Eight leader habits are essential to a learning culture. These are behaviors ingrained in the routines and rituals of organizations that are continually learning and learning how to learn. Leaders in these organizations do the following:
- Send the message - Leaders communicate the importance of learning to the organization. This message is heard by employees starting in the hiring process and continuing throughout their tenure in the organization. This message is in the guiding principles of the business. Leaders say how they will support learning and how they will recognize and reward those employees who continually acquire new knowledge and new skills.
- Build trust - Employees will invest time and effort in learning if they trust their managers.
Learners need to believe that what they are learning is valued, that their managers will help them find opportunities to apply that learning on the job, and that their bosses will not block their development and advancement in the organization. Without this trust employees will not risk the change that comes with applying something new and with aspiring for advancement in the organization.
- Encourage risk-taking – Organizations that seek new solutions to old problems, creativity and innovation in their operations and products, employees who “think outside the box” and “walk the talk”, need to allow managers to make mistakes and learn from those experiences. This learning cannot be left to chance. At a minimum, mistakes (errors, failures, screw-ups, etc.) should be followed by a non-punitive conversation between manager and employee about what happened, what was learned, and what should be done to be successful in the future. Successes, should be examined in the same way: what happened, what can we learn, what should we continue doing. Sometimes we learn more from successes than from failures. In either case, it’s the risk-taking that results in learning.
- Communicate clearly and often – Do not assume that in this age of email, cell phones, text messaging, and Web conferencing, people are getting the information they need. We need to be intentional about the kind and frequency of sharing. In a learning culture, people are continually sharing needed information with the people who need to know. Employees are hearing in a timely way from their bosses about what they need to learn and why they need to learn it. Goals of the organization are communicated to employees and linked to knowledge and skills that will help the organization achieve those goals. Functional units collaborate by sharing learning and best practices with each other. Managers and their direct reports frequently discuss what each needs to do to improve performance.
- Engage stakeholders – Every stakeholder, whether managers, employees, customers, business partners, investors, vendors, and, in some cases, legislators and government agencies, has something to offer to the collective wisdom of the organization. We want to find out what they know and what they need to learn. This could be information about such things as how to improve individual performance, how to work more effectively as a team, how to plan and make decisions as an organization, how to help customers use products and services, and how to find out what is needed in the marketplace.
- Allow for feedback and reflection – In a learning culture, employees examine what they do, compare that to what needs to be done, reflect on what they have learned, and make the needed changes in the organization. The most important learning occurs in the conversations that employees have with their supervisors and co-workers, in the conversations that teams have about team development and effectiveness, and in whole organization experiences with problem-solving and planning. Learning occurs from the feedback and reflection around individual, team, and whole organization successes and failures.
- Support social learning – In a learning culture, every aspect of the workplace supports continuous individual, team, and whole organization learning. It is a place where people are learning from each other and this is accepted practice. In this kind of culture, formal classroom training is probably the least effective. More effective, sustainable learning occurs in the normal course of doing the work. This informal learning is facilitated by coaching, mentoring, communities-of-practice, experiments, action-learning and any of a myriad of other methods including the various forms of social media. Although informal, social learning is not casual; in a learning culture it is very intentional and structured.
- Manage time – In a learning culture, people realize that there is no better use of their time than to be learning or helping someone else learn. They know that learning is critical to success, whether it’s a technician who needs to know how to install an armrest on a state of the art, ergonomic office chair, or an executive leadership team that needs to know how to do strategic planning. And people realize that facilitating learning doesn’t necessarily take much time. In some cases, a few minutes will do. Ken Blanchard suggested in his book One Minute Manager (first published 30 years ago) that managers can provide effective feedback by taking one minute for clarifying goals, one minute for giving praise, and one minute for re-directing behavior. Some situations will require much more than three minutes but, whatever the time, it is time well spent.
These are eight leader habits of a learning culture. These are good habits that you’ll want to promote and nurture in your organization.