Do you read? Or listen to podcasts? I ask because it’s so important to me. It’s indicative of a growth mindset—something that’s vital for any CEO looking to scale-up their business. Companies that put learning at the heart of their culture are 30% more likely to be market leaders? Yes, that’s right—30%. A really big differential.
It’s a characteristic I always look for in any new client. If they don’t have a perpetually inquisitive outlook that thrives on learning new things, then they’re not going to get far with me as a business coach! Wherever I’ve scaled companies in the past, I’ve found that 75% of staff have ‘Learner’ in their top 5 strengths. At interview, I always look for curiosity. Because one thing’s absolutely true in life—there are always things we don’t know. If people aren’t interested or eager to learn, then I know they won’t be right for the type of culture I want to create.
So why does this matter?
Attracting and keeping ‘A-Players’
Sounds obvious, but successful companies tend to employ mostly ‘A-Players’. What are they? The top 5 to 10% of available talent for a given job, salary and location. And A-Players tend to be attracted to businesses that prioritise learning. I always come back to Dan Pink’s paradigm-shattering book, ‘Drive’. He explained that the secret to high performance and satisfaction is ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’. Mastery is the keyword here. It’s the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
A-Players are masters of their craft. They have a strong sense of curiosity, both at an individual and team level. It’s what makes them tick—an innate focus on learning and growing. They’re happiest in companies that give them the independence to choose how they do this. To keep their A status, A-Players know they have to keep getting better relative to their past performance. Not anybody else’s—the expectation is that they continue to learn and grow based on their own track record.
If something doesn’t make sense, I have to point it out. Always. Even if means someone threatening to punch my face in (which is not unusual!) Challenging the status quo is just what I do. I can’t stand rules for the sake of rules and pointless bureaucracy. Even in my very first job at uni, I questioned pricing policies that seemed ridiculous.
Companies that value learning are always questioning and re-evaluating. They don’t cling to ways of doing things just because they’ve always been done that way. It’s all about the journey that they’re on. If they’ve worked out their purpose, it becomes clear that the organisation today isn’t going to get them there. They’re going to need to learn and evolve over time.
Sometimes people get defensive when things they’ve always done are questioned. Maybe it makes them feel silly that they’ve never thought about it themselves. Often the response is to double down on the thing that you’ve pointed out. If you’re not careful, it can be deeply polarising. There is a balance to be struck—no question. You don’t want to change every variable, every time. Sometimes leaving well alone is more appropriate, particularly when you’ve built an efficient system. But I’m always focusing on the bigger picture, thinking about next year and the year after. If I feel that people don’t share my curiosity, I start to feel lonely and will eventually leave.
Taking advantage of opportunities
Learning organisations are massively better at acting quickly when opportunities pop up. I see this right now in differing responses to the pandemic. One of my clients has traded their way through with no closure and very few furloughs. When I met the CEO recently, we contrasted this with one of their competitors in Bournemouth. Also a digital agency, this company furloughed its entire business for 16 weeks. In this time, my client has shifted his business’s energy and transformed their approach, working out along the way the kind of business they need to be post-pandemic.
They’ve made radical changes and helped their customers do the same. One of their retail customers has gone from 100% instore to 90% on-line with little drop in revenue. Using my consultative sales training, my client has upskilled his senior team. And his company also pulled off a massive new business win. Pretty impressive eh?
All of this change required learning. Learning about each other as they worked remotely, learning how to transition to a virtual environment, learning how to pivot their business. It’s not hard to guess which business is going to be in a better place at Christmas. One is carrying momentum into the market and the other is stagnant.
In his book, ‘Great By Choice’, Jim Collins analysed luck, wondering whether firms that were more successful in the long run were luckier. The answer was no. They had the same luck as anyone else. What made them different was a greater ‘return on luck’. To my mind, this comes from open-mindedness and attitude. I ask everyone I’m hiring, “On a scale of 1 to 10 how lucky are you?” I only hire people who answer 8, 9 or 10. Lucky people don’t blame others. They spot opportunities that come their way and have the right sort of mindset to learn and grow.
Encouraging staff to dream big
My coaching business employs a young digital marketing apprentice, Charlie. When he joined us, Charlie was certain he wasn’t going to university. Nine months later … you guessed it—he’s been accepted for a BSc in Business Management and Leadership at UWE. One of our core behaviours is learning/curiosity so I’m delighted that we’ve broadened Charlie’s horizons to this extent. People ask me whether I’m sad to lose him. I am on a personal level (he’s a great guy) but I’m also made up for him. Yes, we’ll have some short term pain but this is a change we can lean into. When Charlie was pondering whether to go to Winchester and Bristol, I asked him which would be the biggest change. The answer was Bristol. So I told him to go for this.
Don’t get stuck in formal HR training and development. Too many businesses make this mistake—fixating on how much to spend and what to offer. Personally, I’m not bothered what people want to learn. Everybody’s different. That’s the beauty of this. I’d be happy to fund any new skill that someone cares about passionately. Something that they know will make them better at their job and give them personal satisfaction. Maybe you could decide on a percentage of revenue, whatever suits your business, and then leave it up to your staff to decide how it gets spent? Don’t make internal courses compulsory. Set them up. Make them available. And then take note who goes. This isn’t about push, it’s about pull.
People will always put courses and development goals in their quarterly plan. Keep an eye on who follows through and who doesn’t. It’s like playing team sports. The team doesn’t get better if it doesn’t practice. Your staff won’t get better unless they learn. If they can’t be bothered to put in the effort, why have them on the team?
Prioritising constant improvement
You want to promote a culture of constant learning and improvement. There are loads of ways to do this. At Rackspace, I started at the very beginning by giving all new hires a little black book. I told them they had a superpower. Because they were new, they saw the world differently and I wanted to tap into this. They were asked to write down anything they noticed that was annoying or stupid about the way we worked. I’d then meet them for lunch regularly during their first six months to discuss their ideas for change or improvement.
Over the years, I’ve also introduced ‘stupidrules@’ email addresses for staff to highlight things that seemed ridiculous or annoying and suggest improvements. NPS is a great way to build a culture that seeks criticism—it has real transformational power. And something that’s been really valuable to me is benchmarking visits to other good companies to see how they did things better than us. It’s amazing what you can pick up. Even going from an annual rhythm to 90-day sprints was about learning and evolving.
Every time you focus on something entirely for a short period of time, the stress and scarcity force evolutionary change. Quite often, you’ll find nothing happens for a while and then suddenly, you take a big leap forward. Then it might be incremental for a while before you see another great leap. That’s where your return on luck comes in. Because, in those big leaps, you’ve built an organisation that’s primed for the next big opportunity.