All my life, I’ve had the good fortune of being surrounded by leaders who are lifelong learners: my parents, my wife Margie, old college friends, business colleagues and so on. These people taught me the only way to grow as a leader is to keep learning — and if you aren’t learning and growing, you’re just wasting away. One of them, my friend, mentor and co-author Norman Vincent Peale, famously said, “If you stop learning, you may as well just lie down and let them throw dirt on you — because you’re already dead.”
As a leader who is always open to learning, you have the opportunity to grow and improve yourself every day. What’s more, in the spirit of the well-known phrase “when one teaches, two learn,” teaching another person something you’ve learned not only benefits that person, it also reinforces your new learning. Here’s an example.
For more than 20 years, every weekday morning I’ve sent a voice or email message to everyone in our company where I share something I recently learned. To some, a daily communiqué may seem like a daunting task, but I still love doing it. Why? First, to help sustain our warm and friendly company culture, I know it’s important for me to make that frequent connection with each person. Second, knowing I’m going to send a message every day keeps me in the present, thinking about what’s going on around me and what I might learn. Finally, sharing the things I’ve learned reinforces those learnings in my mind — so I get as much out of the experience as anyone.
Great leaders are always interested in ways to enhance their knowledge and skills. Some read, some listen to podcasts, some learn from mentors. I like the idea of setting at least one learning goal every year. What new thing would you like to know or be able to do a year from now? For example, maybe you want to learn a new language because you’ve noticed that more and more of your customers and colleagues are multilingual. Perhaps you want to know more about coaching or plan to take a course on making the best use of your social media platforms. Of course, your learning goal doesn’t have to be about work — maybe you’re interested in taking a master class online from a famous photographer or improving your cooking skills. Whatever it is, if you make a commitment to yourself to focus on learning something new every year, it’s more likely to actually happen.
The skills of an organization are no greater than the skills of its people. Great leaders know that supporting their people’s learning produces individual growth, experience and knowledge. It’s not only a competitive advantage but also the right thing to do. Formal training, mentoring and constant support all help to develop people’s skills and competencies. What’s the best way to combine these three methods for the maximum benefit to each person? One-on-one meetings.
Many years ago, our company implemented a one-on-one process that has proven enormously successful. Each manager holds a 15- to 30-minute meeting a minimum of once every two weeks with each of their direct reports. The manager is responsible for scheduling the meeting, but the unique quality of our process is that the direct report sets the agenda. They can use this time to talk to their managers about anything — work-related or not — because it’s their time. They can share their professional goals and the training they need to reach those goals; they may use the opportunity to explain a difficult situation going on at home or a problem with a co-worker; or they may ask their manager to be their mentor. They also may both simply agree to use the time to relax, laugh and get to know each other as human beings.
In the past, the typical warning in business circles was, “Don’t get close to your direct reports. You can’t make hard decisions if you have an emotional attachment to your people.” But knowing and caring about your people actually can be a competitive edge if a rival organization comes after them. The learning that happens on both sides during one-on-one meetings fosters genuine relationships as it increases job satisfaction — a positive result for individuals, leaders and the organization.