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Learning and leadership: you are the key

Published on 27 April 2021

Learning and leadership: you are the key

Looking back over your career, when have you been at your most happy and fulfilled? This isn’t always when we are ‘in the flow’ but often when we are learning or developing, as people or as professionals. When we are at out happiest or most fulfilled, we are probably making a real difference to those around us, at home or at work – whether we are supporting, challenging, or collaborating. Learning makes a difference because new ideas are transformative. We are influenced by them.

They open the doors to new ways of thinking. They give us energy and hope. In practice, our personal contribution may be from something we choose to do (conscious) or just from the impact of our new ideas or behaviours on others (unconscious). In this way, we are exercising a form of leadership among those who are closest to us, not in a formal or hierarchical sense, but as people of influence.

Whether leading a business, a team or ourselves we need direction and purpose that supports our professional growth. This needs to be lived, not just something to which we pay lip service. This kind of continual learning, a drive for improvement, is what marks out a professional from people just ‘doing the job’.

We’re ready for a new challenge, already part way to noticing the opportunities. Then, if we become a go-to place for anyone looking to bring in new ways of working, we will find our sphere of influence slowly growing. We become a key to unlocking these opportunities.

What makes a successful learner?

The first thing a taxi driver asks is: where are you going? In the opening seconds of meeting you, they know where you want to go to and where they need to go next to get you there. Some may follow-up with other questions about the route (fastest? avoid certain roads?) which adds further clarity and supports a successful journey. So thinking of your own inner taxi driver, have you told yourself where you want to go with your career? Or are you waiting to be asked? Do you even know why you want to get there? Or what is involved in getting there? The price you will pay? The obstacles you may have to overcome along the way? Successful learners need to ‘own’ their own learning and the first levels of learning are certainly goal driven. Sometimes they are goals set by others. Often that is the case in so-called ‘coaching sessions’ in an old-style contact centre. The best coaching cultures, however, tap into people’s own motivation or perceptions and encourage everyone to choose their own goals. If the self-selected learning goal is not appropriate or realistic in the context of the job, then the best performance goal will surely be around awareness (first) before moving on to define an agreed objective that you and your manager can both get fully behind.

No-one is an island to themselves

In his April Conference Keynote Ivan Smith, Head of Support at Motability Operations, talks about five levels of learning.

  1. You need to get better at this: how will you do that?
  2. I’d like to learn more about this: how do I do this?
  3. Lets see what I can find out: what can I now do differently?
  4. What happens if ... I combine these ideas in a new way?
  5. What would be a totally new way of doing this?

The first levels are driven by explicit (conscious) goals and these are most effective when they are very clearly defined. Once this habit of learning is embedded, however, learning can become more unconscious. We see this with other behaviour in life, like learning to drive or to excel at a chosen sport, or to make a public presentation. Not everyone has learning habits embedded at that level but, when they do, this can transform the learning process.

Becoming more inquisitive

Suddenly, your mind can focus more broadly, becoming inquisitive about all kinds of seemingly random things that you then automatically link back to what you are working on or the issues you are facing in other areas of life. Ivan calls this freeing up of your attention ‘beachcombing’. For those who want to investigate the theoretical background, you will find much about this in some schools of NLP thinking about the power of the unconscious mind. He goes on to then look at learning that is driven not by goals, but by questions like “What happens if …?” We learn to combine new ideas in ways that are innovative. We may even create ideas that are truly new or ‘disruptive’ (as is commonly sought by start-up companies looking to go big).

The importance of sharing and collaboration is much more obvious at that level. The value of ideas comes from how we combine things form different sources and do something new with them. Yet, truly, collaboration is important at all levels of learning. We are not ‘islands unto ourselves’, but more like ‘eddies of current’ in a fast-flowing sea of energy. This level of learning requires a wider lens of attention implementing ideas or change.

The community of professionals

At The Forum, our goal is to build a deep-rooted community of accredited professionals. This is because we each need support for our development, a safe space to test out ideas and clarify things of which we are uncertain. For sure, we can build networks of support within our own organisation or sector, but as a truly independent community of professionals it is our purpose to offer this space for individual professionals or teams who are seeking to raise standards.

We call this model of learning and leadership Learn- Share-Transform (see diagram). At an individual level we influence teams and departments above and around us. In the same way, we are also shaped by the leadership culture and the priorities of our organisation. Learning and sharing provides rich food for learning together within the professional community. We can see different things happen in different places, even among people using the same systems or in the same sector or with (ostensibly) the same goals.

Who is your support team?

Collaboration in learning will be key to your success as a professional, so it’s worth an investment of time and effort. Who will be in your support team? Your team and wider business? Your professional network? Who are the unexpected allies? What role do you play in your team to ensure success? When thinking of high achievers, in sport or media, we may focus on a few individuals, but behind each story of success will be a strong support team. Whether you are the leader or a member of a team, you have a role to play in influencing direction and performance. This is leadership and it can prove transformational for those around us. As a professional, you will need to inspire those around you, stakeholders, colleagues and managers.

To support you we recommend two techniques that have proven very successful in our training at The Forum over many years, now included in our Learning Academy on-demand modules.

Stakeholder Mapping: understanding the interest and influence level is key. Each stakeholder will have a unique position, however when this is understood you can prioritise to ensure you satisfy, engage, inform and monitor the right people.

