My Brain is Full – 6 Things Leaders Can Do to Support Learning

As a leader and as a learning professional I value and encourage learning. I read broadly, I question with interest and I take the time to reflect. I encourage others to do the same. The world is changing at an incredible rate and if we are to continue to add value to the stakeholders that we are accountable to we need to internalize the act of learning in the same way that we do eating and sleeping.

There’s my elevator pitch. What I had forgotten was how much mental energy is required to support an active learning process on multiple fronts. Let’s make this post all about me. About a month ago I started a new role with a new organization. The recruitment process was an active one – my employer had a wish list of skills, competencies and other attributes that they wanted to bring into the organization that would allow them to deliver against their strategic plan. They did everything right…after all, they hired me. The interview process was very much a two way street. First and foremost I was looking for fit. As I’ve matured throughout my working career the lure of the big dollars and straight line advancement opportunities simply isn’t as strong as it used to be. I was looking for an organization that had similar values, that believed in the power of people, that encouraged growth, learning and risk taking. Above all else I wanted, no needed, to work somewhere that allowed me to feel that I was contributing to something greater that ME.  So on March 19 I began that latest part of my journey…for those that follow this blog you may have noticed a corresponding drop off in activity.

During the last five weeks I have started to develop an understanding of a brand new government driven industry. I have planned and budgeted for the upcoming fiscal year. I have participated in the inaugural leadership development offerings that has been launched in support of a new management framework within the healthcare industry, I have conducted focus groups on work that was done more than 18 months prior to my starting, I have started the process of merging two teams and assimilate myself as their leader. I have researched, identified process improvement opportunities, and taken the lead of one of our corporate strategic projects. Each act normal but for each I have had to look back even as I try to to build enough contextual understanding to drive the right forward looking actions. It’s been invigorating, challenging, fun and oh my goodness satisfying. I look forward to what the new day brings as a child does during the long lazy days of summer. But I have to say by the end of the day my brain is full. At the end of the working day that involves a commute, dinner (cooking or procuring) and the small talk of the day made with the family I am at best awake (I lay no claim to coherency at this point), and fast asleep on the sofa at worst.  My brain has developed a very healthy coping mechanism – it shuts down. It needs time to process and it needs for my body to catch up.  Each day it gets easier, the feeling of competency is starting to develop and my reflections and learning becomes more targeted as I build the contextual understanding to identify what is important and what is not.


Which got me to thinking…how much information is too much? At what point does the act of sharing information or learning become ineffective? The reality is that change is going to continue to drive the need to adapt and learn at an ever increasing pace. In the healthcare industry we are driven to do more for an aging population, with dollars that the government is looking to provide more stewardship over (and so they should…my tax dollars are in there somewhere!) and in a way that is different than how it has been done in the past. This process is being replicated in all industries and all companies.

How as leaders and learning professionals do we ensure that our people are supported to be effective in this type of change environment when there is simply so much to learn? It’s a question that is critical for us to get our heads around if we are to avoid the risk of our teams collectively shutting down simply because they can absorb no more.

Some of the answers may come out of the work related to the transfer of learning. In a nut shell – learning is better absorbed if there are some critical supports in place.

  1. Just in Time Learning. Don’t train it, share it, introduce it until such a time that your employee needs it and will be required to apply it. Use it or lose it is very true of all new learned skills.
  2. Make sure the learners are ready. Do they understand why they need to learn, change or adapt? Is there a driving value proposition that makes it worth their while to invest the time and mental energy? Do they have the skills to learn?
  3. Are you employing adult learning methodologies? Whether formal or informal learning is being employed – we all learn different. Some of your employees need to do, others need to see, others need to think it through and talk about it. If you are looking to deploy significant change have you catered to all types of learners?
  4. Don’t dilute the message. Identify what is a need to know and a nice to know. Focus on the need – your employees time and mental energy is precious. Use it on the big hitters…leave the small stuff for another time.
  5. Are you ready? Are you ready to coach, are you ready to help build mental bridges between the work, the change and the strategic directions? Are you supporting a learning environment?
  6. Teach it as they would do it. Theoretical learning can be fun but in a busy schedule most benefit from learning that applies directly to what you want me to do. Take my budget example  – in the preparation of the new budget I learned about the history, I learned about how public organizations are funded, I learned about the approval processes in place etc… it was real because it was relevant.

As leaders one of our key roles is to empower our people. Part of that empowerment is to ensure that we are creating the right supports for learning. And part of that empowerment is the gift of time – to absorb, apply and reflect. And part of that is to model the process… as leaders and learners… food for thought.


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