Creating positive learning environments

As famous novelist Tom Clancy once said, “Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die.”  The same can be said of organisations.  Regardless of the strength of market position you hold today, unless your team continue to adapt and change to meet the needs of the world you operate in, you’re unlikely to survive, let alone thrive.

Reflect for a moment on the great organisations of the past that no longer exist.  Blockbuster. Blackberry. Kodak.  The business landscape is littered with cautionary tales of hugely successful companies that failed, ultimately due to lack of innovation.  The simple reality is organisations who fail to evolve at the pace needed to maintain competitiveness are likely to face devastating consequences at some point or another.

At the heart of any organisations ability to be creative, adapt and change rapidly is a willingness to learn.  Having curiosity, an open mind and desire to keep improving, is essential to the ability of an organisation to endure and prevail.  Leaders are wise to invest in creating a cultural environment where learning is not only encouraged but also enabled and supported. 

Creating a learning culture starts with making learning important.  Like anything in business what matters most is that Leaders place visible priority on the learning outcomes you are striving to achieve.  Among the most powerful influencers of success is unquestionably the extent to which senior leaders lead by example.  If your CEO and Executive team are passionately engaged in their own learning, and that of their team, its entirely more likely other people will be also.  

Leadership involvement in learning programs is a commonly missed opportunity often driven by a disconnect between L&D or HR people and business leaders.  Regardless of whether it’s a one-day workshop, ongoing coaching relationship or training program delivered over time, it’s essential that leaders know why people are participating, what success of the initiative looks like and the role they need to play to support each individual to take optimal value from the organisation’s investment. 

There are endless ways in which leaders can play a driving role in creating a learning culture.  For example, ensuring a senior leader kicks off every staff training program with insight to why the organisation has decided to invest in this particular learning initiative. Contemplate for a moment the powerful message it sends when the CEO turns up to kick off client service training with insight to what people can expect to learn and why that matters to the organisation’s success.   

The simple truth is when leaders take keen interest in what people are learning, team members are more likely to demonstrate commitment to their own growth.  Equally when leaders are willing to be vulnerable and admit what they still need to learn and how they are going about that, other people are more likely to let down protective barriers and put their hand up for guidance or development opportunities. 

Support leaders to develop the coaching skills they need to inspire and guide the people on their team to learn.  It shouldn’t be assumed for example, that just because someone has reached the C-Suite they are willing and able to engage in honest conversations that will allow people to step up and learn more.  The ability to hold up the mirror of truth and help other people to see how they can continue to develop, while maintaining mutual trust and respect, is arguably the most important skill leaders need in order to create a thriving learning culture. 

Encouraging experimentation and valuing learning opportunities that come from making mistakes, is vital to creating an environment in which people trust that they can give things a go and push the boundaries of conventional wisdom.  While of course it matters that people are held accountable to the standard of their contribution and behaviour, leaders need to allow room for error.  If people are afraid to fail, most will be cautious and many will be resistant to stepping into the unknown with an open mind and sense of curiosity, let alone confidence.   

Take steps to ensure people share what they have learned through various programs and experiences, with the rest of their team.  Make it clear to people that while a particular learning opportunity may be focused on them, the expectation is that they contribute to the development of the team also.  This practice will not only contribute to the extent to which participants are engaged and consciously connecting with key learnings, it also sends a strong message to the entire team about the importance of taking every opportunity to learn. 

Karen Gately, founder of Corporate Dojo, is a leadership and people-management specialist.  Karen works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley) and the host of Ticker TV’s Black Belt Leader.  For more information visit www.corporatedojo.com or contact [email protected]