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Leadership as Learning

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I am, and hope to always be, a leader-in-learning.

I work hard every day to be open to new opportunities to grow and to remember that no matter how much I know, I could never possibly hope to know it all (despite my behaviour to the contrary sometimes :))

Some of the most charismatic and accomplished leaders I have worked with, continue to act like they are on their way up, rather than having made it. Some are CEOs of Global organizations and yet they remain humble and open to what they can learn from others. They are the first to admit when they don’t know something, and the first to invite others to offer suggestions. They don’t ask questions to demonstrate how clever they are or to catch people out for having missed something. They are genuinely curious about how other people think and in exploring alternatives to their own perspective.It is really important for true leaders to maintain this spirit of leadership as learning, creating an environment ripe for innovation and engagement.

But some people, once they have achieved a certain level of career success, start inadvertently closing themselves off to new ideas and fresh thinking.

They stop trying new things, stop investing in development, stop spending time on ‘trying’ things out, stop asking stupid questions…

This is an understandable and natural consequence of becoming better and more sophisticated in what you do. But it can also be a fast way to becoming obsolete.

Indicators that you may be resistant to learning:

  • You like the plug and go features of that new piece of software that IT just rolled out, but you don’t have time for the advanced training. As long as the old shortcuts work, it’s all good
  • The report that you created in 2009 continues to be an excellent template for your client work
  • You wish the business administration would stop coming up with new processes and procedures to follow
  • When new projects and ideas are discussed, you can easily recall when they have been tried before and you are sceptical that they will work this time
  • The networking events you attend are filled with people from a similar education and professional background
  • Your friends are the same friends you have known for the last 10 years
  • Your reading list is dominated by genres and publications that you know you like
  • You have largely ignored social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as not relevant for business life – after all, there’s no measureable ROI from social media right?
  • When new people join your organization, you patiently school them on the culture and how things are done, to help them integrate…

Why does this happen?

Early in our career, we knew there was a ton of stuff we didn’t know.

We were consciously incompetent, and there was absolutely no risk to admitting it.  Always ready to volunteer for a new project and not afraid to ask ‘dumb’ questions.

But as you progress further in your career, and you begin to get promoted to realms of ever increasing seniority, it is harder and harder to maintain that inquisitive edge. Right around the time your career hits the murky middle, you run the risk of being afraid to fail.

What you know can hold you back from being open to what you don’t know. Leadership and other senior roles carry a baggage load of expectations and beliefs – yours and other peoples – which can create a barrier to learning and change. Worse still, the things you did to become successful can start to edge towards complacency.

Image courtesy of suphakit73 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of suphakit73 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Think about driving for a moment. Something that many of us do on a daily basis while barely thinking about what we are doing and how we are doing it. When we are first learning to drive, our conscious incompetence is a good thing.  It teaches us patience and humility.  We are so focused on learning we may even have to have the window closed and the radio off to allow us to concentrate. Then gradually we become increasingly confident, until we no longer have to think about the collection of activities involved. That is when driving can become complacent and dangerous.

Similarly, becoming a leader in a state of unconscious competence can be career suicide.

How can you remain immune to this natural progression?

There are many examples where, in our private lives, we try new things and remain open to new experiences. We learn to play music, travel, try new foods. We need to remember to take this openness and willingness to experiment back into the workplace on a daily basis. Create immunity by purposefully placing yourself in situations where you are NOT the expert and where you are forced to rely on someone else for direction and insights. Force yourself back into a state of conscious incompetence.

A few years ago I decided to take up speed skating (or speed falling as my husband affectionately called my attempts to skate).

My son had been skating competitively for a couple of years and I decided it was time to get out of the stands and have a go. Bearing in mind that I grew up in England, where strapping on a pair of skates is at best an annual event, I was consciously placing myself in a very precarious position where I knew nothing about the technicalities of skating (finding my edges was a revelation !).  Being a typical A type personality, having the other beginners (who were mostly 20 years younger than me) literally skating rings around me was disconcerting but also liberating. I was not the best. I was not the fastest. Heck, I could barely stand upright for the first few weeks. But I was wide open to learning.

