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Sunday, 03 July 2016





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'Learning up' strategy - full circle learning culture

You can learn from anyone, if you open your mind to it. In today's knowledge-driven economy, managers and entrepreneurs need to get strategic in creating workplaces that value 'learning up', where they can learn from people they hire and work with. In most companies in Sri Lanka, however, training and information still flows downhill and not uphill. Innovative and more modern organizations should have the full circle learning culture by making sure knowledge flows up, down and sideways, increasing knowledge capacity and thus competitiveness.

Break down the barriers that the people below you have lesser knowledge than you just because you are their boss and because you work for me, I shouldn't learn from you.

Learning from your employees is one of the most powerful and least utilized tools in the leadership tool box. And I'm not talking about listening to your people when they try to make a point - that goes without saying. I mean something more serious and more purposeful.

New skills


Identify something that one of your employees does well and make it a point to learn from him. Make it his goal to get you to learn from him, and hold him accountable for delivering on that goal. Engagement is as much about employees as it is about managers. Employee engagement can be made easier when the manager humbles himself to be coached by his employees. The cost aspect shouldn't be ignored either. Learning from within whether it's learning up or down saves a lot of money for the organization too.

Hire people who can bring new skills. Smart managers and entrepreneurs 'hire up', meaning they hire people who bring the latest skills in technology, sales, accounting and other fields.

This is an excellent strategy - until you stop keeping up with how the work is changing. How can you create a 'learning up' strategy? First, managers need to acknowledge that they can learn from rank-and-file employees. This needs a cultural shift, and it's hard for most leaders, who would rather have a root canal than admit knowledge gaps. Do you have someone on your team who is world-class at interfacing with the IT team to get thoughtful, prompt responses? Then tell him he needs to coach you on how to do a better job of that.

Later, he can help teach the rest of the team. But first, I recommend one-on-one coaching in which your employee coaches you on something specific that you want to learn from him.


Define each employee's expertise because it legitimizes everyone's role as an expert in a particular area. Figuring out who can teach the latest software package or which salesperson can share selling techniques takes pressure off managers, too. It creates a greater level of partnership.

Make continual learning a part of your hiring process. Ask management candidates how comfortable they are with learning from employees. Can they put their egos aside to ask a rank-and-file person how to do something? If not, this person might not be a good fit for the learning culture you're trying to create.

Learning from employees is the only way an entrepreneur or a manager can stay on top of what's relevant? Information doesn't flow in just one direction. It flows in a circular direction. You've probably worked on how to get better at coaching your employees. But have you worked on getting better at being coached by your employees? Good students lean forward in class, ask questions when they're confused and look to make connections between the new things they've just learned and the old ideas they've already had in their heads. Are you a good student of the people who work for you?

Show yourself learning and you'll instill a learning culture. The more you make yourself ready to grow, the more you role model a growth mindset in others. The person who coaches you will naturally be more willing to learn - not just from you, but from others.

Display the confidence to make yourself vulnerable enough to learn from your team, and you'll reveal yourself to be a humble, human, authentic leader. It's a challenge to teach the boss

But if it's fun, different, and a stretching challenge, it can drive additional engagement at work. And it's a great way to breathe new life into something that someone has been doing for years.

Your high-performing employee might not know exactly why she's so good at the thing you want to learn from her. Ask her to coach you, and now she must reflect on what exactly she does. It's great development for her to convert her tacit knowledge into explicit lessons that can be more easily conveyed to others.

Don't forget the most obvious benefit - you'll learn something new and improve your own skills-set. This only works if it's genuine. You must pick an area where you honestly respect a team member's abilities and you genuinely want to improve your own skills.

Think of every person who works for you as a teacher. What do you want to learn from each of them? Everyone on your team can coach you to be better at something. Build your learning plan, and leverage the potential coaches all around you.

Like anything else having a flipside, there are risks to learning up. Employees might think teaching the boss gives them more say than they really have. It could encourage some to ask for a raise. At worst, employees might worry that teaching others their unique expertise could make them expendable. So this has to be managed. Make it clear that itís a part of your culture to learn from each other and let everyone be convinced that full cycle learning helps everyone to stay competitive.


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