Sunday, January 31, 2010

Career Advice Part 2: Never Stop Learning

This is the second part of a 5 part career advice series.

There’s three parts to every career path: the past, present, and the future. Kind of like Dickens’s Christmas Carol.

A lot of us tend to think of these elements in terms of the results we’ve achieved (as documented on our resume), the work we’re doing, and what we want to do when we grow up (our career plans and goals).

There’s another way to think about your career path – think of your career as a learning journey.

The Past:
Most of know it’s a smart habit to update our resumes every year. It’s like paying your taxes - no one likes doing it, but it has to be done. If you really hate it and don’t want to do it yourself, then you can pay someone to do it.

Many of us are also asked to document our accomplishments for the year as input into the annual performance review. Again, not a bad idea. If you’re not asked to do this by your manager, then I’d recommend doing it anyways. It’s hard for managers to keep track of all of your accomplishments, so it’s OK to help jog their memories.

Here’s the part I’ll bet you don’t do: at the end of each year, sit back with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and ask yourself what you learned over the last year. In fact, don’t just do it at the end of the year. Make it a regular habit at the end of every big project, whether you succeed or fail.

It’s called reflection, and it’s a proven best practice that helps clarify and crystallize your learning. That’s why journals are often used as in leadership development programs – they’re a learning enhancer. Great coaches are masters at asking those million dollar reflective questions – the kind of questions that just seem to unlock our “ah-ha” moments. As a leader, make it a regular habit to ask your employees to reflect on what they’ve learned. Even better, ask them to do it after a major screw-up. It’s those hardships that build resiliency and can end up being some of our most powerful learning experiences.

The Present:
Have you ever heard of “learning agility”? It’s a key characteristic of highly successful people. Some say it’s THE #1 predictor of success.

Top leaders who rank in the upper portion of success are the more learning-agile, which Warren Bennis calls “adaptive capacity”, the hallmark of effective leadership. Lombardo and Eichinger have shown that it is associated with being a high potential learner; these learners perform much better after promotion than do the average and low learning-agile. Robert Sternberg reports that learning agility has a higher correlation to success than IQ.

What this means is that effective leaders are lifelong learners. Learners of the soft stuff. Learning agility relates to learning to think, feel, act, and believe differently based upon experience and changing circumstances.

Studies of why people fail all include some version of the lack of willingness and ability to adapt and learn from experience.

Fortunately, you can actually develop a sense of “learning agility”. Be curious, be open to new experiences, try new things, experiment, and take pride in being able to tackle the new and unknown. A mentor once told me that in order to stay fresh and motivated in a career, at least 20% of what you do each year should be new and different. I’ve tried to follow that advice, and hope I can continue to do so well beyond retirement.

The Future
A high level manager once told me he refused to have career discussions with people who came to him looking for advice on how to become an executive. To him, the more important question they should be asking themselves is “what is it I want to learn?”

Although I never liked that manager, his advice stuck with me.

I do think it’s OK to have an idea of what your next likely role might be, as well as 2-3 longer term potential roles. Once you do that, then identity what you need to learn in order to prepare myself for those roles. It’s called a development plan. Regular readers of this blog have heard me harp on the importance of having an IDP (individual development plan) on a regular basis.

You didn’t think I was going to miss an opportunity to work it into this career advice series, did you?

In summary, a good career path isn’t just a list of jobs – it’s a continuous journey of new experiences, reflection, and learning. If you do that, the rest should take care of itself.

19 comments:

Chad Albrecht said...

Great article Dan!

Mackenzie said...

Hi Dan,

Fantastic article! I have always believed in the importance of learning as much as possible about whatever a person has an interest in. Varied experiences can go a long way into affecting someone's perspective, usually allowing for a more open or innovative mind frame. The value of continuous learning can be immeasurable.

My question is, do you believe that there is a point in which someone can get overloaded with the learning, and lose track of the path or IDP that it's supposed to benefit? Or, in your opinion, would this just lead to a revised route?

Mackenzie

Melissa said...

Hi Dan,
Great career advice! Learning is essential for growth; whether it comes from mistakes, regrets, desires, etc., what is truly important are the lessons we take away from our experiences. You also mention the advice you once received from a high level manager that the question isn’t “how do I become an executive?” it’s “what is it I want to learn?” I’d like to add to that that we should also be asking ourselves “why do I want to learn it?” This type of reflection allows people to understand their motives and may give them a clearer focus as to what their next career decision should be

Nicole said...

Great article with great comments. I would just like to add that when we stop asking what we want to learn and why we want to learn it, we become complacent and maybe it's time for some self-evaluation. Whether we have good or bad experiences we should walk away from them asking ourselves what we can take away from the situation. How can we prevent it from happening again, or if it was a good experience, how can we make it better?

Javier said...

Great Post Dan, I really enjoyed reading it, and as I read your words I recalled Dr. Bret's words who once told us "If you already know it all, you do not have anything left to learn". This is absolutely true. Every day is a new day, and we are always learning from the day to day real life situations, take away the best from them and move on, that is how life is. The bottom line is to adapt a positive attitude to be eager to learn about new things everyday.

kimberanna_com said...