I have had similar experiences with learning to play the piano from scratch as an adult beginner, or taking up road-cycling (a new exploit). I consciously translate the essence of these situations to my work, where I freely admit the areas where I am less than comfortable. I ask members of my team for their ideas and their approaches to doing things I have sometimes been doing for years. I ask for additional ideas and methods even in areas where I feel confident. I never fail to be amazed by the ingenuity and proficiency of others.

  • What do you do to stay open to the ideas and different approaches presented by the people around you?
  • How does something you do in your personal life translate to making you a better leader at work?

I’d love to hear your experiences.

This post was inspired by an interview with Steve Cunningham – president and founder of curated learning tool Readitfor.me and CEO of Polar Unlimited Digital Marketing. Click here to listen to the interview on the Read it for me Blog. Thanks to Steve for a great conversation…

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Go Fast, Turn Left…

The topic for this weekend’s #USBlogs post “What are you afraid of, and (more importantly), what are you doing about it?” was suggested by @donfperkins

Like many, I share a few traditional and customary fears:

  • I have a healthy interest in keeping my feet on the floor (rather than attached to the end of a fully stretched bungee cord or beneath a billowing piece of silk)
  • I am mildly arachnophobic, which I reportedly share with up to 55% of western women and 18% of western men.
  • I prefer not to walk in unlit areas late at night
  • I have to look the other way when being punctured by a hypodermic

But none of those things really interfere with my day to day or professional life.

The number one thing I am afraid of is that when all is said and done, what I have done won’t make a lasting difference.

As a parent, I worry about the impact I have on my kids, and how I can make sure that they become all that they can be. We are all doing it (parenting that is) for the first time, without a backup plan. To counteract my fear, I long ago wrote myself a guideline for the kinds of adults I hope my kids will become : caring, nurturing, intelligent, questioning, hard working etc. It made me realise the values I wanted to instill in my kids and the personality traits I would most admire in them as adults. The minor arguments and challenges over things that don’t really matter; like finishing all the food on their plate, drinking another can of pop or what clothes they wear, now get weighed against how that particular battle will contribute to the kind of adult they will become. Having a goal-plan allows me to focus on the bigger picture and not get drawn into every little scrap. From a professional standpoint, and as leaders, we all need to learn to do the same. Focus on the bigger picture and allow the noise and distractions that happen around us every day to colour our actions only to the extent they have an impact on our future.

The other thing I am afraid of is getting too comfortable and set in my ways.

The more success we achieve professionally, the more vital it is to acknowledge the enormous value of learning and stretching in areas where you are least comfortable. Paradoxically, it is also when we feel most pressure to be infallible. As a Director, VP or even a C-Level executive, you still cannot afford to stop learning and growing from those around you. That said, you do need to maintain a presence with your followers which inspires their confidence and loyal commitment. Over the last few years I have done a few things to ensure that I don’t fall prey to the silencing pressure of my own accomplishments. I have worked with external mentors to candidly explore areas where I could stretch and grow. My mentors have ranged from those I have worked with in the past to those I have actively sought out to purposefully chart unmapped areas of expertise. I have placed myself in relationships of trust to openly discuss where inexperience and hesitancy might be holding me back. The value of a third party perspective to the learning opportunities you might find yourself in enable you to extrapolate to general rules and methods to use again and again.

My Son, skating recently in Toronto

Some of the best learning opportunities come from facing fear and pushing yourself all the way to the point of failure! Only then do you know just how far you can go. That is why many of us put ourselves in extreme situations, to see just how capable we really are. I do this in my life by taking on new skills outside of my professional capacity, to stay grounded to the need to learn and grow. The skill I took on this year was speed-skating. My son took up the sport in 2009 and I decided it was time for mum to stop sitting in the stands and start taking a more active interest. Our club has members from age 6 to 78 and one of our older skaters only started speed skating at age 70 and went on to win a slew of medals! Having barely strapped on a pair of skates before, I took to the ice last September. I cannot profess to be record-breaking fast, but a few months later I am proudly traversing the ice in crouched position with smooth sideways strokes and cross-overs, accomplished only because I learned to let go and push myself to beyond the point of failure (with several bruises to show for it)! Next year I may even quell my fears long enough to enter a race or two!  I find learning new skills where I have to fail in order to succeed a great lesson in humility and a constant reminder to stay fresh in my thinking at work. How can I push past the point of comfort to unveil new methods. What’s my workplace equivalent of Go Fast, Turn Left…?

