In business school, I experienced a call to action from a revered professor that challenged me to reach beyond my current capabilities and informed my approach to leadership for the duration of my career.
I was a first-year graduate student at the J.L Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Now-renowned leadership thinker Ram Charan was my management policy professor. Although I was serious about academics, I was taking a full load of classes and working two jobs. Faced with such a busy schedule, my schoolwork began to slip. One day in Ram’s class, he called on me unexpectedly. I had not completed the required preparation for that day’s discussion. Nervous, I began to stumble through an unconvincing response. It was obvious that I was unprepared and I could feel my face flush red. I kept my head down for the rest of class, wanting to disappear.
On my way out, Ram called me aside. Not knowing what he might say, I approached him tentatively; he was one of my favorite professors and I cared what he thought about me. Kindly but firmly, he put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “Mr. Conant,” he said, “you can do better.” And he was right. There was no need to lecture me beyond those four simple words. The message was received, and they have influenced my attitude ever since.
I remain grateful that Ram held me accountable for my performance that day. It made me better—and continues to do so. Now I strive to do the same for others—to embody the aspirational spirit of “you can do better” in my leadership, and I ask the same of the people with whom I live and work.
No matter our vocation or organization, performance is always on the line; we cannot drift into the path of least resistance. Just as we must continually challenge ourselves to transcend complacence and reach for excellence, so, too, must we ask the same of our colleagues, employees, and peers.
To create big change and challenge others to grow, we must learn how to extend this improvement orientation outward from within and apply it to the larger organization.
A Learning Culture
The demands of today’s marketplace require agility. As a leader, to advance a team or organization in a dynamic environment, you must find ways to engineer the notion of perpetual growth into your leadership DNA. You must create a learning culture, one that challenges every member of the organization to grow in a way that is beneficial both to them individually and to the enterprise at large.
The best way to ensure growth is to make sure there are ample opportunities to learn. It’s common sense. Growing requires learning: learning new ways to leverage experience, mastering new skills, and consuming the advice of people with valuable expertise. You really don’t have a choice. All your competitors are striving to attain the necessary knowledge to survive; if you do not, your company will not keep pace and might not be around for very long. Given the choice of growth or death, growth surely beats the alternative.
To create a learning culture:
1. At the individual level: A quality learning culture needs to be led by people who are themselves visibly learning and growing. Leaders must model the behavior. For example, my office is lined with books from floor to ceiling. It is no accident. I love to read, I hunger to learn, and I enjoy sharing and encouraging that enthusiasm with others. If we’ve spent any meaningful time together, chances are I’ve handed you a book (or two) that speaks to your specific interests or addresses a problem you are wrestling with. In this way, in addition to trying to apply my own experience to be helpful, I hope to convey that I am personally invested in learning and growth as I endeavor to be the change I want to see in the workplace and in the world.
2. At the group level: The idea of growth extends beyond the individual and becomes even more imperative when you are pursuing this notion in order to move an entire organization forward. Then it becomes about creating a community that is learning and growing together. People should feel like they are part of a culture that is focused on learning and that the environment in which they work encourages growth. To cultivate this community, it is necessary that your leadership standards both celebrate learning and demand it.
The Push/Pull of Learning
There is a principle I use when leading people and organizations toward growth (but it is widely applicable to whatever behavior you are leading by example). I call it the “push/pull” principle.
To push: Make learning expectations clear to the entire team. Hold them accountable and explain how their adherence will be measured. Be explicit. Articulate that you expect members of your organization to be ever-developing and to be providing growth opportunities to their associates in kind. Perhaps you would include these expectations in their evaluations. Or you might add it to the company scorecard. Maybe you establish specific training and development benchmarks. Whatever the criteria, this part is a “push” because it challenges people to change their behavior.
Important in this step is explaining why learning and growth is important. This creates visibility around the what and the why. Make it clear that this is what is necessary to excel in the 21st century marketplace. Explain that setting the bar ever higher is not a way of tightening a noose, but rather it is a way of saying, “I believe in you. I have faith in your ability to accomplish great things—and in our combined ability to achieve the extraordinary together.”
To pull: Celebrate learning so that people are inspired to pursue it and want to do it. You can entice people by creating positive consequences for success and celebrating those who do it right. Modeling the behavior is essential here, too.
There are limitless ways you can creatively pursue this. For example, to embark on a learning and growth initiative, a leader might announce that she will be teaching a development course and invite members of her leadership team to participate. Or he might create room in the budget for team members to spearhead their own learning and growth opportunities. Or they might share their own positive experience with learning by distributing a favorite book list or sharing a personal story about the power of growth on their leadership journey.
Important in this step is to first show the positive value of the desired behavior with your own actions, and next to celebrate and recognize others who are experiencing success with the initiative. This all amounts to a “pull” because it beckons people toward the desired behavior with positive reinforcement, leading by example, and recognition.
Using this principle—in harmonious tandem—you challenge and entice people toward change: both pushing and pulling. You create an environment in which people are expected to learn, they develop professionally and increase their ability to contribute, and they are celebrated for doing so. Everybody gets better. And it all starts with you.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from “The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights” by Douglas R. Conant (Wiley, Copyright 2020. All rights reserved). This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold. For more information, visit:
Douglas Conant is the CEO and Founder of ConantLeadership, a mission-driven community of leaders and learners who are championing leadership that works. He is the former CEO of Campbell Soup and former President of Nabisco, as well as the author of “The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights.”