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Time to Learn

In a recent blog, business author Seth Godin wrote, “When (part of) your marketplace embraces a ‘new’ that makes no sense to you, it’s essential you understand the point of view that’s leading people to embrace this new idea… You probably need to understand why other people were touched, inspired or found something worth talking about.”

Godin makes a point that relates to senior executives and managers and the necessity of being willing to learn when something happens that we may not at first understand, and that tests our learning ability in the face of newness. From here, it’s not a large step to the broader issue of continuous learning.

Let’s describe continuous learning as a senior executive’s or manager’s willingness to keep on learning what he or she needs to learn to grow as a leader. 

Becoming Change-ready

A study in 2012 by the Henley Business School in the United Kingdom shows that more than 70 percent of business executives believe that continuous learning and development is key to career and business growth, according to Alan Harpham, chairman of APMG-International, a global examination institute. 

Commenting on this research, Harpham, said, “For management teams to be in the best shape to navigate the varied market conditions, organizations must be ready to implement new methods and practices, and support professional educational opportunities. At the same time, individuals must be ready to invest the time and effort to learn what’s new.”

Harpham further pointed out that professional learning is the critical ingredient to being change-ready and emphasized that organizations and individuals have a joint responsibility for continuous systems enhancement and business-relevant education.

When it comes to continuous learning, it’s important to note that not everything senior executives and managers learn needs to come from direct, personal experience. For ages, companies have confronted and resolved problems like the ones they face today. 

With some research on the Internet, one can easily learn how industry giants like Apple, Walmart, General Electric and Ford Motor started out and surmounted circumstances to reach the prominence they enjoy today. These companies offer many lessons.

A company may start from a modest level and later expand its horizons and progress to a larger, more advanced level. With this advancement, new issues crop up, such as how growth affects personnel, how competition changes as a company expands and grows, and how marketing in foreign countries differs from marketing stateside, to name just a few.

To achieve these new levels, corporate leaders must learn how to tackle new developmental levels before launching new corporate initiatives. 

Unless corporate leaders continue to learn, they risk becoming out-of-touch at the least and obsolescent at the worst. But executives who continue to learn enable their companies to continue expanding their horizons. 

Knowledge Expanding Rapidly

Why is this important for business leaders today? As Jim Carroll, leading futurist, trends and innovations expert, points out on his website www.jimcarroll.com, “Knowledge is growing exponentially. The volume of medical knowledge is doubling every eight years, and similar changes are occurring in other trades and professions.” 

Today, the problem is not gathering the facts or acquiring the knowledge. Rather, the problem is sifting through all the information at our fingertips and identifying what is relevant and important. 

All this information available universally via the Internet tends to level the playing field, so that small and more nimble competitors can obtain the same information and facts once accessible only to the big players.

Executives know the truism that you get the employees you deserve. The higher the executive-learning trajectory, the greater the ability – such as executives at Microsoft – to attract and hire the best and brightest employees on the planet. 

By extension, if the leaders of an organization are committed to continuous learning and improvement, they will be more likely to attract better candidates. Attracting and retaining high-caliber talent will help the company grow.

To hire better, executives need to learn how to better understand, guide and motivate employee segments such as gen Ys, who entertain ideas about what constitutes a career that differ markedly from those of baby boomers.

“Baby boomers tend to ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ while those under age 25 ask, ‘What do you like to do?’” writes James Carroll. “The new generation prefers to get work done in odd hours, using digital media, and they care less about structure. They define their lives not by what they do for a living, but what they like to do.” 

Savvy executives realize they need to learn as much as they can about gen Ys, how they think, how they behave, what they think they have a right to, and how best to motivate and retain them – not the easiest of tasks, but a necessary one.

Companies seek out gen Ys because companies know that gen Ys can help them connect with younger consumers. The problem lies not in recruiting gen Ys, but in keeping them. 

The values of gen Ys differ markedly from the values of the baby boomers who preceded them in the workplace. The result: gen Ys leave rather than deal with any conflict and cause a high turnover rate for the companies they leave. That’s why recruiting them costs companies billions of dollars every year.

“Baby boomers have given their lifeblood to their careers and are often described as workaholics,” says Jan Ferri-Reed, president of KEYGroup Consulting (www.keygroupconsulting.com) and co-author of “Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies Are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation – and What to Do About It.” 

“Gen Ys will, however, tell you they work to live rather than live to work,” Ferri-Reed says. “This translates to their looking for companies that provide career-development opportunities for them right from the start.”

She emphasizes that Gen Ys want to increase their capabilities, expand their responsibilities and organizational impact, and position themselves for broader roles within and outside of an organization. Wise leaders will be able to understand that if they provide learning and career development opportunities, they will keep top talent much longer than their competitors. 

Continuous Learning

Daily demands on senior executives and managers create obstacles to continuous learning and to their stepping back to assess the larger business landscape. Although many corporate leaders agree in principle that learning is important, the time demands of their jobs leave little room for the reading, networking and reflecting that spur the learning process. If you’re running full-speed five or six days a week, squeezing in self-development activities becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Renowned consultant and author Stephen Covey distinguished activities that are important but not urgent. He deemed personal growth and continuous learning as universally important, but they are rarely considered urgent. Every day, we all get involved in urgent and unimportant items, and we’re often fooled by things that seem urgent to us or others that on closer examination may not be truly important. 

As Covey puts it, “The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of those that matter least.” So, how do we make sure to make time for vitally important learning activities and grow with our businesses? 

First on our agenda should be scheduling truly vital activities and avoiding the temptation to forego them when something urgent arises, as it always will. The other pitfall we encounter occurs when we have a lengthy to-do list at the start of our day. 

It’s tempting to knock off a few, easy-to-complete items first. This makes us feel as though we’re accomplishing something. But in reality, we do this as a means of procrastinating on the truly important items on our task list. 

Inevitably, when we prioritize small, easy tasks first, the bigger, more difficult and often more important tasks remain on our to-do list when our day is done. Sometimes this pattern repeats day after day. 

The more important tasks (although they are less urgent) don’t get started, and may eventually become urgent or missed opportunities. How can we break this pattern?

Choose a time to learn when you are fresh and energized and when your mind is open to growth and learning. For some, this is early in the morning before the onslaught of phone and email distractions. For others, it may be in the evening, when they’ve postponed these electronic demands until morning. 

Above all, avoid being too ambitious. It’s better to consistently read or learn for 30 minutes a day than to aim for an hour a day and achieve that much only one day a week. 

The best method is to schedule regular time for learning, planning and reflecting, and making a habit of it. Even if it is only 15 to 30 minutes, if it is done at the same time daily, eventually it will become part of your daily routine. Just imagine what you could accomplish if continuous learning became a part of your daily routine.

On a larger scale, developing an open, learning culture of continuous improvement within your organization is a sure way to stimulate growth in your business.

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