In her famous book “Feel the fear and do it anyway” Susan Jeffers shared 5 Truths about fear:

  • Truth 1. The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow
  • Truth 2. The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.
  • Truth 3. The only way to feel better about myself is to go out and do it.
  • Truth 4. Not only am I going to experience fear whenever I’m on unfamiliar territory, but so is everyone else.
  • Truth 5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.

I am proud to fear… It inspires me to keep learning. How do your fears push you?

This post is part of the #usblogs: Week 5 Round-Up Topic of the week: “What Are You Afraid Of? More Importantly, What Are You Doing about It?”

Check out these other blogs in the network series:

I see dead people…

If you’re a fan of M.Night Shayamalan then you’ll recognize this memorable line from the Movie The Sixth Sense.  This is the moment when Haley Joel Osment provides Bruce Willis with a huge insight into what might be going on. He goes on to share that they are… “Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.”

At the time, Bruce’s character Malcolm puts this odd comment down to a young boy’s morbid imagination. It takes several more scenes for Bruce’s character Malcolm Crowe, and the audience watching, to realise what Cole really meant with these words.  The power of the movie comes from this slow realisation that a change in mindset and perspective is needed to truly see what is happening all around them.

I sometimes wonder if that’s what’s going on in the corporate world today. In amongst the change agents and innovators, the doers and decision makers, are a large number of ‘ghosts’ not realising that the conversations they are having and work they are doing are part of an old reality. People clinging to a sense of what used to work, the way things have always been done, and the comfortable tried and true… But the world of work has changed. As people are shouting from the rooftops all around us – lead, rise up, make a difference, bring value, build business based on trust, give away knowledge, attract followers, stop interrupting people, give people a reason to invest in you or your business (by providing deep value…)

Don’t wait for the splashes of red to learn you’re one of the dead people…

8 questions to focus activities…

I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years providing practical suggestions for how to connect with clients, grow business strategically and clarify brands and value propositions. One of the things I’ve learned along the way is to ask myself and others questions about what we do and how we choose to spend our time. These questions have become even more critical to me now that I am self employed.

Question all activities – be really accountable for the answers

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What am I intending the result to be from this activity?
  • How will this contribute to my objectives today? Long term?
  • Is this the best way to spend my time right now?
  • What am I choosing not to do when I choose to spend time on this?
  • Do I have all the information, tools and resources I need to maximise this activity (if not – where can I get them?)
  • If I could only do 2 things today, what 2 things should I do?

and my personal favourite…

  • If I were hiring me to perform this job, would I pay me to do this…?

Are you really making a difference???

I am a huge fan of Seth Godin, and others of his cohort. They have taught us all so much about reaching for our full potential and making a difference in the world. They are clearly very insightful thinkers with a massive audience of followers and believers in their message.

Why then are so many who claim to be fans still failing to act differently!!!

In his recent post You’re already self employed, Seth makes a simple and elegant ‘call to action’ to shake people out of their sheepwalk. At the time of writing this some 450 people had retweeted the post and I’m sure by the end of the day many more will have done so.

However it reminds me of the saying

“when all is said and done, more is said than done”.

I have observed the reality that Seth speaks of, in companies where people bemoan the lack of empowerment and autonomy to change their role but do NOTHING to challenge the status quo and help establish better ways. They wait for the organisation to GIVE them the authority rather than claim their own role in leading the way. Even people who have leadership titles often wait to be shown the way….HUH???

And then there are others who clearly think their role is to keep on doing stuff without questioning whether that stuff is of ANY value to the organisation. How many countless hours are wasted on reports that gather dust, presentations that do not inspire change and meetings which put people to sleep?

When you are self-employed you have to demonstrate the value that you bring to the table EVERY day. You have to SHOW UP and be counted. Perhaps if more people did that, they would find themselves actively engaged instead of sucking a paycheque and waiting for the weekend.

So – people – show some respect for the man you claim to rever so much. Don’t just retweet his elegant words and succint messages. Go make a difference….