Great information & wonderful writing style, easy to read & absorb.
Looking forward to more of the same:D

John Spence said...

Dan, as always, a wonderful post. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. During a typical year I have the chance to interact with perhaps 2,000 managers/leaders in my seminars. I often ask them, "How many of you read at least 6 business books a year?" - no hands go up. "How about three?" maybe a few hands - so finally I ask "How many of you read at least ONE business book a year - and Who Moved My Cheese does NOT count" often... no hands go up. Dan, that scares me. We all talk about a dedication to lifelong learning, yet time and again I encounter business people that seem to be putting little or no effort in to truly trying to be serious about continued professional growth. Please keep up the great work and let’s all play a role in helping leaders be voracious lifelong learners!

Wally Bock said...

Boy is this a post about a vital career skill! Jeff Immelt has said that the key thing that gets you to be president of something like GE is "how fast you learn." A critical part of learning agility is the ability to seek, receive, and learn from feedback.

Yung said...

Great advice Dan! I really enjoyed this article and I realized that I'm already doing some of the things mentioned in this article but have failed to do others. Reflection is just as important as your plan for the future and this is something I don't do enough of. If I don't learn from my past then I may be doomed to repeat it.

On a bright note I continue to learn new skills as I continue to advance in my career and find that my strength has been my learning agility and continued interest in trying new challenges. And I have always continued to determine what I need to learn, in order to get myself to the next level!

Cythia said...

Thank you for your great advice! I also believe that learning is a lifelong process. With reasonable planning, we can really make this process more meaningfully and efficiently.

Christina said...

I love your post perhaps because I believe that life is a continuous process of learning. But the hardest part is the ability to adapt. Perhaps yes we want to learn something new today but are you really willing to learn. If you adapt to change, learn something new, it could go a long way. It's a step forward greater responsibility or opportunities perhaps. So far in my situation, it helped looked for better opportunities, the only challenge, I also need to keep up-to-date and learn. If you've heard Kaizen, it means continuous improvement...that's life if we want to have a better career one day, or be your own boss...everything is not possible. I guess if you follow the advice on this article...you'll go a long way....kudos...

Dan McCarthy said...

All-
Thanks so much for your comments and positive response to this post. My aplogies for not yet responding to each of you- I've been on the road and will catch up when I return .

Kate Grey said...

I consider myself so fortunate to have had a great boss for 13 years, a boss who also happened to be an amazing leader. Your observation about taking time every so often to reflect on learning and lessons reminds me of something she did with us every year. Each of us had a meeting once or twice a year where she would ask us these six questions:
1) How are you doing?
2) What are you learning?
3) What are your goals?
4) How can I help you?
5) Please provide any recommendations how I might improve my leadership style.
6) Provide any recommendations on how we can improve our department.
It's been nine years since I worked for her, and I still have the questions! I later went on to use the questions with my own direct reports. We employees used to roll our eyes about it at first -- "Oh, it's time for the MEETING again" -- but I actually think the formalized nature of it made it both more comprehensive and significant.

Note: It's possible she got some of these questions from her own readings on leadership (she voraciously studied it), but unfortunately I'm unable to cite the source.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, Chad!

Mackenzie –
Good question. I’ve heard it called “drinking out of a fire hose”, when someone takes a new job and they are just overwhelmed with the new. It’s like moving into a new apartment or house and not being able to find the light switch.
It’s usually temporary – about 6 months. With a good support network and a lot of resiliency, people usually work their way through it.

Melissa –
Thanks! I agree, that’s an even better question.

Nicole –
Thanks, I agree! Successful people have a knack for learning from hardships. They can dust themselves off and come away a stronger person.

Javier –
Thanks. That Dr. Bret is a wise man. (-:

Kimberanna –
Thanks!

John –
Wow, that is so sad! Thanks, and you keep up the good work too.

Wally –
Thanks. Good advice from Immelt, given GE has such a great reputation for developing its managers.

Yung –
Thanks. With that kind of approach, I’m sure you’ll get to where you want to go.

Cythia –
Thanks!

Christina –
Thanks. I agree. It’s too bad how many people just choose to stop learning.

Kate –
I love these questions!! Thanks for sharing.

Heath Davis Havlick said...

"Learning agility" -- great phrase! Everyone, including executives, needs to be mentally flexible and willing to learn whatever is necessary. Thanks for the article.

Dan McCarthy said...

Heath -
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

Susindar K. Subramanian said...

Dan, Interesting. I have had a rough shod career all along. I have had to face a lot of challenges and come out of them with great difficulty. The only flicker of hope is that something will happen to set right my losses / betrayals / back stabbers and people who schemed together to see that I donot grow.

Dan McCarthy said...

Susindar -
I wish you all the best!

CareerOutlook said...

this is a very insightful article, I firmly believe that the day you stop learning is the starting day of your decline in career.