Why you Need to Learn how to Learn

About this time last year, I wrote about how companies like AT&T  are emphasizing the importance of learning on, during and outside the job for their employees as a means to compete in the digital age. They have recognized that the skills needed by the company and its employees to thrive in the future are not there yet today, and in order to compete they must adapt.

In a recent talk to college students at the University of Missouri St. Louis, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson yet again touted the importance of learning, even urging students to retool and pivot after joining the workforce. He said, “I believe your skill set is two years in duration, max. Mine is two years in duration, max. I’m constantly retooling myself.”

 

Learning is a topic that is on the rise in the corporate world. According to research published by leading HR Analyst Josh Bersin, learning and development is one of the most important trends facing HR Executives this year. And while many companies are rolling out initiatives, whether it’s through courses like Udemy or in AT&T’s case, partnering with a college, I’m convinced the best results will come when each individual professional takes it upon themselves to identify and develop a learning plan to make sure they maintain and even stay ahead of the curve.

As a consultant, learning is a key driver to my success on the job. We are constantly being placed in new situations, new industries, new functions and new types of business problems that the only way we can adequately advise our clients is by forcing ourselves to learn and evolve our skillset.

Furthermore, as a result of the impact of technology and innovation, our clients are coming to us with problems that are more and more complex, interdisciplinary, and frankly, new and we have to learn in order to stay ahead of the curve to guide them through the process.

As someone who has made a conscious effort to continually learn throughout their career, I want to offer some actionable tips for how you can “learn how to learn” and develop in your career:

Become an Expert – In today’s knowledge economy, knowledge is power. The more knowledge and insight you can provide, the more valuable you can be to your team and organization.

One way to accumulate knowledge in a focused manner is to become an expert. That way, you can be the go-to person on a particular skill, issue, or idea on your team. First, you might already be on the path to becoming an expert based on your existing work experiences, so think about if there is anything you already are an expert in.

Next, a simple “Major/Minor” Framework can help you find other areas to be an expert in. For example, let’s say you work in Marketing, and specifically, within SEO and Blogging. In this example, your Major would be Marketing, and your Minor would be things like SEO, Social Media, blogging, and Google Analytics. From there, you can start building your knowledge in both your major and minor to eventually be seen as the Marketing/SEO/Social Media guru.

Look for the intersection points – Knowing your function or industry is important, but what’s also important is how your function or industry intersects with the broader organization and world. I call this, “playing at the edge.” If you can play at the edge, it forces you to not only understand your specific area of expertise at a deep level, but a few other adjacent areas. By applying your knowledge to other adjacent areas, you can expand your knowledge base but also, understand the bigger picture of how your area of expertise can either be applied to other areas, or how it impacts other areas.

For example, let’s say you work again in Marketing, but begin to study how what you do impacts the Sales team.  If you can understand how your SEO and content empower and drive sales, you can A) play a bigger role in working with the Sales team and B) produce better content for the sales team that helps win customers. This increases your own knowledge of marketing, helps you understand the broader impact of your work, and gives you more opportunities to engage with other areas of the organization, all of which are positive steps for your own career development.

Use Technology – The great thing about the internet is that everything, literally everything is on there. It’s literally never been easier to learn about something by using different digital tools and technologies that are made available. Platforms like Lynda.com, Udemy and Coursera are great resources. As are things like Twitter, blogs, websites and forums like Quora.  If you want to know how about the tools and apps I use to learn on a daily basis check out my post on how I learn to keep up with my job.

Read – The best writers and thinkers are often the best readers. It’s where they generate their ideas and insights. This tactic can work for you, in your quest to learn and develop subject matter knowledge. One way to do this is to configure your information diet. This consists of books, and/or articles on relevant topics and information, and should be consumed on a regular basis.

Talk to Others – Reading and learning on your own is great, but sharing ideas and putting your mind together with other intelligent but diverse groups of people is what will spur ideas and innovation in your head. Take the time to identify other people in your network who share your love of learning and find ways to talk and communicate with them. In some cases, you’ll want to talk about topics that are of importance to you, but in other cases, you may have to talk about topics that are not relevant to you. That’s okay! In fact, that sometimes can be really helpful as it can help you make connections that you would have never come up with if you spoke with someone who was as familiar with the topic as you. The key here is finding people who are as eager to learn and engage as you are.

Earlier this year, LinkedIn studied the career paths of executives in an attempt to identify common characteristics of those who made it to the C-Suite. One of their conclusions was that the people who made it to the C-suite demonstrated a broad and diverse range of skills and experiences as opposed to a narrow and focused view, or, said another way, those who focused on continuous learning, growth and development were the ones who made it to the top.

It’s been well documented that learning is good for your health. It also might be the thing that saves your career.

Further Reading

Research supports the idea of diverse and inclusive teams – maybe it’s time we listen

I’m a big believer in diverse and inclusive teams. From my personal experience, I have learned the most from the most diverse teams I’ve worked on. Additionally, there is plenty of data and research that has proven that diverse teams drive better results. Take the following examples:

A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean. – HBR

Or this:

In a global analysis of 2,400 companies conducted by Credit Suisse, organizations with at least one female board member yielded higher return on equity and higher net income growth than those that did not have any women on the board.

Despite this research, many companies still struggle to create diverse and inclusive companies.

Pepsi is the latest company to find itself under fire for it’s cultural appropriated ad featuring Kendall Jenner. I won’t rehash the details (there are plenty of other great hot takes out there) but upon reading on this I stumbled across an article stuck my eye. The NY Mag interviewed a handful of people who work in the advertising and creative world and asked them how this could happen. Here were a few of the responses:

“The younger people are probably the most junior people on the team; for them to say something, they would have to be really confident in themselves. To have a younger millennial account person go up to a senior creative person and say, ‘We’re not going to do this, we think there’s a problem with it’ — that’s an uncomfortable power position to put a young person into.

