How to keep learning as a leader

Learning as a leader

Good leaders continuously update their skills. They are always learning. Unfortunately, sometimes learning as a leader can be more difficult than in other roles. In years past, your job may have been more technical. However, as soon as you become a leader, the skills you use every day begin to change.

You used to actually *do* the work, now you need to plan it, lead it or manage the people who do it. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn about your area. It’s difficult to lead people when you don’t really understand what they do day-to-day.

This is what makes learning as a leader much more difficult. Instead of learning and applying new technical knowledge, you are now more often focused on soft skills, management techniques, politics and team structure.

Learning as a leader means going into uncharted territory

Leadership and team management skills are often very different from what a leader built their career doing. As such, it’s easy to get out of touch with how the industry is advancing.

Learning as a leader is challenging because you still need to understand your particular domain to a certain degree, but you no longer directly apply technical skills. However, you need to get your head out of the nitty gritty and be able to think strategically. You need to let go and delegate the technical aspects to others, while you handle the strategy and people aspects.

How to keep learning as a leader

Learning as a leader requires a significant commitment. It means letting go of your familiar past and thinking differently. It also requires a variety of information sources. The broader your sources of information, they more effectively you will learn new skills.

Failing to keep learning as a leader means you will be less able to adapt to changing external environments. Depending on the competitiveness of your industry, this can be a major problem that can spell the demise of your organisation. At a team level, it can also demotivate employees as they realise they aren’t anywhere near the forefront of using the latest techniques.

Reading books, blogs and research publications

There are vast number of books, blogs and other information out there. Most of it is available on the internet, so finding it is relatively easy. While these sources of information can be effective and easy to find, they should be used with caution.

The main issue with reading publications as a main source of leadership knowledge is that the information won’t be tailored to your unique situation. The authors of such material won’t know exactly what your organisational culture is like, what you’ve tried before, or what some of your financial constraints might be. As such, you should take the advice of these publications with a grain of salt. After all, nobody had you specifically in mind when they created the material.

Learning from consultants

Sometimes leaders bring in consultants to help with certain activities. Generally this happens during organisation reviews or restructuring, or to focus on a specific problem.

Consultants are useful, because they have most probably worked with other organisations to do something similar before. They know how to use the tools, how to make change and how to avoid some of the common pitfalls.

There are a few things to be aware of if you use consultants to help you. Firstly, consultants generally have no skin in the game. They are often hired on a short-term basis and then they disappear. Any changes they implement still need to be sustained and embedded. When their work is done, it may take several months to see the full ramifications of any changes, but by the time you do, they may be long gone. It doesn’t *really* matter to them if your organisation is performing poorly, but it does to you!

Another aspect to remember is that you need to learn from consultants. Try to understand why they are doing what they are doing. Understand their reasoning and you’ll learn. If you don’t have the time, delegate someone else to learn form them instead. Once you understand the work they’re doing, you may not need to rely on them so much in the future.

This will save you money and give you more control over your own destiny. As a former consultant, I’ve seen many clients who don’t really pay attention and they just want your report so they can give it to their boss. This might provide a short-term benefit but you won’t learn anything from the experience.

Learning from your personal network

Keeping in touch with friends or former colleagues can be a great way to learn as a leader. If they’re off working elsewhere, they will be learning their own lessons. You can benefit from these lessons, provided you make the effort.

Organising lunches or coffee meetings with acquaintances can be a great source of learning for leaders. It keeps you connected with people outside of your environment who work differently. Once a leader loses their contact with their external network, it can be difficult to learn fresh information from “the outside”.

Unlike with consultants, your personal network will have some skin in the game because they are personally connected with you. Hopefully they’ll have your best interests at heart and information provided may be more trustworthy than some other sources.

Learning from external industry events

External industry events are valuable in understanding industry trends and how peers are tackling major issues. These groups may be free to attend and often meet voluntarily to share their ideas. It does take effort and time, but the information shared can be valuable because it is current. The attendees often discuss issues that are affecting them right now and techniques they have used to try to solve them.

These groups can be found on sites like LinkedIn or Meetup.com or specific industry pages such as the Institute of Public Accountants, for example (if that’s your thing).

Obviously industry conferences are another learning avenue, but the cost of a conference is likely to be far higher. In addition, at a conference you are more likely to learn about the “Rolls Royce” of technologies and techniques than if you were in a room full of industry peers dealing with the latest challenges of your local market.

Learning by working at different organisations

One of the simplest and most powerful sources of learning is simply to have worked within different organisations. Leaders who have spent much of their time within a single organisation tend to become accustomed to the status quo.

Working in other environments exposes you to new ideas, new people and new organisational models. It also provides you access to more diverse leadership approaches, because you’ll have had a number of different bosses to report to.

If you are somebody who has worked at the same organisation for a long time, you need to ensure that you continue to learn from as many different external sources as possible. This will hopefully provide you with diverse outside information that you can bring into your current role.

Greater variation and diversity in your sources of learning mean that you are more exposed to different ideas. On the other hand, relying on a single consultant or other source of information is likely to give you a one-dimensional approach.

Without continuing to learn as a leader, your approach will stagnate and you’ll simply do “what you’ve always done”. It takes effort to push the boundaries of your knowledge, but you’ll find that you’ll feel more comfortable leading your team when you are continuously learning. It’s a bad sign when you feel as if you’re being left behind.

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