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Real Leaders Use the "L" Word

What is your big organizational initiative right now? Perhaps, you’re focused on increasing sales, decreasing production costs or streamlining internal processes. Maybe you’re in the strategic planning process or in budget hell.

Successful organizations have processes in place to continuously monitor the performance of every function of the business. Resources are allocated to examine the status of finance, production, logistics, service, partnerships, and even consumer perceptions of the brand or company. However, the ability to learn faster than your competitor may be your best competitive advantage. And yet, many overlook the organizational L word: learning.

When was the last time you pulled your best and brightest people around the table to improve the way your company learns?

Traditionally, the structure of learning has been a transfer of knowledge from the veterans at the top of the org chart that trickles down to the rookies at the bottom. However, changing demographics are creating an increasingly diverse and complex workplace. For the first time in history, your intellectual capital will be comprised of 5 different generations, and each subset is wildly different. This “generational tension” creates both obstacles and opportunities.

For example, consider the Millennials compared to their senior colleagues. While your veterans are gold mines of organizational history and industry knowledge, the rookies traded their pacifiers for the device du jour and they grew up with a very different perspective of the world. They see limitless possibilities, and have entirely different expectations than their older counterparts. This combination of visionary optimism and a wealth of experience may seem to be a formula for success. However, it’s shortsighted to assume the intellectual capital of the organization is simply a sum of its parts.

In a recent SHRM poll, 47% of Millennials identified their senior leaders as micro-managers who don’t value new ideas and are resistant to change. On the other hand, 33% of the veterans found a lack of respect, a need for supervision, and an inappropriate level of informality in their younger colleagues. The vast differences in skills, expectations, communication and learning styles can impact performance, engagement, innovation, and the bottom line like never before.

An organization’s culture of learning, or lack thereof, has never been more significant. Unless younger employees and seasoned vets and all the subsets in between learn how to learn from one another, the ROI on even the most talented group of individuals will never actualize. Today’s leading companies foster a culture of creative thinkers who can innovate, collaborate, troubleshoot and solve problems. They invest in their people and their ability to learn.

Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.

Almost 30 years ago at the inception of personal computing, Shoshan Zuboff delineated the difference between computer-mediated work from earlier generations of mechanization and automation in her book, In the Age of the Smart Machine. Her conclusion was that there would eventually be a blurring of the demarcation between “work” and “learning,” to ultimate create a cultural shift from a “division of labor” to a “division of learning.”

That shift seems remarkably obvious given that the evolution of technology in our daily lives has allowed rapid global communications, immediate access to an exponential explosion of information, and the trend that market-changing disruptions will continue to accelerate. We’re getting smarter faster, and expectations of a competitive workforce align with that trajectory.

“Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were 5 exabytes of information created. We now create five exabytes every two days. See why it’s so painful to operate in information markets?” – Eric Schmidt, Google CEO

We’re long past the Taylorism principles of the industrial age. “You’re not paid to think; shut up and do your job.” Thinking, ideating, innovating, and problem solving are exactly what leaders expect from their best people. Yet, many organizations fail to make learning how to learn a priority. Their focus is on the bottom line rather than how they will get there.

Crippled by either the force of inertia or a deeply entrenched top-down culture that neither promotes nor nurtures opportunities for people at all levels to become better learners, they are liken to the manufacturer who wants to make more parts faster but never stops to oil his machines. There is a wealth of recent brain-based research illuminating how we learn most effectively. Yet, many organizations fail to prioritize the practice of helping their employees become better learners.

The inevitable consequence of not learning how to learn is the inability to improve the way you learn.

A culture of learning isn’t formed by a committee, and it isn’t an initiative delivered in a binder. It begins with understanding how we learn and an expectation to grow the collectivecapacity to learn. It’s nurtured by providing people with multiple opportunities to contribute. People who feel valued for their contributions will seek out opportunities to learn and to share what they know with others. Driven by intrinsic rewards, they create a learning culture–one of colleagues and co-learners who are inspired to learn and inspire others to learn.

“You can’t learn anything if you’re busy trying to look like the smartest guy in the room.”

Effective leaders not only embrace the L word, they create the conditions that enable people to learn better and set the course by demonstrating that they, too, value opportunities to learn. By cultivating trust in the contributions of others and respecting the reciprocal rewards of a learning community regardless of titles or boxes on the organization chart, they’re able to grow their “division of labor” into a “division of learning.” These are the leaders that will realize the powerful fusion of the gray knowledge with the green knowledge rather than sacrifice one for the other.

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