How to Transform Learning From a Requirement to Mission-Critical Self-Development

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“Learning professionals need to know that leadership is not an offsite (i.e. an activity away from the office). In order to make change, we need both consistency and intensity. If you go to the dentist two times a year, and don’t do anything else, your teeth will fall out. But what does brushing your teeth two times a day do? Nothing. If you brush every day, however, it does something...

...Similarly, you can’t go to the gym for nine hours and expect to get in shape, but if you go every day for 20 minutes, you’ll get in shape. I’m not sure if it’ll be in three months or three years, but you will. That’s leadership. Intensity is important, though consistency is just as, if not more, important.”

This is only one of the brilliant nuggets I gleaned from this two-part conversation with Stephen Shedletzky, Head of Brand Experience and Igniter with Simon Sinek’s team.

Stephen helps leaders communicate their ideas in a clear and compelling way. In Part I of this two-part article, he shares some insight for L&D teams in terms of innovation, inspiration and how to be a good leader.

Q: A 2017 Gallup poll found that 85% of employees do not feel engaged by their jobs. With that sad statistic, how can L&D leaders even begin to think of inspiring their organization?

A: In many organizations, learning is seen as a requirement–employees need to get annual continuing professional education (CPE) credits or do training to stay certified for their role.

I’ve heard other CLOs talk about transforming learning from a requirement to being a value-add; providing experiences that are valuable in the success of their role as well as their success as human beings.

So I think we need to help organizations buy into a vision of learning (1) as a value-add experience that people want and choose to be a part of, not something they do because they have to be a part of, and (2) that even if it is a requirement, it’s actually something that’s desired and beneficial to their growth.

The basis for inspiring people is having an existence that is inspiring. If you have an organization that stands to simply earn profit or increase shareholder value—that’s not very inspiring. It’s actually fundamentally wrong and it’s self-serving.

Organizations should exist to serve a human need for its consumers and employees. You can’t expect to extend care to a customer if your people on the inside don’t have that care extended to them first and foremost.

Q: Why do you think it’s so hard for people to be good leaders? And do good leaders have a commonality to "codify" leadership?

A: Being a good leader is hard. We wouldn’t have books, interviews like this and learning designed around it if it were easy.

Too many leaders see it as their job to hold rank over people; that’s not leadership, that’s authority. People may do as you say because they have to, or out of fear, but they will not choose to follow you.

As it turns out, leadership has far less to do with title and authority than it has to do with character. Leadership is a choice. It is a choice to show up and serve those around us.

I know many people who may hold a position of authority, but they are not leaders. And I know people who are at the lowest ranks of the organization, but they show up to serve those around them. They are leaders.

To be a leader means that others willingly choose to follow you. Not for you, but for themselves. We trust our leaders and their intent.  

Management is important; it’s about dealing with complexity and it’s required in order to operate. But leadership is about creating simplicity. Leaders move us toward a better future and remove obstacles; but there needs to be a balance between the two.

The closest analogy I can give to what it means to be a great leader is parenthood. Think about what it means to be a great parent.

We want to give our children opportunities, education, discipline them when necessary, all so that they can grow up and achieve more than we could for ourselves. Great leaders want exactly the same thing. 

They want to provide their people opportunity, education, discipline when necessary, build their self-confidence, give them the opportunity to try and fail, all so that they could achieve more than we could ever imagine for ourselves. 

I describe parenting as the best thing to happen to me in my life and also the hardest thing. And leadership is no different.

Leadership is about people saying—I don’t care if I’m more skilled or talented than my leader. They look out for me, they have my back, and they do things that are in the best interest of me, the team and the organization, not their self-interest. Leadership is a choice to put the needs of others ahead of your own.

While I don’t believe we can simply codify leadership, all good leaders work really hard to have empathy. To listen first before they speak, to work hard to serve and make decisions that are for the best interest of the group even at the risk of their own popularity or job.

A requirement of leadership is not charisma. Sometimes charisma even gets in the way because you’re extroverted and like too much attention. Some leaders I respect the most are introverted; They’re not leading because they want to, they’re leading because they feel called to, they have to.

RELATED READING: Charismatic Leadership: Much Ado About Nothing

Leadership is personal; it always comes from your own personal experiences. It’s a learnable skill, a practice, a muscle; yet some of us are born with some of the skills that allow us to be viewed as more natural born leaders.

Q: How can learning leaders foster innovation at a company?

A: There’s a decline of innovation, and there’s a direct correlation to a decline in trust. We can’t innovate if we don’t trust each other or if we’re competing against each other.

Playful, healthy competition is fine. But environments in which leaders have set up where we rank and yank, and promote top performers and fire poor performers, that just creates a culture where people have footprints on their backs.

To innovate requires that we experiment, and when we experiment we’re going to fail. As leaders we must foster an environment of trusting teams, so that when we need help or fail, there will be support without being reprimanded. We can’t expect our people to innovate if they don’t feel safe to do so.

Diversity and inclusion plays a part in this too. It’s vital to have diverse points of view that are accepted with curiosity.

We also need to be mindful of intensity and consistency again. We need to focus on how we can ensure the events we have and learning experiences we offer are being built into consistent offerings and daily practices done with accountability and in community.

If I say to you that I’m going to wake up at 5:30am tomorrow to go running, it’s not going to happen. I’m good at letting myself down. I do it multiple times a day. But I’m better at ensuring that I keep my commitments and promises to the people I love and care about.

This is accountability and this is consistency. So if my friend says I’ll be at your front door at 5:27am, I’m going to be there because I don’t want to let them down.

The same is true for learning and growth; we need to create relationships with accountability. I think there’s a strong correlation between trust, safety, D&I and innovation.

Q: You are chock full of great takeaways and advice but let’s turn the tables. Who has inspired YOU lately?

A: I did some work recently with an amazing company named Hayden Homes, they’re a small regional homebuilder in Washington/Oregon/Idaho and they’re leading with an infinite mindset.

They continuously do things that are so generous for their community and for their people internally even if it makes little to no business sense in the short term. I’m really inspired by people who make decisions that are based in the long term instead of expedient decisions. Those are the decisions that create loyalty, inside and out.

Stephen Shedletzky joined Simon Sinek’s team in 2012, initially answering fan e-mail, and working his way to Head of Brand Experience and Igniter. His WHY? To engage with people in meaningful ways so that we connect with depth and live in a more fulfilled world. 

In Part II of this article, Stephen will share how you can help your organization break free from how things have been done, how growing your people effects the bottom-line and how to foster collaboration among future generations.