Becoming a Leader of Learning
The difference between a manager and a leader is often defined in terms of a manager being focused on the here-and-now, whilst a leader having more of their focus on the future. If this is accepted then the role of the leader must be accepted as having a strong component that relates to learning - both their own in terms of ongoing professional development, and their staff in terms of job-related learning.
By extension, the more ambitious you are as a business leader, the more ambition you should have in relation to what learning could be available to you and your staff. What we’re talking about is going beyond purely transactional learning and having the skills and confidence to aspire to Transformational Learning.
Make no mistake - this is an ambitious challenge for a busy business leader. Many learning and development specialists have neither the skills or ambition to think beyond transactional learning initiatives - what is needed for the achievement of short term workplace tasks. However, I’d suggest that there’s a lot of transformational learning that can be stimulated by subtle changes in the way that the leader interacts with colleagues. Below are some suggestions about what these changes might look like.
The first suggestion is to think about the depth and scope of the information that you give your people access to.
Most employees tune-in to management information in the context of their organisational role - engineers listen for the drivers that suggest material changes to processes or products, while people specialists listen for the drivers that suggest changes in organisation or behaviour. This selective listening produces very localised, short-term learning. If people are presented with information that causes them to confront the ways in which they make sense of the world they become much more susceptible to transformational learning.
A good example of this in practice is to offer employees an insight into the pressures that are informing current organisational strategy, rather than simply linking information to strategy. Some time ago I was part of an initiative within the Motorola corporation which invited a strategy specialist from the company to talk to middle managers about the future of the telecoms industry and why Motorola needed to react in the way that their strategy dictated. The difference in the extent to which the audience accepted and applied the information, as compared to a “here’s the strategy and here’s how we need you to apply it” couldn’t have been greater.
My second suggestion is to encourage your people to develop much better questioning skills.
In today’s world it’s easy for the ability to craft good questions to become devalued by the ease of simply asking Google. Allow more time for your people to ask questions and push/coach them to ask the questions that open up the subject rather than closing it down too early. Asking good questions is a key skill for facilitators, so one option for you is to take a course in facilitation skills, it’s almost inevitable that your leadership will benefit.
A third leadership approach to developing your staff towards transformative learning is to allow them to do part of what you would normally do.
As a successful leader you will be adept at critical thinking - evaluating information to determine whether it is trustworthy and has potential advantage, whilst simultaneously exploring the inherent contradictions with what is previously known. Look for the opportunities to develop this skill in your staff by giving them access to the information, coach them through the techniques that they can use to interrogate the data, and support them in presenting back their findings in appropriate formats.
One great example of this happening is a European Logistics company who were evaluating options relating to expansion into Africa. Releasing the fact-sheets about business opportunities in various countries to small groups of middle-managers on a talent-development programme allowed for an extremely powerful learning environment to emerge, with more senior managers coaching small teams through the evaluation process.
Finally there’s a lot of development available to your employees simply through listening to the way that more senior leaders process information.
The closer you get to the top of organisations the greater the need to use more expansive perspectives to examine potential courses of action. Listening to two or more senior leaders discussing what to do in the face of a challenge or a new data set can be very enlightening, particularly if the listeners are subsequently invited to offer their observations about the different paradigms and strategies they have observed. This type of ‘goldfish bowl’ session may be a little daunting for the senior leaders involved, but it may be one of the most significant leadership learning experiences available to employees, particularly if they then observe the results of the discussion being implemented in the workplace. What will help the learning is for the senior leaders to try to be explicit about the assumptions and presumptions they are using so as to inform the observers, and then to encourage the observers to be critical and curious about what they have seen and heard. (Incidentally, done well this is a great way of improving the meeting behaviours of senior leaders too).
Having the confidence to accept and implement these suggestions is a significant challenge to any leader, but the payoff could be transformational. The skills required to adopt these techniques are very much part of the toolkit that are associated with the professional facilitator, but are entirely compatible with progressive leadership approaches. Our experience is that a good start point in developing these skills is by introducing practical skills development exercises into team meetings. The Kolb cycle that guides the use of these experiential activities requires the facilitator to develop and utilise a full suite of skills that are immediately transferable to the bold leader who seeks to transform their organisation.
At RSVP Design, we use the Kolb Learning Model as part of our learning design methodology when creating new experiential activities, ensuring that each of the four elements identified by Kolb can be used to create a structured learning experience that is directly aimed at building a particular skill, or changing a particular behaviour. Please feel free to get in touch with us here at RSVP Design if we can help recommend some activities.