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Real Leaders Use the L Word

What do the most successful companies all have in common? The answer to that question used to be “the best and brightest people.” But hanging on to antiquated beliefs about intelligence may be what holds your organization back. Technology, innovation, and disruptions are changing the skills and knowledge we need faster than we can keep up. Individual smarts just aren’t enough.  

Successful organizations have processes in place to continuously monitor the performance of every function of the business. Significant resources are allocated to examine the status of finance, production, logistics, service, partnerships, and even consumer perceptions of the brand or company.  But the most successful companies have one thing many others do not: leaders who use the L word. Learning.

We’ve evolved to understand that focusing on collective intelligence and skills produces more engaged employees with shared contributions, accountability, and commitment to the success of the team. Statistics show that the average employee spends more than 75% of his/her time on team-based tasks. Team dynamics are much more impactful to organizational success than the skills or intelligence of the individual players. In fact, ineffective teams can actually zap the contributions of the individual members.   An organization’s culture of learning, or lack thereof, has never been more significant. A company truly focused on outsmarting the competition prioritizes improving how people learn individually and collaboratively.

A room full of all-stars doesn’t magically create an all-star team.

This shift shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the evolution of technology in our daily lives has allowed rapid global communications, immediate access to an exponential explosion of information, and the trend that the disruptions that change the market will continue to accelerate. In short, we’re getting smarter faster, and expectations of employees align with that trajectory.

We’ve all heard the famous estimation from Eric Schmidt when he was CEO at Google in 2010:

“There was 5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing.”

Because we can’t quantify data generated prior to the computer age and calculating current data generation with precise accuracy is impossible, there is no way to fact check this.  However, there is no denying that the amount of data being generated, disseminated, and stored is staggering. None of us are experts in everything. But today’s most valuable players are those who can sift through that avalanche of information to find the expertise they need. Furthermore, by sharing that new knowledge with others on the team, everyone benefits from one person’s ability to learn and teach.

The biggest obstacle for some organizations may be the force of inertia in a systemic culture that neither promotes nor nurtures opportunities to learn how to learn from one another. Traditionally, the veterans have been the mentors (think teachers) and the rookies have been expected to pay attention to how things are done (think learners). The veterans out there are gold mines of information, experience, and organizational history. But, the Millennials bring an entirely different skill set. They’ve learned how to learn and communicate differently.

In order to actualize a collective ROI from both subsets, organizational leaders must cultivate trust in the contributions of others and not only respect but expect the reciprocity of a learning community regardless of where people sit on the org chart.  Those companies that are able to do that will realize the powerful fusion of the gray knowledge with the green knowledge instead of sacrificing one for the other.

Rather than find people with a lot of stuff in their heads, we need to find people who know how to find people who know what we need to know.

A culture of learning isn’t formed by a committee, and it isn’t an initiative delivered in a binder.  It begins with understanding of how we learn combined with an expectation to grow the collective capacity to learn. It’s nurtured by providing people with multiple opportunities to contribute. People who feel valued for their contributions will seek out opportunities to learn and to share what they know with others. Driven by intrinsic rewards, they create a learning culture–one of colleagues and co-learners who are inspired to learn and inspire others to learn. The pursuit of learning how to teach and learn collaboratively that is woven into fabric of the business may perhaps be one of the most important facets of work as it will deliver recurring dividends long after the project, product, or campaign is over.

If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.

Effective leaders not only embrace the L word, they create the conditions that enable people to learn better and set the course by demonstrating that they, too, value opportunities to learn. There is a certain prerequisite of knowledge and skills for every job. Every organization has subsets of human resources that collectively define employee productivity, engagement, satisfaction, and ultimately the success of the company.  But those companies that cultivate a deeply rooted value for the collective knowledge, talents, skills, and capacity for everyone in the organization to both teach and learn within the culture of their organization will be powerful forces to reckon with.

About the Author

Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author of Happier Hour with Einstein and the full-color companion Gratitude Journal. She explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for improved cognition, creativity, and success.  Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. 

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