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BW Businessworld

Expanding The Learning Curve

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The world is spinning faster. Things are more connected and complex, more volatile and uncertain. The ability of a leader to always have ready-made answers is becoming a thing of the past. What leaders need most of all is the ability to learn and adapt quickly.

At the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), four decades of leadership development work with thousands of executives from around the world has led us to believe that learning agility is one of the most fundamental skills. That can seem odd. After all, haven't successful executives risen to where they are by virtue of their expertise and knowledge? Isn't it erroneous to say that these learned individuals need to learn-to-learn?
The answer is that learning acquired in the past may not be what we need for the future. This is especially true as we rise and take on new roles in our organisations. Past competence doesn't translate into competence needed in the new role. And past learning itself may be a hindrance; if we think we know when we don't, and then we may be in trouble. In fact, an axiom of wisdom is recognising that the more you know, the more you know you don't know.

So learning becomes a constant need and a core competence-learning new information, learning new ways, and learning new ways to learn. Old dogs sometimes don't learn new tricks because they need new ways to learn those tricks.

So what are the ways we can learn? There are four primary ways:

The first is learning through codified knowledge: books, classes, training and so on. This is most helpful when the answers are straightforward and textbook-like. It can be a limitation when the situation at hand is a mismatch for the knowledge we have - like trying to navigate through Delhi with a map from Mumbai.

The second is through learning from others: mentors and coaches, teachers and preachers. We need people with whom we can dialogue to think through problems and make sense of situations. Good coaches and mentors do is not give answers but help us think about our challenges from different perspectives. Seeing a situation in a new light helps us devise more realistic and workable solutions.

The third is learning by doing, through direct experience. We learn by trial and error. This practical path helps us to deal with extreme uncertainty, when nobody really has the answers. Small experiments based on intuition create clarity and learning. In our Lesson of Experience research studies, we find that leadership grows most from being in the crucible with tasks that we don't know how to do. We are forced to learn.

The fourth is learning by reflection. We can be so busy "doing" that we don't often have enough time to quiet the mind and draw insights from the experiences we've had or what we may already know deep within ourselves. Techniques such as meditation, journaling, a warm bath, a quick nap, and jogging can help remove us from the bustle of our standard operating thoughts so as to think sideways, like Archimedes in his famous bathtub. 

These four learning styles match individual preferences. Each of us likes to learn in different ways; but learning the same lesson via multiple modes makes knowledge more clear and the learning sticky. Effective leadership programs bring all these modes together - to offer people fresh ideas, put them through experiential activities to draw out the lessons, provide time for classroom dialogue, and include journaling so each person can encode personal learning.  

What people can take away from these classroom experiences is not only learning but the practice of learning-to-learn. For instance, we are currently working with Grameen Foundation and CoCoon to build greater learning agility among microfinance middle managers in India and other countries in the region. These are individuals who are often young in age and tasked with great responsibility, complexity and change. Manuals are not feasible, since the codified knowledge in them would be dated as soon as the manual is developed; so it is important that the managers have the ability to learn quickly, using the different learning styles. Learning-to-learn comes from building the skills to tap others' expertise, the willingness to use challenges as learning opportunities, and the discipline to be reflective and self-aware.

This need to create learning agility is important everywhere in the changing environment of India. Are we up to the task? Indians can be good at learning from books and learning on their feet. We can do better by finding more reflective time and seeking out others to be our mentors. We often are held back by the fear of looking incompetent. Yet, it is new challenges that allow us to learn and grow. And the better we can get at learning, the better we can take on new challenges.

Lyndon Rego is the Global Director for the Center for Creative Leadership's Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative, an effort to democratize leadership development internationally.