Posts Tagged adult learning

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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I don’t know

“I don’t know” is scary. We all have used this phrase at times whether it was to show lack of understanding or avoid taking ownership. The point is, it can be interpreted in many ways.

As adult learners we are not comfortable saying “I don’t know” when we believe there to be real or perceived consequences of not knowing. Sometimes we are not even comfortable admitting it to ourselves since admitting “I don’t know” may require action that we are not willing or able to take. It means admitting limitation and that is very uncomfortable for many adults (and children). Saying “I don’t know” takes courage – it means that you have to openly admit a weakness be it a competency or skill that we simply do not have, or we do have but know we could perform better. There is an argument to say that courage is not required to utter it, the real courage is to do something about it. Either way true learning takes courage.

This reluctance to say I don’t know and more importantly the cultural reality that makes it unacceptable to openly share your limitations poses a real challenge to those of us that are in the business of enabling the performance of others. How do we as parents, as learning professionals, as teachers and as leaders help facilitate the process of acknowledging the “I don’t know” so that true learning can take place. How do we make the shift from it being a courageous act to an expected act – is lifelong learning and continuous improvement not the end goal of most? Based on my own research and years of experience as a leader I believe it can be boiled down to a few prescriptive measures.

The key is that we need to make learning acceptable. As leaders we need to make it ok to “not know” something. There are many elements to this but as a starting point this requires more than lip service. We need to have our actions and our words aligned – we need to build a level of credible security that not knowing in its own right isn’t a punishable offense by creating an environment where gaps are acknowledged and dealt with appropriately.

1. Align learning with performance

One way in which you can do this is align your performance management processes to acknowledge and reward learning a new skill or competency that supports the strategic direction of the company. A major bank that I have worked with does this well. Your performance bonus is largely determined by the performance of the bank. Your merit increase is determined by the added value that you have brought to the table. When determining your merit increase, your manager asks two key questions. What learning have you done that has enabled higher levels of performance? What learning or responsibilities have you taken on to better position you to meet the banks performance objectives? This alignment between acknowledging “I don’t know” and reward is a very tangible way to make learning acceptable and in fact desirable.

2. Walk the talk 
As leaders we need to show that we believe in the power of identifying our own gaps and taking actions to close them. This is not necessarily an easy task. There is a fine line to showing a weakness (empathy and acceptable) and losing credibility (she doesn’t know what she’s talking about) but it is a worthwhile step to take. As leaders we need to demonstrate that we too are learning. Learning about our clients, our business, our profession and about the skills we need to be effective. Confidence is not instilled because I know everything (because I don’t) it is instilled because I am willing to learn and have a process for incorporating that into my “go forward” approach. Feedback that tells me “she cleared the path and made me feel I had a voice” tells me that I have demonstrated not only an openness to learning, but learning from those that know better than I.

3. Invest

Learning is an investment. Your willingness to invest in the learning needs of your team demonstrates that learning is valued and by default acknowledging that you have something to learn is acceptable. Learning organizations/ departments worldwide know only too well the impact of a tight economy. Learning is at times seen as expendable but this is perhaps where it is important to make a differentiation between formal and informal learning. Learning does not need to stop because the formal learning dollars have dried up. Learning occurs in many ways and as a leader you have many avenues as your disposal.

  •  Have a favourite management or skills based book? Recommend it. Send out excerpts. Create discussion points to bring into team meetings. Share your experience with incorporating it. Formalize it as part of the performance management process.
  •  Found a new technology tool/ software/ app that you like? Demonstrate it. Ask others to review it for applicability to the team. Tie it back to the goals of the team, department, or organization.
  •  Grant people “time” to learn. There may not be a budget and yes everyone is busy but be prepared to be wowed by the level of productivity that will materialize when you demonstrate your support of learning. Your people will feel valued and will seek to still get the work done even as they learn.
  •  Encourage process improvement. Seek ideas. Ask people to propose how to make things better. Make clear your expectations in terms of proposals being fully supported. You will naturally motivate people to “back up” their recommendations by seeking out supporting evidence. This is learning.  Be open to trying new things and allowing for organizational learning to take place. Take a risk.

The options for learning interventions or opportunities are far beyond what is listed here but the message is clear. Don’t let formal budget restrict the learning process.

4. Share your vision

As adults we like to be self directed. A sense of control is integral to our sense of well-being. It empowers us. As leaders we can further empower our employees by sharing the vision in such a way that they can start to self identify where they have opportunities to better fit into that vision. Most human beings have a strong survival instinct. If we sense danger or upcoming change we will all move through a process that will allow us to feel “safe” again. When we have the opportunity to have some control it is a much easier process than when it is forced upon us. We may not control the desired end state but we certainly can have some control in how we get there. Once the vision is shared the role of the leader becomes one of reinforcing and realigning. It becomes one of encouraging our people to share their thoughts, aligning them with ours and looking at options for the learning to take place. It becomes a partnership in realizing the vision.

5. Acknowledge that learning takes courage

Learning takes courage. It is a change management exercise at the personal level with all the nuances that formal change management implies. You will see denial, you will see mourning at what is being “lost”, you will see acceptance and then adoption. Our job as leaders is to make it as easy as possible for our people to move through the change process. Avoid “minimizing” the potential impact and acknowledge the personal reactions.

The more we can do as leaders to make “I don’t know” an acceptable term within a framework of empowering people to move to “I know”  the better we will create an organizational environment where personal learning is no longer an act of courage. Instead you will have created an environment which supports learning as part and parcel of realizing the organizational vision, and more importantly you will have created an environment where people feel empowered and equipped to do great things. As a leader there is very little that is more rewarding that watching your team soar.

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