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Stop Making Learning a Dirty Word

3 min read

Do you want to retain top talent and build the next generation of leadership? You need to change how your organization views learning.

As any hiring manager will tell you, it’s hard to find and hire the ideal candidate. It’s rare that a candidate knocks on HR’s door boasting precisely the right mix of skills for the position. And when you’re hunting for the next generation of leaders—well, it seems to just get more complicated.

You know you’ll have to develop new hires: virtually nobody is 100% ready from day one. You also know that investing in employees increases retention. So why do so many organizations approach professional development as if it’s a punishment rather than a reward? Allow me to illustrate…

Scenario A: “We have this manager who can be fairly…long-winded. No one wants to attend his meetings.” She was whispering over the phone, and I could almost see her wincing as she told me about the team member I’d be coaching. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s great at the technical stuff. It’s just…his monotone voice is deadly, and people usually leave his meetings feeling deflated, not motivated. I think this may be our last chance to help him.”

Ouch. Now let’s imagine the same conversation in a different way.

Scenario B: “We have this manager who’s a total rock star. He’s great at his job, and he’s got this way of connecting one-on-one with his colleagues and direct reports. Really high EQ! So we’ve tapped him as a high-potential player who’s almost ready to step into a bigger leadership role. We want to offer him some coaching so he can polish his group communication skills—to be as effective addressing his whole team as he is one-on-one.”

Two scenarios. The facts are the same in both. But the attitude toward learning—therein lies a world of difference. No one wants Scenario A. It’s almost as if being “sent” for training is like being sent to the slaughterhouse. As if the arrival of the executive coach is usually followed by a pink slip.

Sadly, we see this a lot.

When did learning become taboo?

As a facilitator for The Ariel Group, I’m well aware that strong presence and communication skills are essential. Communicating clearly, passionately, and persuasively can have a powerful effect on your career trajectory. And though not everyone is born with these abilities, they’re skills that can be taught. (I should know; I had to learn them myself in order to become a professional actor and director.)

Perhaps some of your people believe that if they don’t have “The Gift” from birth, they’ll never have it. Or perhaps you simply don’t know how to convey that providing training is a sign that you believe in them—rather than a hint that they’re not good enough.

We have to change our mindset towards learning. Here are 3 simple steps that anyone can use to start shifting how they approach professional development:

1. Remember, it takes time to learn.

We don’t expect children to ride a bike flawlessly the first time they try. We know it will take time and patience. We show them how to balance and brake, we raise the training wheels an inch at a time, and we even hold on to the seat as they start. If they fall, we dust them off and remind them that new skills take practice.

As with anything else, a quick fix or a one-hour lesson isn’t going to have your child ready for the Tour de France. And while most organizations can’t wait years for an employee to “pedal away,” it’s just as important to budget a realistic amount of time for the new skills to become habit.

2. Your opinion of learning will dictate your employees’ opinions. Be positive.

If leaders in your organization think of learning as a dirty word, it will become one—and stay that way. I’ve witnessed managers demeaning professional development to their employees, saying, “Oh, you’re going to that training thing today? [Eye roll.] Well, I may want to pull you into a meeting… [Wink, wink.] You won’t mind, right?”

The message is clear: “You don’t really want to go, do you? It’s going to be hard and you’re going to hate it.” With an introduction like that, do you think any learning will actually take place?

Instead, remind your managers that coaching and training are offered to valued, high-potential employees who earn the investment. If you’re not celebrating each upcoming development opportunity as if it were a promotion, you need to ask yourself why.

3. Think “grow,” not “fix.”

A simple change in word choice can do wonders. “Fix” suggests something is broken. “Growth” describes nurturing. If you treat your employees like broken gears in a machine, they’ll come to associate learning with weakness. And too many of us fear that our weaknesses might get us fired—like a gear that management might decide to replace instead of repair.

On the other hand, if you support your team members with professional development, they’ll know that you believe in them and have their best interests at heart. They’ll know you see them as worthy of your investment.

Do you want to retain top talent and build the next generation of leadership? You need to change how your organization views learning.



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