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Francis Wade | Top executives must show people how to learn

Published:Sunday | November 6, 2016 | 12:00 AM


How can employees be taught to learn?


Some smart local companies openly admit that an employee who has stopped learning is a detriment. Few realise, though, that a leader shouldn't expect others to portray behaviours they themselves don't demonstrate.

The Jamaican executive is supposed to be bold, confident and all-knowing. Smarter than his or her peers, quicker of mind and speech than most, having instant answers is a requirement. It's one way to cement his place in a corporate hierarchy in which everyone places their trust.

However, pity the customer with a problem who walks into the same company. He or she is likely to face staff members who, in their efforts to emulate top executives, also act as if they are bold, confident, and all-knowing. Regrettably, the experience is then one of pure, unadulterated arrogance. Disrespect.

It's a common Caribbean problem, one that few managers see. As a result, it goes untouched. What should a leader do to address it? Usually, in these matters, 'the fish stinks the worst at the head'. You, as a leader, must first deal with yourself honestly if you hope to create an environment in which employees can innovate. Here are some steps to follow.


1. Actively, Openly Seek Out Teachable Moments


These aren't opportunities to lecture others, but the very opposite the rare moments when a staff member has something to teach the executive. Creating them requires that you solicit input, even from people who are afraid to offer it.

Unfortunately, most executives shy away from these encounters, which are designed to solicit employees' ideas. After all, their self-confidence was their ticket to the executive suite, and it's difficult to reverse it to become vulnerable, eager to learn, and patient.

But it's the only way to model learning behaviour. It's so rare that employees who are fortunate enough to witness it may never be the same.


2. Share the Moment


But that's just the beginning. I know too many CEOs who retain a raft of stories in which they emerge as a conquering victor, the winner against all others, the triumphant ego who is judged the very best. Just think of Donald Trump.

A better strategy to adopt is to remember authentic epiphanies and share them over and over again, especially if they are taught by staff or customers. Not only will it help a lesson go viral, but it will also show colleagues how to learn - which questions to ask, which attitude to promote, how to share the story in a way that spreads the benefit.


3. Engage in Formal Learning


Executives who always set time aside to attend classes, read books, and receive coaching send a powerful signal. They give people the green light to seek out similar opportunities.

This doesn't mean boasting about their three-week trip to Cambridge to do an expensive, Harvard programme. Instead, it's more like sending an email asking employees to join them in a Coursera programme for which they've just signed up.

In his speech at a conference in Barbados, Jack Welch of GE fame mentioned that in the US, new, young members of staff are "celebrated". I can testify to the truth of his assertion. As a young employee in a New Jersey-based AT&T facility, it was assumed that I had exposure to more new thinking than anyone else.

Today, it's truer than ever. The gap in knowledge between a top executive and an entry-level employee has shrunk due to mobile, Internet access. Now, in the middle of a speech, a CEO can expect to be fact-checked in real-time by a youngster who will spread the discrepancy between fact and fiction to 20 other employees before the speech is over.

It's very different from the era when the CEO was a young entrant. Back then, the idea of an executive sitting in the same class as a new employee was unheard of. But this can be far more than just a nice gesture.

As I mentioned in my last article, CEOs who fail to actively engage millennials are doomed to bore them into disengagement. And no, they don't need to become video-gamers to catch their attention. Instead, they can create shared learning opportunities within company classrooms, both online and off. Do it well, and video-gaming pales in comparison. Learning about real stuff, the things that really matter to live people, is far more interesting.

Executives who do their learning in private deprive their employees of an opportunity to adopt a responsive mindset. Eventually, the bottomline suffers. The worst Jamaican firms are those who refuse to learn anything from anyone, let alone lowly customers or employees. CEOs can reverse this tendency by openly showing that they are the most eager learners, not the least.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns or give feedback, email