“Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do to yourself. Focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware, and super present” (Joichi Ito)

While 66% of employers currently are looking for critical thinking skills in the leaders that they hire (Hays plc, 2023), there are many more abilities that are required if managers are to inspire collaboration, participation, innovation, and teamwork. Being promoted to a leadership position on account of your technical ability is common in all industries. This practice, however, doesn’t answer the need for excellent people leadership skills. Managers should adopt self-directed learning processes: practical plans that lead to growth in needed leadership attributes. Such plans should focus on improvements about which a leader feels passionate, while giving the leader realistic, manageable steps to realise these possibilities. They should build on strengths while closing any gaps.

The best results from a learning plan are achieved when leaders also look outside of their jobs where they can sharpen their skills. A study conducted at the Weatherhead School of Management of Case Western Reserve University by Professor Jane Wheeler found that of people who had developed learning agendas, those who tried out their new skills with many different people and spheres of their lives – not just at work, but also with family, church, and community groups, and so on – improved the most. Those improvements, apparently, were still being realised up to two or more years later.

Daniel Goleman (Primal Leadership) insightfully notes: “Too often leadership coaching revolves around a ‘performance improvement plan’ – a phrase that conjures images of a remedial rehabilitation project. But rather than being some rote exercise that will ‘fix’ a person into being a better leader, learning goals should resonate with a person’s dreams. Because a ‘performance agenda’ focuses on achieving some measure of success, it becomes something a person has to prove. It can provoke defensiveness. Such agendas don’t capture the motivating aspect of how one’s personal dreams might coincide with the target (an aspect that can be highly motivating). A learning agenda, however, focuses on the possibility of change that will eventually lead to better performance at work (and probably more contentment in life in general). Small wonder that improvement plans crafted around learning – rather than performance outcomes – have been found most effective.”

The paradigm shift takes place when improvement efforts are not seen as not wanting to look bad, but on focusing on what you want to become – your own ideal – rather than on someone else’s idea of what you should be. “Setting developmental goals that matter takes us from merely contemplating change to making concrete steps that prepare us to change” (In Search of How People Change: Applications to Addictive Behaviours. J O Prochaska, C C Diclemente, J C Norcross). As Goleman suggests: “Our learning goals are a kind of mental rehearsal that pave the way for a change in how we act”.

Leaders – develop a learning plan – one about which you feel passionate, one that is in alignment with your personal ideals, and one that motivates you to strive for excellence in people leadership.

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