Close this search box.
Close this search box.

5 Habits For CEOs Who Want To Become Better Active Learners

CEO watering brain and sprouting lightbulb
How can you avoid the stagnation trap and focus daily on being open to new, innovative ideas, perspectives and ways of thinking? These tips can give you a strong foundation.

It’s easy to interpret Peter Drucker’s famous advice about learning—“the most pressing task is teaching people how to learn”—through the lens of a leader. Help your people become better learners and your team will be nimble and ready for change. It’s a common trap for top-level leaders: We forget to view advice through the lens of a high performer who needs to personally keep growing and improving.

Any of us can become better, more active learners at any point in our careers or life. For CEOs it might be one of the most important opportunities to grow, improve our leadership, and strengthen our relationships and organizations—because we’re surrounded by amazing opportunities, environments, expertise, challenges and generally, people who know more than us about most things.

How can you make sure you’re avoiding the trap and focusing daily on being open to new, innovative ideas, perspectives and ways of thinking? These five habits can give you a strong foundation.

1. Invite more truth-tellers into your life.

I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing truth tellers in my life—people who cared enough to tell me that I had more to learn and more opportunities to grow. I didn’t always want to hear what they had to say, but I made myself listen. I learned so much from my truth-tellers about how to improve at just about everything.

A line cook at KFC helped me understand that a new product idea I loved wouldn’t work in the real world. I learned how to get better at public speaking from my wife, Wendy (who would give each of my speeches a letter grade!). From the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, I learned that I needed an advisor, mentor and partner in leading Yum! Brands.

Find your truth tellers. Encourage them to speak up. Make it safe for them to be honest and open. And show them you appreciate what they have to say by listening and then taking action.

2. Learn to see the world the way it really is.

Delusional people don’t learn well, which is why active learners keep orienting themselves to reality. Our truth-tellers can help, but we need to do more to avoid interpreting events based on what we wish rather than what is.

Everybody, including you, has bias, prejudice and blind spots that block the flow of good ideas from smart people. You can break your walls down by having real conversations with people throughout your organization, at every level and in all kinds of roles. But don’t blindly trust the opinions you hear. Test them through a process of objective information gathering—making sure that your information is as close to the source as possible—and analysis.

What’s the biggest benefit of trying to see the world the way it really is? Once you learn enough about reality, you often discover the right action. For instance, people say that Jamie Dimon has incredible instincts and that his gut-based judgment calls are the source of his success. But that’s not how he thinks about it. “I study and read everything,” he told me. “We work the numbers, the models, the facts. I look at history…Sometimes the good answers are waiting to be found. And the way you find them is you work it.”

3. Give away credit for successful ideas.

You may have driven the discussion, the strategy or the execution. You may have funded the research. You may have been in the room when the aha! happened. But here’s the truth: As CEO, most of the ideas that help your organization win won’t be yours. Even so, you’ll get the credit for them, at least in the media.

If you want to encourage people to share more of their brilliant ideas with you, give away the credit as often as you can. Recognize people for their valuable contributions every day. And take the heat for the ideas that don’t succeed.

4. Prime your brain for learning.

For years, as the CEO of KFC and then Yum! Brands, I had an embroidered pillow in my bedroom that just said, “PLAN.” It was a reminder to take time every night to prepare for the following day—to review my meetings, read analyst reports, check in on major projects and more. I wanted to walk into every day ready to listen, learn and deliver my best to the million or so people around the world who relied on me to make good decisions for the company.

This isn’t an easy habit to build. We’re often so busy during the day, rushing from meeting to meeting, fire to fire, that we miss the time we need to prepare as well as we could.

How does the habit make us better active learners? First, we learn through the process of preparing, building neural pathways that make decisions and actions easier and smoother in the moment. Second, we learn more when we’re prepared because we can be present, focused, engaged. The brain is freed up to glean important information from what’s happening in front of us. And when an opportunity arises to take our learning to the next level, we’re ready.

Which is why I still follow my preparation ritual every day.

5. Teach.

Research has shown that when we teach or give advice, we are better at taking that advice ourselves. Teaching helps us learn what we already know, helps make it more true and concrete in our mind.

The process of sharing our knowledge forces us to simplify it, break it down to the essentials, codify it so that it can be digested and understood. That simplification process helps us understand it in new and better ways, or sometimes helps us test and clarify our ideas.

And the adage is true: teachers learn as much from their students as the students learn from the teachers. I personally taught a two-day leadership program to a group of leaders every year while running Yum! Brands, a $13 billion global company. Why devote that time? I expected each participant to come with an idea they believed could have a big impact on our growth. I learned so much from their discussions—because I approached teaching as a discussion, not a lecture. I heard what was working and what wasn’t throughout the company. I was impressed by the solutions they developed. And I was inspired by the updates they sent me after the class about how they put their ideas into action.

Hoarding what you know is a great way to shut off the flow of learning in your life, so try to do the opposite every day.

Active learning has helped me rapidly move up the leadership ladder, turn around struggling brands and grow creative, collaborative teams. It has helped me build deeper relationships, solve bigger problems, and feel more fulfilled in my work and life. Work on the habits, and you’ll see similar results.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.