"Leading to Learning," Part 3: Characteristics of Success

Make sure you’ve read Part 2 (which links to Part 1, if you missed that).

In this article, I want to look at some shared characteristics of companies that do seem to include “leading to learning” in their daily lives.

When I think of companies that have excellent leadership, I tend to think of several things.

First, those companies tend to have strong, clearly articulated visions, set down by their senior leaders. These visions are usually aspirational, meaning they describe an end-state that the company has not yet achieved, but that leadership feels is achievable. Visions are important because they provide a compass for the rest of the company to line up behind: if you’re not doing something to work toward the vision, you stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it.

Second, those companies usually have some kind of structure in place that guides what everyone is working on, and what the company expects to achieve from it. Whether that’s Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), managing to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), or whatever, there’s usually structure. “We’re doing this, and we expect that from it.”

Third, those companies typically have formal leadership development programs, where they teach leaders how the company itself wants them to operate as leaders. Those programs are often ongoing, meaning leaders throughout the company periodically learn new things, re-center on the company’s leadership philosophy, and so on.

Fourth, those companies almost always know who they are. They know what problem they’re solving for their customers, they know what differentiates them from their competitors, and they can articulate those things clearly. They know their strengths, and they usually know their biggest weaknesses, too.

Fifth and finally, those companies usually understand that, to get individual contributors to do anything more than the job you hired them for, you have to provide some incentives. These companies therefore often have format systems for reviewing and guiding employees that do not focus on negative outcomes. For example, these companies will almost always create a clear path along which someone can advance their career, if they choose to do so, meaning it’s on the employee to follow the path if they want advancement. “Annual review” time isn’t something to be entirely feared in those companies; for many employees, it’s a time to look forward to.

Those are all cultural indicators, and while they don’t guarantee business success, they certainly do facilitate it. And there are plenty of companies who build lifelong learning into every one of those five steps.

I’ve seen vision statements – perhaps not for the company, but for its technology arm – that include things like, “we will maintain an ability to flexibly adapt new technologies through out ability to rapidly skill-up on anything needed.” I’ve seen OKRs that include learning milestones as key elements. I’ve seen “the importance of learning, and how to manage it” as a topic in leadership development programs. I’ve seen, “one of our competitive differentiators is our ability to rapidly adopt new technologies that make us faster and more efficient.” And I’ve seen internal “certification programs” that reward employees, through bonuses and advancement, for becoming proficient in needed tech skills.

But they key is that these companies I’m talking about rarely tackle “tech learning” as a distinct thing. For them, it’s simply one part of doing business. They support it the same way they support a business leader’s need for critical resources. One company I spoke with bragged that, “our competitors all have to hire for the tech skills they need; we don’t need to rely on the vagaries of the job market to fill positions. We fill them ourselves, by teaching people what we need them to know.” That’s a huge commitment for the business, and it has to be supported at the highest level.

Consider: what if you were running the tech arm of a decent-sized company. You’ve been given a new line of business to support – perhaps a complex set of micro services on the back-end, supporting a mobile app as well as a web site on the front end. You and other leaders have already determined the set of technologies you’ll use, and you have a long-term timeline to get the first iteration deployed. You need to start building a team to get to work on all of it, and you can’t just hire a fully skilled team, because the job market isn’t deep enough.

In a company where learning is truly a competitive differentiator, you might not seek to hire people for the new team. You might look for some experienced, senior folks in the organization, perhaps with adjacent skills, and get them to skill-up quickly and move into team lead roles on the new team. You might then turn to an army of interns and “apprentices” that you’ve perhaps hired directly out of college, or even high school, and start skilling them up to be the main workforce on the new team.

To do that means you have to have a ton of confidence in your ability to put people through learn-and-work programs. You have to know how long it takes. You have to know that if you start the first wave of the team now, they’ll be ready in x months, and they’ll have their first production outputs in y more months. Basically, learning is part of your Gantt chart. It’s just part of how you do business.

But even in companies without that level of sophistication – which is hard to grow into, I assure you – we can still learn some things.

See you next week.

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