Author: Alistair Cox, CEO, Hays plc
When I step back and think about the most successful people I have come across in my career, they share a common theme. They all seem to genuinely enjoy learning new things and will continually challenge themselves to grow and develop. They may be at the pinnacle of their game, but they accept that they still have much to learn and actively go out to discover what they are missing. I really haven't found an exception to that rule. For them, lifelong learning is a huge part of their fulfilment and happiness, both inside and outside of work.
So as a leader, ask yourself this question: if lifelong learning and success are linked, is continuous learning really a personal priority to you, as the leader of your business, and, importantly, are you the role model your workforce looks up to in this regard? If the answer is anything but an unequivocal 'Yes', then there’s a real danger your best people will start to wonder if they really are in the best place to help them continually learn and develop. And you really don't want to lose your best people.
You must be a role model for lifelong learning
I strongly believe that you are never too senior or old to learn something new. In fact, the best leaders I know are those who are always learning new things, always reading or exploring a lot and above all, always make their own development a personal priority. These people usually lead high-performing businesses. And that’s no coincidence. As I see it, if the leader of a business is committed to their own learning, generally their entire workforce can be too. And that can only lead to good things.
As leaders, it’s our job to teach our people that now, more than ever, continuous learning should be a priority for all of us, throughout our lives. We need to role model lifelong learning ourselves to really get this message home.
So challenge yourself with this: what have I learned in the last year, how did I do it and what do I want to tackle next? Secondly, did anyone notice what you've done and how do you think they perceive the new, developed you? I personally think it's important that you actively show your business that you are genuinely committed to your own career development - that learning is personally important to you and your career, and that, essentially, the rest of the business should take a leaf out of your book. By doing so, a culture of lifelong learning will start to permeate.
People leave managers, not organisations
But this role modelling should never just start and end with you. Your people managers must also embody this philosophy for it to really make a difference. But that might mean you need to spearhead a change in mind set. Your managers mustn’t see learning and development as a cost, or a waste of time, rather an investment in the long-term health and sustainability of themselves, their team and the wider organisation.
Here are three ideas to help your people managers really role-model lifelong learning in a way that will make their teams sit up, take notice and replicate their behaviour.
1. Managers need to be more self-aware
Encourage your people managers to take a step back and really think about if they themselves are personally committed to their own learning. Is there more they could be doing? When was the last time they went on a training course or attended a conference? Or even simply spent 20 minutes reading a thought leadership piece they'd found on the web. In my book, all these things make up what it means to be committed to lifelong learning. Are they constantly pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone? Are they still curious? Do they know what their skills gaps are? Do they act as if they are on a development journey, or that the journey has finished and they've checked out of future personal growth and understanding?
I know from my own experience that developing your leadership style is a lifelong endeavour rather than simply the result of just going on a few training courses. Do your people managers feel they’re the ‘finished article' just because they went on one training course last year (and haven’t done anything since)? They shouldn’t do, and if they do, you have a problem on your hands. They may not be bothered about their own development, but if that approach permeates through their teams, you're going to struggle.
So, your managers must realise that by not making their own learning a priority (often claiming because they are too busy doing other ‘important’ things), that not only are they doing themselves an injustice, but they are doing their teams an injustice by not setting a good enough example.
2. Actions speak louder than words
It’s just not enough for your managers to just ‘talk the talk’ and not ‘walk the walk’. And they need to hear this loud and clear from you. We all know that actions speak louder than words (especially when it comes to role modelling), so your people managers need to openly and publically communicate their commitment to their personal lifelong learning, no matter how busy they think they might be. The alternative is frankly either an admission of giving up, or one of having achieved perfection. Neither are palatable in my view.
It can be incredibly motivating for a direct report to know that their line manager also has a personal development plan they’re executing. It essentially helps the team realise and understand that it’s not just them who has to improve, everyone in the business does, including the boss.
Encourage your people managers to take some time out of their busy schedules to learn whenever and wherever they can. After all, there are so many opportunities for learning out there, many of which can essentially fit seamlessly into our day-to-day. So, encourage your people managers to attend industry events, join webinars during their lunch break or recommend podcasts to listen to on their commute home. If we think about it, there's lots of unproductive time in our packed schedules as we wait for trains and planes, sit in traffic jams or relax over a coffee or sandwich at lunchtime. Remember that there’s no one size fits all model when it comes to learning, so let your people managers choose the path that works the best for them.
3. Failure is ok, as long it comes with learning
Innovation and advancement is what we are all striving for in order to remain competitive, and that simply cannot happen without occasional failure. So in the new ‘lifelong learning culture’ of your business, let your people managers know that failure is ok. Just encourage them to fail fast AND take away every last drop of learning from the situation. I remember listening to an interview with Boris Becker many years ago when he had been defeated yet again by his nemesis, Pete Sampras. When asked how he felt about yet another defeat, he said simply "Every time I lose, I am learning how to beat him". And beat him eventually he did - many times. Boris was not failing. He was learning.
So, next time you’re tempted to decline an opportunity to learn something new, just because you think you’re too busy, grasp it with both hands. Stop making excuses and find the time to develop yourself and learn new things in a way that works for you. Your workforce will definitely notice this change. More so, they will admire and respect you for it, and most importantly, follow suit.
Thank you for reading, I hope this gave you some pause for thought. For more insightful articles about the world of work, visit our dedicated blog page here or click on one of the links below.