As the pace of change in our world has intensified, continuous learning has become an essential part of a successful, sustainable business. According to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte, “Virtually all CEOs (90 percent) believe their company is facing disruptive change driven by digital technologies, and 70 percent say their organization does not have the skills to adapt.” The half-life of a learned skill—the time between when a skill is learned to when it becomes obsolete—continues to shrink: “Software engineers must now redevelop skills every 12–18 months. Professionals in marketing, sales, manufacturing, law, accounting, and finance report similar demands.” And with careers becoming longer and less tied to a single employer, employees need development opportunities to keep pace.
So, what should leaders do to ensure their teams are continuing to grow and develop? While formal development programs are helpful given their structured approach and the experience and knowledge of those providing them, leaders do a disservice to their teams when they cede ownership for development to learning & development departments or outside consultants. The best leaders recognize that for development to be most effective, it needs to go beyond simply imparting skills to instilling a learning mindset. That mindset is accelerated when you, as a leader, model your commitment to continuous learning, and make it an ongoing part of the team’s work.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Participate in development opportunities with your team. There’s no more powerful way to show your team that development is important to you than to show up and participate; give it your time and attention. Being present shows the team that development is not something you’re doing to them, but something you’re doing with them. As an added benefit, experiencing learning sessions together allows you to observe team members in action, to shape the conversations that arise, and to provide context for their development.
- Share your 360 results and other feedback. Often, giving feedback to a leader—whether through a 360 or other methods—can feel like sharing your thoughts with a black hole; you send it off, but rarely see or hear anything further. If your team has taken the time and effort to share their perspectives with you, show them you value their input by acknowledging it, and by letting them know what you learned. Doing so is a powerful way to model openness to your own learning. By gracefully accepting and learning from feedback, you make it safe for others on your team to do the same.
- Read. As I’ve said before, the best leaders never stop learning, and one of the most powerful, yet flexible ways to do that is to always have a book with you. Take it a step further by sharing what you’re reading with your team. Discuss what you’re reading at team meetings or over a cup of coffee. It doesn’t have to be a formal program; in fact it will likely have more impact when team members can sense your genuine enthusiasm and curiosity. They don’t all need to be business titles to have a business connection—books on creativity, design thinking, biographies, and even fiction books can spark powerful conversations.
- Make challenge sessions a regular part of your team meetings. Devote regular time to having team members—yourself included—walk through an issue or opportunity they’re working on, and having the team challenge their thinking. The goal isn’t to tear ideas down, but to make them better. Ask questions like, “How does this reinforce our business strategy?”, “What other approaches have you considered?”, “What assumptions is this based on?”, “Is there work happening elsewhere we can link to?”, “Who else do we need to involve?”, “Why is now the right time?”, and “What are we missing?” Be sure to keep the conversation respectful and to close by thanking people for their efforts. By creating a safe space for these kinds of conversations, you’re ensuring the free flow of ideas, fostering a culture of continuous improvement, and building a foundation of trust.
- Set team development goals together. People will nurture what they help create. To help ensure the team will follow through on their development, give them a voice in the process. Look at what will be required of the team in the future, consider the skills they’ll need to deliver on their commitments, and ask how best to develop them given realities of budget and time.
Insights can come from anywhere, and there is always more to learn. By modeling a commitment to development and an openness to their own learning, leaders build respect, trust, and communication habits. In doing so, learning becomes a powerful tool not just for improving performance, but for building the sense of togetherness and belonging that powers the most successful teams.