We never stop learning. Throughout life, the world around us evolves, providing us with chances to challenge, develop and grow ourselves.
Yet, as findings from University of California Riverside psychology professor Rachel Wu show, as we move from the broad learning approach we experienced in our childhood into specialised learning in adulthood our cognitive capabilities decline. In her research paper, Wu argues that despite a level of learning happening in adulthood, it tends to be closed-minded and knowledge-driven. There’s limited access to experts or teachers and it is often carried out within unforgiving environments where mistakes are met with severe consequences. Most critically, there’s little personal commitment to learning, often relying upon others to provide the direction.
What Wu highlights is the traditional approach to executive development, such as tick-box learning programmes which focus on specific skills delivered to all within a particular group. These programmes lack the open-mindedness of the learning we experience as children.
While ‘finding your purpose’ may seem like the buzz phrase of the moment, I fundamentally believe that you cannot be the best you without being clear on this. Your purpose allows you to articulate what gives you meaning. Your vision can bring to life what your ideal future looks like, what your big goal is. Being clear on what these are for you provides direction, motivation and a platform for meaningful growth.
This broad approach to development requires insight, time and commitment. It’s not a quick fix, it’s a journey. What tends to happen is we jump right into identifying development actions – adopting the specialised learning approach, focusing tactically on one skill at a time – treating our development as another task on our to-do list. Without an eye on the end goal, you’re missing out on the chance to drive towards something bigger and far more compelling.
This was the case for me. Six years ago, while at my previous organisation, I was tasked with finding a way to relaunch development planning to the business. At the time, as in many organisations, development plans had negative connotations; they were viewed as something that were only of benefit to poor performers.
We needed to create a new approach and brand for development planning. We started by looking externally, talking to others and understanding their perspectives on this challenge. These people were different to our usual consultants. They were individuals who had highly successful careers and were experts in their own fields, before moving into coaching. Those that were career coaches had roots in sports coaching, not business.
I found my own thinking challenged. The concept of starting from ‘why’ rather than individual training courses, development needs or tasks, was introduced.
But, it’s all just theory until you try it. One evening, sitting on my living room floor, I started to work through the steps of finding my purpose, my vision and aligning my goals to these. While it felt alien, and odd to be focusing on my whole self as part of my leadership development, it was a powerful exercise and helped shift my thinking when it came to development planning for the business.
Over the coming weeks and months, it also meant I considered more than my career requirements. Leadership in business can’t only be about business anymore. It must be about life as a whole. Adopting the mindset of work and life being a symbiotic relationship offers a far greater chance of true integration rather than the pursuit of ‘balance’ which presumes the necessity of trade-offs to achieve.
I asked myself could I make more time for the other things which were important to me. Opportunities to travel, visiting family and friends, training for a marathon I’d always said I’d do one day. I had to make decisions about more than my career; something which I had presumed was only for those who had already reached their professional career goals.
Following this exercise, I felt I knew how to take control. Be in control of me, my career and stay true to what was important to me. But I also knew this would be an on-going process. It was John Wooden, American basketball player and head coach at the University of California, who said: “The most powerful leadership tool you have is your personal example”. As leaders it’s our responsibility to constantly grow, evolve with our business, evolve with our lives and role model to our teams and those around us.
In my opinion, to get the very best from both ourselves and our leaders, we must change the way we traditionally approach development in business. The future of leadership development must move back towards the type of learning we experience in our childhood. It must adopt a broad approach which gives and encourages people to explore and take this journey and then identify the right development support. Because, as I have found and as I am now rolling out this approach within Dorchester Collection, this learning is often found in the most unusual of places.
Of course, this approach may not be for all individuals or all businesses. You have to want to do it and to do it differently. It requires time, patience, commitment. It needs to organically develop in an organisation rather than be a mandate. It needs the right culture and the right people trailblazing.
So, the question is, do you want to develop by focusing on one isolated skill at a time? Or do you want to define who you are, find your motivation and have an evolving plan which will last you a lifetime?