If you’re looking for your company’s next breakthrough leader, take a look in the mirror. That person just might be you.
I’m not kidding. Think about it for a minute. It’s not a lack of growth opportunities holding companies back. The global economy continues to expand. It’s not a shortage of resources. Many companies are flush with cash. It’s not a shortage of people. Moderate wage growth hasn’t made it too expensive for those looking to hire.
What is putting the brakes on growth is something a bit trickier: the ability to learn. Changing markets, ambiguous information, a deluge of data, crafty emerging competitors, technology innovation — all point to learning as the killer app for sustained success.
Success is built on collecting and synthesizing information from a range of sources, turning that into strategy and action, analyzing what happens as a result and then adjusting. In short, it’s learning.
The problem is that leadership is often determined by expertise. Many leaders ascend the ranks because they achieve success as subject matter experts, collecting deep experience and insight in a particular field over time.
Think of the software engineer churning out code for a new application or a surgeon honing their skills over years of study and practice. Or a business analyst making the move to finance chief and then CEO. The expertise model of leadership worked for many for a good long time.
That time is long gone. Experts aren’t always the best learners. In fact, expertise can be a hindrance. Deep knowledge is useful when you’re tackling a clear, well-defined problem. When the bottom line is awash in a sea of red, you want an accountant to wade in.
But what happens when the problem is ambiguous? What happens when the solution is uncertain? When you’re unsure how best to grow the top line, you want someone with versatility. You want people with breadth as well as depth. In short, you want leaders who are learners. It’s time for some T.
To borrow an often-used analogy, think of the classic subject matter expert as someone shaped like the letter I, with the single vertical line representing deep expertise in a single field. What’s needed now are people shaped like a T, with vertical skill in a particular area but also a horizontal breadth of experience across multiple fields.
Learning executives are exactly the T-shaped people organizations need for uncertain, rapidly changing and ambiguous times. They have deep domain expertise but also unique purview into nearly every part of the organization, from the C-suite to the factory floor, spanning accounting to operations, sales and marketing.
The ability to collect and connect across the breadth of the organization is the key to tackling challenging problems head on and applying new and divergent thinking to solving them.
It’s no secret that many managers fail as they move from being a functional expert to being a leader. They possess the skills, abilities and drive to propel them forward. But they stumble when they take that step outside of their defined functional domain into a more ambiguous leadership role where success doesn’t rely on their knowledge but rather their ability to inspire and motivate others. They’re good at their job but not good at leading, and being good at leading means being good at learning.
So who better than you to lead the way?
But taking that step starts with changing how learning leaders talk about their work. It’s time to stop talking about “the business” as something separate from learning. Hat tip to my friend Dan Pontefract, award-winning author and former CLO at Telus, who first made the point to me a couple of years back.
Here’s a news flash: In the modern economy, learning is the business. Organizations that are learning engines come up with more and better products and ideas, they bring them to market faster and pivot on a dime when the time calls for it.
If you’re at all serious about thriving and not just surviving, learning is the business. Leaders who don’t get that won’t be in business for very long. And that’s the T, sis.