting yourself surf across the surface.
Current Business Climate
There will be key things you want to stay on top of. One of my clients is a senior leader in a mining company that has mine sites in several volatile parts of the world. He makes sure to stay current on the political climates in those areas, because local political activities potentially can affect his business. So whether it’s stock market movement, politics, or competitor activity (promotions, new product introductions, sales launches, key personnel changes, etc.), there are things that will have potential impact on your business outside of its day?to?day operations, and you should know about them.
Keeping abreast of developments takes effort. The mining executive isn’t going to get the latest news about South America unless he makes a point of looking for it. Make the time to stay current, because it is the only way you will learn about certain things that likely will have longer-term impact on your business.
Openness to New Ideas
Open-mindedness is a choice; it’s about not being attached to your agenda or your own ideas. Ask yourself: To what degree am I willing to suspend my own agenda or idea to consider something that might be better? To what degree am I genuinely curious about new ideas, and do I seek them out? You’re in a leadership role because you have some vision and a sense of how to move forward, but if the only view you ever consider is your own, you likely will not advance as quickly than if you benefited from the synergy that happens when several people contribute to a solution.
Your willingness to embrace the unexpected is directly related to your ability to have fun and to laugh a little bit throughout the day. Avoid keeping your head down with your nose to the grindstone, fiercely committed to the agenda you’ve got going. You never know when being surprised by something might spark a new idea or just wake you up.
As leaders, we require self-awareness and the willingness to admit we’re not perfect. One of the most important functions a leader plays is that of a role model, so if you know there’s a skill or leadership competency that’s less developed in your own leadership tool kit, be transparent about your efforts to improve. This will not only make you a better leader, it will make you a good example to others in your organization. Most people connect more strongly to someone who has humility and admits to some vulnerability. It gives them hope that they someday will get to where you are.
If you’re trying to build capacity in the people in your organization, they must be committed to their own development. The best way to build that commitment is to demonstrate it yourself.
Learning from experts in an environment designed for that purpose almost will always turn up new ideas. Many people say that if they return from a course or conference with just one thing they can use, it was worth attending. Putting yourself in a formal learning environment is only partly about who is standing in the front of the room. It’s also about the attendees; you can learn as much from the participants in a learning environment as you can from the curriculum or the speaker.
You don’t need to attend learning events often; you just need to understand and appreciate the value of putting yourself in a formal learning environment and doing it regularly. For those at the very senior level, once a year is probably sufficient, as long as you’re staying current with your learning and growth through other means, as well.
Learning events are different from reading—they provide a different sort of stimulation. You’re not in total control of what you’re receiving, which gives you the chance to be surprised by new insights. Learning events are also another way to continue to build your network—by virtue of being in the same place, the attendees already have established common ground, which is a great place to start to build a relationship.
Complementary Skill Sets
To ensure you have a balanced team working around you, include yourself in the assessment of the team’s skills. Hire people with different leadership styles and personalities, functional backgrounds, skills, strengths, and areas for development.
It’s easiest to hire people who are just like you, but if you do that, you’re going to have an unbalanced team. If you’re truly committed to your own development, you will find it beneficial to have people around who are strong in areas you’re not, so you can learn from them, not to mention how they will bring valuable diversity to your team.
The curse of the smart person is the ability to do almost anything at least passably well. This ability to know or do most things gets in the way of delegating, and prevents less experienced people from learning and stretching. At its worst, the tendency to do too many things for yourself can result in poor decisions due to lack of knowledge depth. At best, you’re spending time doing something someone else can do at least as well, if not better.
I once was told that if you can find someone to do a task for half or less of your own hourly rate, it’s worth hiring the other person. This logic would have you staffing out quite a number of activities you’re probably already doing. And there may be money involved! I can speak from my own experience; when I finally found the right combination of bookkeeper and tax accountant for my business, I learned I had missed thousands of dollars of deductions and expenses just because I didn’t have the depth of knowledge to file for the full range of allowable deductions.
Even the things you know how to do and do every day can afford a little expert attention every now and then. Almost every golfer I know takes at least one lesson each season, just to have a pro look at his swing and see where he can make some tweaks to get better performance.
Introduced in Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic “Think and Grow Rich,” the concept of the mastermind group has evolved tobecome a key component of many successful executives’ practice.
A mastermind group can be an incredible resource, if constructed and used properly, as it brings the power of several great brains into your business, and equally gives you the opportunity to contribute to others. This process will strengthen your own problem-solving skills and creative thinking. My own mastermind group has provided me with incredible value in numerous ways: committed time away from the day?to?day business to think creatively and strategically, powerful brainstorming, and the unique resources offered up by my group members.
When creating your own mastermind group, keep the number small and look for members who are equally committed to their own personal and business growth. You need to have a high level of trust in those you choose, and, even with that in place, you’ll want to have a mutual agreement of confidentiality.
Ideally, the members of your group all should be working in slightly different spaces so you’re not directly competing, and members should each bring some different perspective, whether that’s via their education, technical skills, or experiences.
A well-constructed mastermind group is balanced both in membership and in process, so that each participant derives approximately equal value from it. At the outset, the group needs to decide where and when to meet and for how long, and should design the time so each member has an opportunity to bring an issue or problem to the group’s attention. In a perfect world, each member is giving and receiving relatively equally.
The Bottom Line
With the business and world environment changing at the speed of light, your organization had better be able to learn and adapt quickly. One of the keys to creating a learning organization is for its leaders to be known as learners. Putting some regular and simple practices in place to ensure you’re always raising your own bar will keep your development progressing and help you set a good example for those around you.
Excerpt from “THE COMPLETE EXECUTIVE: The 10-Step System for Great Leadership Performance” byKaren Wright (Bibliomotion, September 2012).
After a career in consumer packaged goods marketing and advertising, Karen Wright is now the owner of a coaching company, Parachute Executive Coaching, based in Toronto, Canada, and leads a team of coaches who work to build leadership capacity at the senior levels of large organizations across North America. Wright’s own coaching focuses on working with executives to achieve the elusive combination of health, happiness and success. She has an MBA from the Ivey School at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, and is one of an elite group of Master Certified Coaches globally. For more information, visit http://karenwrightcoaching.com.