Admit it: you were tempted to skip this one, right?
After all, you’ve done your studying, you’ve paid your dues, you’ve worked your way up the hierarchy, and now you’ve made it to the top. You’re a leader; surely you’re now the teacher, not the student?
Well, sure, but only if you’re not too concerned about staying at the top of the food chain.
For leaders, learning is the key to staying relevant. Without it, you run the risk of becoming a LINO — a “leader in name only”. And one thing we know about LINOs? They don’t last very long.
Learning helps you master your craft, of course, but it also allows you to understand your company, and your people. It helps you grow your staff so they can reach their full potential and helps you grow your organization so that it matures and progresses instead of stagnating. It ensures that your own personal development doesn’t stagnate too.
Forget your preconceptions.
But set aside your preconceptions about learning. Learning as a leader isn’t necessarily all about stuffy classrooms, online courses, or gathering up new certificates. It’s far more wide-reaching — and often far more relevant.
If you want to set a solid foundation for your leadership learning, there are three main areas to focus on:
- Learning about yourself.
As with everything in leadership, learning starts with you. As a leader, you need to be constantly focused on learning more about yourself — including your strengths and weaknesses — as well as any mindset shifts you need to make so you can grow. A company is a bigger reflection of what’s going on at a smaller scale with the leader, so if you’re not growing, how can you expect your company to grow? Become more self-aware!
Good leaders embrace a “What’s next?” mindset, where they’re never entirely content with the status quo. They’re always on the lookout for ways to expand their skill set and their mindset beyond the obvious leadership-related stuff. While there are definite benefits to educating yourself about leadership, it’s not where your learning should start and end. You’re more than a job title and that means you need to develop all the parts of yourself, not just those that are work-related. You might want to learn more about finance, psychology, personal development, and any wider interests you have.
Developing your mind and your personality is just like developing your body. You can’t get fit by only exercising one muscle; you have to give them all the attention they need to grow.
- Learning about your staff.
Plenty of leaders think they have this one licked simply because they can name every staff member. Others don’t bother to make even that much effort. But to be more than a LINO, you need to commit to learning about your staff. About their strengths and weaknesses, about their goals, about who they are as people, not just workers.
When you really get to know the people working for you, you learn how to assign the right roles and the right projects to the right people. You learn how to motivate your staff, how to challenge them, and how to get the very best from them. And when you do that, you increase their productivity, their job satisfaction, and you gain their trust and loyalty.
- Learning about your company.
It’s one of the laws of nature when it comes to business: unless someone is deliberately making an effort to the contrary, the different departments in a company are going to silo themselves. This is how you get businesses where nobody actually know what’s going on in the other parts of the organization — accounting does its thing, marketing does its thing, production is on a whole different track, and who the heck knows what’s going on with HR?
This is also how mistakes get made, money gets left on the table, and companies get bogged down in inter-departmental rivalries. And when it comes to dishing out blame for this type of situation, the buck generally stops with the leader, because they didn’t know the company well.
So how do you, as a leader, avoid this particular pitfall? You make it your mission to understand how every single department works, and how they interconnect. You commit yourself to setting cross-departmental training and to implementing a culture of general understanding, where all staff members have at least a rudimentary knowledge of how the rest of the company works. When you have staff members who could reasonably step in with useful support when problems arise in another departments, you can pre-empt many potential crises — and limit the fallout when a crisis does hit.
And it all starts with you and your willingness to learn.
Overcoming your learning obstacles.
I know, I know, your mind may be willing, but your schedule won’t allow it.
Time poverty can be a real obstacle when you’re juggling your home life and other responsibilities with the demands of your leadership role. I’ve been there! But I have always tried to make time to learn, because I found out early on that when I didn’t, I ended up getting myself into situations and problems that took even more time and energy to unravel than if I had just taken the time to do what I needed to do in the beginning.
In the end, it all comes down to priorities. Do you prioritize current production or do you focus on long-term growth and learning? While current production is perhaps the most obvious choice, it’s one that will leave you stuck when your pipeline dries up and you find yourself scrabbling to secure new business. It’s far better to find a balance between production and learning, marketing, and focusing on new growth. Just remember to not have learning be consistently at the bottom of your priority list.
Learning as a leader takes time and effort, no question, but it’s always worth the trade-off. When you model a commitment to learning you encourage a company-wide learning culture. And a culture where people are keen to grow and develop their own skills inevitably leads to a company that’s always focused on the bigger picture: on growth, quality, and operating with integrity.
Al Schauer is the Founder of PointNorth Consulting. He offers coaching and mentoring to aspiring leaders committed to leading with character. His new book on values and doing the right thing in leadership will be available soon. Sign up here to receive updates on how you can purchase his book.