Or:

“This kind of thing happens when you don’t have inclusion. Inclusion has to be part of your decision-making process. If there are no decision makers that represent the world that it is now, the world as we see it, then these kinds of things of happen.

 

Or:

“I think it was the correct response to take it down. It opens up the conversation that way. Where did we go wrong? Now they can look at their process and really see who was represented. Who was at the table? At the bottom line, if your executive leadership or brand team is not diverse or inclusive, these mistakes are going to keep happening. The Tory Burch stumble. The Nivea stumble. It’s starting to get people to realize that we’ve got to have fair representation.”

 

A few things here:

  • Doing a commercial like this in-house is not uncommon. However, it’s important to seek out resources to pressure test things to make sure they still work. Without knowing the inner-workings of Pepsi’s creative process, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe they could have done more to really get honest feedback from other sources that could have raised additional red flags.
  • It’s one thing to have a diverse team it’s another thing to create an inclusive environment where all people feel comfortable voicing their opinion, especially more junior staff that may not feel as confident in voicing their opinion because of their pecking order in the hierarchy. To be fair, this isn’t just something that happens at Pepsi. I’ve certainly witnessed this in my own line of work where the most junior person who is often closest to the innerworkings of what we are doing remains silent because he or she is nervous about rocking the bote. (Note: this is an assumption/generalization and certainly not all young people would get it, but let’s assume this argument is valid for the sake of the argument)
  • The value of a diverse team of people with different backgrounds and perspectives is that because everyone has a unique experience their vision (which is informed by those experiences) allows them to see things differently. I’m inclined to think that if there were someone on that creative team who attended a Black Lives Matter protest, or who had lost a loved one to Police violence or who had even experienced it first hand would have brought that experience to the table and altered the trajectory of that ad. Or, at the very least, as one of the experts’ notes, getting the perspective of a multicultural agency who is trained on these things.

If you’re a brand that appeals to a diverse group of people, or a multi-cultural brand, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that whatever you are putting out there appeals to your consumers and paints yourself in a positive light. Certainly, there will always be critics of what you do, but there are ways to sell things and ideas in a way that is consistent with you brand but still appeals to the masses.

I think diverse and inclusive teams are ideal, but recognize that sometimes we are stuck with whatever we have, and there isn’t a ton we can do to change that in the short-term. Moreover, I also don’t think that simply having your “diversity” team member is going to guarantee you success. As such, here are my own suggestions for making sure you’ve gotten a diverse enough perspective on whatever you are working on:

Acknowledge your blind spots – Simply being cognizant of your blind spots is a good first step. While it won’t necessarily solve your issue, having that self-awareness can help you identify and problem solve for how to account for the blindspot.

Proactively seek out different opinions – Once you know you have some potential blind spots, proactively seek out different opinions to make sure you aren’t letting your bias or blind spots get in the way of objectively finding the best answer or solution.

Give a megaphone to the quietest voice – Some people are more talkative than others, and sometimes it take some people a lot of confidence to speak up. Actively seek out the quietest voice and make sure that it is heard.

You always need to do something that achieves your desired objectives or goals. You’ll probably never make every customer or consumer happy. And doing the right amount of due diligence is going to be important no matter what you’re working on. But just as the research says, having a diverse and inclusive team is one of the best ways to ensure whatever idea you come up with ends up producing the best possible result.

Objection Handling your way to success

If you work in sales, you’re probably familiar with the concept of objection handling. Objection handling is a way to prepare and anticipate the concerns or objections of a potential customer, and then to come up with solutions and responses that would address those anticipated concerns.

Its an excellent exercise that salespeople go through to ensure that even if they run into roadblocks with a potential customer (very common) they have the right messaging to help the customer overcome the concerns and buy the product.

In addition to helping salespeople sell, the concept of objection handling can be very useful to all of us non-salespeople in various aspects of our life. If we can anticipate potential concerns of say, our partner or spouse, perhaps we can pick a restaurant to go to that will meet both of our food tastes. Or, if we think about how our boss might be concerned about our decision to shift our priorities to some other projects before we meet with her, we can strengthen our business case to pursue those projects and win her support.

 

Here are a few use cases where doing an objection handling exercise can help you:

Presenting or Persuading your colleagues – Objection handling is perfect if you  have to make a presentation, sell an idea, or get buy in on a specific approach to a project. By identifying the other key players, thinking about their potential concerns to what you are proposing, and practicing how you’d respond to them you can increase your chances of getting support.

Convincing a recruiter to hire you – Anytime you are applying for a job, you are essentially marketing and selling yourself to a company, so similar to how a sales rep would want to have a customer overcome their concerns about your product, you want the recruiter to overcome their concerns about your product (yourself.) By identifying weakspots on your resume or work experience and highlighting how you would overcome those, you can be sure that you’re prepared for whatever they want to ask you in the interview.

Here’s my approach to practicing objection handling:

Find the holes – Every argument, no matter how strong it is, has some potential holes or concerns. Be objective, and identify what the holes or weak spots in your argument are, and write them down.

Come up with responses and alternatives – Take the list of weaknesses or holes, and develop responses or solutions to how you would either address those holes, or how the weaknesses are actually not as big of a deal as they are made out to be.

Practice – Take the time to say your responses out loud and practice how you would respond if someone were to drill you on those specific questions. If you do this enough, when it comes time to present, you’ll free comfortable with how to respond most of their questions or concerns.

Objection handling is a great way to prepare for potential challenges and pushback in various aspects of our life. You won’t win every time, but using this tactic can help you ensure you make a compelling case for whatever you’re supporting.