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A colleague recently attended a talk by Sir Robert Winston on How Adults Learn. It got me thinking and so this week I’m talking about the topic of learning and explore:

  • Why participants on leadership programmes struggle to implement what they learn
  • Why good leaders are good learners
  • How to build a strong learning culture

Picture the scene: A celebrated Harvard University Professor is speaking to an audience at McKinsey and Co, the year was 1990.

With this kind of audience, you might think his talk was about money or power, after all this is a company who are renowned for advising the world’s wealthiest and most influential companies.

Professor Garner’s speech was called “Personal Renewal”, and during his speech he called on leaders who wanted to make a difference and stay effective to commit themselves to ‘continued learning and growth’.

His speech is recognised as one of the most influential in the history of American Business.


Why Participants On Leadership Programmes Struggle To Implement What They Learn

It was recently quoted that the US alone invest $24 billion in Leadership Development annually; they recognise the talent pool for high quality, in-demand leaders is small and therefore,its crucial to develop our next generation of leaders now.

However, too often leaders struggle to implement what they learn; sound familiar?
Now let’s be clear, this is not because all leadership programmes are of poor quality. Its because
we only truly learn leadership by implementing the skills and knowledge we’ve gained  and building on our experience.

When the team at Excel Communications are designing leadership programmes, we collaborate with clients to ensure we support learning through experience by:

  • Basing exercises on real-life work situations
  • Using modular training where participants work on current business situations to
    develop their skills and gain invaluable experience
  • Including project-based learning where participants implement their learning and present to peers on their outcomes and how they achieved them

Beyond any training programme, leaders go through their own experiences and while many do learn
as they go about their day to day job, others learn little about the impact they are having.


Why Good Leaders Are Good Learners

When you talk to good leaders they have many things in common and one is that they all have a hunger to learn; but what makes a good learner?

Firstly, they have a growth mindset and set themselves challenging learning goals such as;

“By the end of Q2, I will learn how to develop my flexibility when communicating to my team members so that I communicate in a style that works for them and me.”

Next, they find ways to practise. In the above example, a leader may plan to experiment with different styles of email; adopting a direct style of communication with some individuals versus an indirect style with others.

Finally, good learners are brutally honest with themselves. They review their actions and results in detail and identify what worked, what didn’t, why it didn’t and what they need to change next time. Then they test it again and continue to learn and refine their approach.

To some leaders, this approach comes naturally while others ‘learn’ it. What would it be like if everyone in an organisation had this approach to learning? What would the potential for those individuals and the company be?


How To Build A Strong Learning Culture

Google is often quoted as having a fantastic learning culture, so what can we learn from their approach?

Google approach learning from 4 perspectives;


1. Information Two Ways

This is where thought is given to when information is communicated.

One of the easiest ways to empower people to learn is to make information available in manageable chunks; at any time of the day and in different mediums. After all, people have different learning styles and will want to learn in a way that works for them.

For example, Information is given to a recipient at the right time and in a place where the learner will make use of it.

Let’s take an account manager; They are routinely out of the office meeting clients and would benefit from having new product or service information designed so that it can be viewed on a mobile device and used when and where they need it. This could be during client meetings or when planning a sales conversation.


2. Sharing Is Caring… and Learning

Too often people hold onto information, often because they believe it will give them an advantage or they just don’t think to share it.

For knowledge to be shared effectively, there needs to be a well-organised system that allows everyone access. For example, intranets and apps or good old fashioned notice boards!

For example, a larger project involving a dozen people may mean that project management software is a viable option where everyone can keep track of tasks and communicate with each other about challenges, ideas and feedback.

A smaller project team may be using something as simple as Google Docs where they agree
what specific areas they need to communicate on frequently. Each person in the team has access to the Google Doc and can add to it, share updates, ideas, feedback and progress.


3. Learn From Celebrated Failure


Fail stands for ‘First Attempt In Learning’!  When a baby first starts to walk, they consistently fall over. They fail again and again, butby doing this regularly and picking themselves up and trying again, they eventually learn to walk.

Google use failure as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Let’s say, for example, that a company develops a new product and its target audience is millennials. While initially the launch looked like it was a success, sales begin to decline after just the first month. It would make sense for the company to consider getting out of the market before they potentially loose more money.

However, by seeking to understand what’s behind the decline and looking at what can be changed
could, and often does, result in a successful relaunch.


4. Formalising Informal & Continuous Learning

A thriving learning culture creates a system where there are continuous opportunities that incorporate formal learning with coaching, e-learning, mentoring, networking, project work and secondments, to name just a few.

Overall the idea is to move away from mandatory training towards empowering and supporting employees to ‘own’ their learning and professional/personal self-development.

One of the things I love about technology is the choices we now have about how we learn. We lead such busy lives, but there’s still plenty of opportunities to learn such as podcasts during a commute or a TEDtalk at lunchtime.  How will you choose to spend your time?!



Nic Hallett


About Excel Communications

Excel Communications has a 30+ year history as a global leadership and communication skills organisation dedicated to exceeding the expectations of clients through the training and development of their business and people.

We have a team of expert trainers delivering programmes across four continents in multiple languages. Isn’t it time you got in touch? Call us now on +44 (0) 1628 488 854.