Understanding people: take a look at motivation and thinking preferences, not to pigeonhole people but to learn different ways of communicating, influencing and inspiring them. The power of words, or pictures cannot be underestimated. Towards goals or away from problems can get you to the same place, or it can take you further away.

You have probably heard the expression team dynamic, referring to the distinct roles and behaviours that impact other group members and ultimately group outcomes. A key characteristic of a successful team ismutual trust, often created by a shared understanding of the vision and the role each person plays. Trust develops when everyone plays their part, understanding their accountability and responsibility.

Leadership style

Leadership is sometimes defined as the action of leading a group of people or an organisation. We also include leading ourselves, our attitude and behaviour. Importantly, leadership comes in many styles as this is more about character, then a tick-sheet of actions. For instance, key positive behaviours to look out for might include:

  • Motivation and inspiration, creating a vision which is worth following
  • Influential and exciting, engaging people
  • Honesty and achievement, building trust

Without effective leadership, life can be like herding cats. Without taking ownership and leading ourselves, we will only wander through life without purpose and a lack of accomplishment. So, whether you are a seasoned veteran of leadership, or on the early steps of your career ladder, you need to act differently. 

To become a leader you will need to recognise the differences between the new you and the old.

  • Learning our trade often means we become a specialist, a subject expert. Our new version may need us to become more of a generalist, seeing the broader picture and using our teams to become the new specialists
  • Our viewpoints are often short-term and focussed as a specialist, whereas leadership requires a longer-term strategic view including vision, values and brands
  • We may have needed to fight our corner and act as a warrior, as a specialist, whereas leadership requires more diplomatic skill. You need to successfully engage a range of stakeholders
  • You may need to move into the limelight, no longer part of the supporting cast but in a lead role

These are all important changes and differentials from the past. Embrace these, don’t let others hold you back. Hearing ‘you’ve changed’ or ‘you wouldn’t have done that before’ are positive signs you are thinking and acting differently.

Thinking Strategically

Understanding your purpose and creating direction is crucial to your success. The opposite would be to have no purpose and a lack of direction, so consider where this will take you? As important a strategy is for your organisation, this is also vital to consider for yourself. What is your personal strategy? What are your visions, values and personal brand? How will you measure success? This doesn’t need to be a set of metrics and KPIs. You can define outcomes in many ways but they do need to be clear. You need to recognise when you are there, or when you are not.

It can be so easy to focus on the ‘here and now’ we can get lost in the detail and not see the bigger picture. Thinking strategically takes effort and practice. Strategic Thinking is about understanding opportunities and problems from a broad perspective and recognising the potential impact your actions might have on the future.

Our Strategy Pyramid at The Forum is a good tool for evolving your personal strategy and brand also. When doing this for the first time it can be very easy to get carried away with the new stuff, the new ideas and the high level of intent. However, the first step is to stop the old behaviours, old targets, and old statements. Then redefine the future, recognising the difference from what will become a forgotten past.

Think about what you need to accomplish and why is this important. Find out what has been done before. Consider the obstacles or blockages your will face. As you ‘reset’ and rethink your strategy, be clear what is changing or could change in the future. Think about how you will stay ‘future proof’ and avoid becoming irrelevant in a changing world. 

It can be too easy to blame a lack of time or certainty to recognise the value of a longer-term view. There will always be immediate demands and deadlines, however, this is for you to decipher which are true business imperatives and which ones can wait, be delegated or be left. Our instinct may draw us into too much detail, however, we must recognise when we are doing this and create time for additional detail work if required. Thinking strategically can help you to organise your time and workload, by prioritising high value work that will make a difference. It will also give you greater clarity of the direction of travel and crucially the why, and purpose. A strategic mindset keeps the big picture in sight. Becoming a strategic thinker doesn’t happen overnight, it takes practice.

Here are some top tips to help you build the habit:

  1. Curiosity: genuine interest in the wider business, not just your team with an outward focus looking across different industries.
  2. Consistency: you are relentless and known for your certainty of performance.
  3. Agility: adaptable, with a range of skills and approaches, open to new ideas from everyone.
  4. Continuous improvement: Reflect and review are habits, building new skills and always looking for opportunities and improvements.
  5. Questioning: you are always challenging your own thinking and your team’s actions.

The value of a professional

How will you continue to learn, grow and stay relevant? With the world around us changing at an exponential rate, we can’t afford to stand still, as we may not be able to make the big change necessary to catch up. Develop healthy habits which promote continuous improvement and role model behaviour. Inspire your team to continuously learn and take responsibility for their learning and development. The opposite would mean we are an amateur, or we would be showing a lack of professionalism.

Having professional values means you and your team can evidence professionalism in their personal outlook and work. Consistently demonstrating integrity, initiative, creativity, credibility, confidence, with a positive, can-do attitude and a commitment to developing the profession. Great leaders aren’t created overnight, they are transformed over time and importantly keep learning and evolving. Practice makes permanence and quality practice can lead to great leadership. Whether you are leader of an organisation, a team or just yourself, these principles will serve you well and help you to live a more fulfilled life.

Author: Paul Smedley & Phil Anderson

Date Published: 27th April 2021

This article was first published in the 2021 Best Practice Guide - Unlocking Opportunities: You are the Key

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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