“Leading to Learning,” Part 1: Here’s Where We Are

I’ve been in a lot of recent discussions with people who work in tech within medium- and large-sized business. There’s been a common – by no means ubiquitous, but certainly common – thread that I want to spend some time pulling.

The archetypal comment from the individual contributors I speak to starts something like this: “I’m fine learning new technologies that the company needs me to learn, but…”

…and then it ends something like this:

  • “…they expect me to do it on my own time.”
  • “…they won’t tell me exactly what they need beyond a broad topic or technology.”
  • “…they won’t pay for any real training.”

All of those are actually pretty significant statements with a lot to unpack. And they’re obviously only one side of the story. In talking with tech leaders – the “they” in those above statements – you get a different, albeit not entirely opposing, story:

  • “We send people to classes but we have no idea if they learned anything.”
  • “We provide plenty of self-paced learning tools like video training and books, but nobody uses them consistently.”
  • “We’re not even sure what training we should be choosing.”

Setting aside my incredibly negative bias on the word “training” (training is for dogs and dolphins, humans should be taught) and just accepting it as industry jargon, one main thing kind of filters through all of those statements:

Some companies aren’t very good at leading to learning.

Let me clarify that: when we think about a leader within a company, we’re usually talking about a manager or other management-level person whose job it is to ensure their team produces the desired production outcomes. That might mean managing a team that’s producing code, maintaining servers, migrating systems, deploying applications, or anything. A manager’s job is to ensure their team gets their job done.

More broadly, leaders are expected to juggle resources, understand the company’s vision and direction to some extent, possibly formulate strategy for aligning a team around that vision, negotiate for needed resources, push back when the team isn’t equipped to achieve a given outcome, and so on. But all of that essentially lines up around production outcomes.

And even the best leaders weren’t born that way. They’ve typically come up “through the ranks,” as it were, and learned by observing other leaders. Perhaps they’ve had leadership education, or maybe they read a bunch of books about leadership. Point is, none of us drops out of the womb prepared to be a leader. Companies with formal leadership development programs try to deliberately create effective leaders; companies without such programs tend to try and hire effective leaders, or just roll the dice and operate on instinct when promoting people.

The moral: in a lot of companies, “how we get good leaders who can be relied upon to create good production outcomes” is pretty much a craps shoot.

Certainly, then, there are plenty of companies who never give a moment’s thought to leaders who can include continuous technology learning as part of the daily job. Now again, this is not a universal truth: there are companies I know who do a freaking fantastic job of making sure their leaders know how to “building learning in” to everyday life. But there are probably far more companies who treat learning as… as overhead, of some kind. As a necessary evil. As a means to an end, at best, rather than a desirable part of every work day.

Don’t get me started on the phrase, “culture of learning,” either, because I intensely dislike its over-common usage. I wrote a book on the subject, in fact, which makes the point that if you think you have a “culture of learning,” you very probably don’t. What you need is an entire business culture that includes learning, not some kind of “parallel culture” that deals with learning as an adjunct to normal production outcomes. Learning should be a production outcome in any modern company that deals with tech.

Anyway, this is a thread I want to pull on a bit over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll stick around, and I hope you’ll comment profusely (and constructively).

2 thoughts on ““Leading to Learning,” Part 1: Here’s Where We Are

  1. Aaron

    I think it’s tough, because while growth and learning are important in a business environment, not all situations and company needs are the same. But equally, not all employee situations are the same either. I recently transitioned into an IT role as a career change. I had expected my company to provide a clear path on my development where the business had a need or what they wanted me to do, but that wasn’t the case. I had to research and propose my own path, based on the needs I saw, but also the interest and passions that I had personally. I was able to have a conversation with my manager on the benefits of Pluralsight and additional training. But ultimately, I convinced them on investing in me as an employee. I have two boys under 3 years old in a single income household that just made a complete career change. I was willing to pursue on my own time, and dime if necessary, to pursue additional learning. I whole heartedly believe in a quote from Abraham Lincoln that said, “I will prepare myself, and my opportunity will come.” So my perspective is, it’s on the employee to take the initiative, if the opportunities don’t come within your current job, they’ll come somewhere else. But if you’re not willing to invest in yourself, you shouldn’t expect a company too.

    1. Don Jones

      I think you sort of make the point that I’m also making: a good business will be able to see and communicate their needs. Yours hasn’t, and it’s good that you were able to lead yourself, but you’re illustrating the lack of vision – and connecting that to skill development, meaning seeing skills as taking us to a business outcome – that I see many companies struggle with. If a company can’t create a vision, then they also can’t really lead to it.

      I do agree that employees should invest in their own careers, and it’s admirable that you’ve done so. But that isn’t necessarily helping the business (nor should it have to); it’s helping you. Where I see businesses struggle is in not having a vision to lead to, and I’m not understanding how skills support and deliver that vision.

      If your company couldn’t provide you with a path, then they’re not “leading to learning.” In a better world, they’d be able to do so.

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