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Leadership: Learning to Learn Again

Leadership: Learning to Learn Again

The Accelerating Landscape

Not long ago, I spoke with a colleague of mine who is a product innovator at a global company. She said that the speed with which new technologies are coming available is simply outpacing leadership’s ability to adapt. Moreover, smaller competitors are better positioned to seize the new advantages because of their scale. Not only did I hear this from her, but pretty much every business journal from FastCo and HBR to the World Economic Forum Global Report is becoming increasingly concerned with modern business and work and the dynamics that shape them.

For some context, let’s take a quick jog back in time…

In the last century, business leaders designed processes from which value and profits could be predictably wrought. These processes fell into a rigid cadence of time: regular cycles for budgeting, capital planning, business expansion and the like all had a seasonality—often on an annual calendar basis. For example, if you are part of a more established company, you will still often hear the phrase, “it’s budget season.” Traditional business schools charge a premium to provide knowledge of these processes to aspiring leaders. For a long time, it worked relatively well. In past decades, your past knowledge was your greatest asset, you could make a ten-year plan and invest heavily in its infrastructure and resourcing bets to reach a predictable target.

Now, skip back to the present.

Today, technology erases traditional time horizons and these cookie-cutter business processes. New business rhythms are iterative and agile. Annual business cycles are becoming outmoded. For example, product releases now often follow the form of 2-week ‘sprints’, not ‘upgrades’ that span 18-24 months. An acceleration is taking place, and it is leaving our traditional leaders reeling. Put simply, one year of progress today equals a decade of progress in 1995. Yet, the 90s business model is still locked into the cultural mindset of enterprises at scale.

Business is not only shifting in cadence, but in multiple other dimensions simultaneously.

Business is not only shifting in cadence, but in multiple other dimensions simultaneously. The gig economy lifestyle is taking the place of the long-haul career. Scale is being seen as a liability, no longer an advantage. We are witnessing the dramatic rise of the Polymath leader over the discipline Expert. The list goes on…

Imagine that you lead some part of a big enterprise in which you have diligently grown your career. During your tenure, technological advancements have simultaneously accelerated and converged, providing less established businesses an outsized advantage for growth. The landscape is now rich with disruption. It looks very different from what you experienced when you started your climb into your corporate leadership role. You feel stuck. How do you adapt? How to you learn how to become a contemporary leader?

Adapting to the New Business Terrain

It is too common for a vibrant consumer opportunity to die on the table as corporate machinery grinds through its bureaucratic predispositions. This is not to say that the corporate machinery is lazy. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is burning white hot, attempting to keep its already demanding processes rolling while also trying to address the spike in demand for higher responsiveness.

For many leaders, the very mindset about how to do business is what gets in the way.

The speed of disruption in markets as well as the cognitive load of new options and technologies are breaking traditional work models. Whether at the strategic helm of the organization or leading a team with a key objective, today’s leader critically needs to develop and sustain new skills to embrace such changes. For many leaders, the very mindset about how to do business is what gets in the way. This mindset, whether examined or not, shapes behaviors and choices that are amplified when they lead others. In my view, we must allow and encourage leaders to learn again. This is a process that requires practice and support that many are not accustomed to.

Our hard-wired business psyche does not welcome learning and re-adaptation. This is particularly the case for those seasoned experts that are now ensconced in the Executive/Senior VP tiers. As pressures steadily increase, we often regress to what we think we know, or what seems certain. We tend to rely on approaches that consistently worked in the past. Today, this tendency should be seen as a regression to yesterday’s mean and the inability to create anew.

It is clear that even the brightest and most seasoned business leaders need support in addressing how they lead through the ever-present disruption. After attending a development or leadership course to up-skill, leaders still need the support to strengthen and integrate their learning into their habits and behaviors. Upon witnessing this need while working in product and enterprise innovation for several years, I decided to train to become an executive coach and focus deeply on learning and development.

Coaching to Learn (About One’s Self)

The coaching angle is enticing because most leaders respond best to one-on-one interaction. While it is by no means the only approach to self-mastery, it has become the most effective way to address mindset and behaviors in leaders in order to incite change. Coaches specialize in creating a framework for structured, client-directed learning, which is never linear or predictable. Here are a few ways a coach can offer support:

Acceleration of Self-Awareness
This is the first step in learning how to learn again. Fundamentally, coaching accelerates the leader’s ability to raise self-awareness of their mindset and behaviors in the workplace.

Designed Actions for Change
Together, the coach and leader design actions to strengthen and enhance the desired behavioural attributes through testing, measuring and learning in real life.

A Safe Place
The coach offers a regular time to step back, observe and check-in. This is a non-judgmental moment for the leader to openly examine their progress and learnings without fear.

Uncovering Choice
As leaders strengthen their mindfulness, they take the time to slow down and reframe. This is a moment where new distinctions and choices appear that may be have been hidden before in life and work.

Arriving at Your Best
Ultimately, coaching is about helping a client learn how to become their best self. This self is a version of themselves that is at the apex of their human faculties and connectedness to others. Some call it self-actualization, and if you subscribe to Maslow’s views, most of us want to learn how we can arrive here at some point in our lives.

Moving Forward

Learning can be seen as the ability to let go in order to reach for something new.

To conclude, the leaders who can learn how to learn again will uncover new ways to serve themselves, their teams, their organization, society, and the world. That strengthened ability to learn also provides a flexible platform that adapts as the horizon perpetually presents new challenges. Learning can be seen as the ability to let go in order to reach for something new. That simple leap can be a terrifying thing for those of us who have developed and solidified our comfort zones; but, there is no better time than the present to challenge our fears. To the experienced leaders out there: shift your focus away from your pride in yesterday’s accomplishments; tap into your humility and dial up your curiosity. Seek the help you need to begin the critical transformation process will bring success not only to you, but your team and your whole organization.


Christopher Baer

Chris leads Global Experience Design for Marriott International's Learning and Development practice. His team delivers learning experiences fueled by design thinking / human centered design to create talent-focused innovations within Human Resources.