Over the past several years, CEOs have begun to embrace the importance of becoming lifelong learners. Gone is the “authority figure” ideal of the past, and with it the idea that the person at an organization’s helm is a fully formed individual who simply must now take action based on years of stored knowledge. Instead, what more people are realizing, is that the best leaders consider themselves to be in a constant state of growth and development. They never stop learning.
But it’s not just a CEO’s tactical or technical skills that need constant updating. With the immense rate of change in today’s business landscape, leaders need to also keep improving their adaptive leadership skills, chiefly the ability to communicate in a way that inspires strong followership, drives alignment with firm values, and develops talent throughout the organization.
How do you stay sharp in this environment? How do you become a lifelong learner, and, importantly, build a culture that embraces this mindset?
Start with self-revelation and behavior modeling
Every executive committed to being a learner needs a teacher, and often that comes in the form of professional coaching.
Meeting with a coach once a week is one way to start, being sure to lay out a series of topics in advance that mirror the strategic challenges you and your organization are facing. For example, if talent retention is an issue, then you should be working with your coach to determine what employees need to hear and see from you and which behaviors you should stop, start, and continue to increase their engagement and commitment to your company.
In addition to a coach, it might also help to have a mentor. While coaches help CEOs develop specific competencies required by new contexts, challenges or situations, mentors share life experiences that can help guide you through similar challenges. Both are great facilitators of adult learning.
In 2015, Harvard Business Review published a study in which they surveyed 45 CEOs with formal mentoring arrangements. The majority said having these relationships resulted in improvements in company performance, better decision-making, and improved capability in fulfilling stakeholder expectations. The study also showed that CEOs credited mentors with helping them avoid costly mistakes and becoming proficient in their roles faster.
Famously, Bill Gates counts Warren Buffet as his mentor, while Oprah Winfrey looked to Maya Angelou. But you need not limit your learning to mentors who are your senior. For the first time in history, five generations are working together, each bringing unique skillsets and perspectives to the office. Meeting with people across the generational spectrum will open pathways to new thinking, and many CEOs – especially in sectors that are rapidly becoming digital, like financial services – have mentors that are decades their junior.
Be vocal about your commitment to ongoing development, and model this behavior so it can take root and spread among those who look up to you.
CEO as Chief Talent Officer
Committing to lifelong learning is not just about you; you also need to constantly be updating how you think about getting the most out of your people. Think of yourself not only as CEO, but also as the organization’s chief talent officer, empowering others to do their best work.
This starts with picking great people for your team. Translate your strategy into clearly defined roles, each with distinct objectives and clear key outcomes. Only by visualizing what success in each role looks like a year or two into future can you know how to match the right person with the right role.
Your leadership team is also an important source for knowledge building. Think about ways in which you can be learning from each other. This is most commonly done through quarterly offsites, which allow strategic issues to get the attention they deserve along with important sharing at multiple levels to facilitate learning. If you aren’t getting your senior team together offsite on a regular basis, you’re likely missing a key source of peer learning.
Lastly, there is no substitute for individual accountability. For example, on a regular basis – at least twice a year, if not more frequently — sit down with each member of your senior team, as well as incumbents in critical roles in your organization. Talk with them. What are they doing to keep their skills sharp? How can you help them? Are there resources, coursework or specific feedback that could be useful to them?
Then, challenge each person to meet their standard, sharing progress along the way.
Mentoring your successor
Either due to poor governance or a short-term mindset, succession planning has often taken a backseat in many organizations. Thankfully, this is starting to change. Robust succession planning is becoming a greater focus for world-class organizations as the value of strong leadership becomes more evident, underscoring the importance of establishing a culture of lifelong learning.
Truth be told, there is no greater expert on being the CEO than the CEO, and it is the truly exceptional organizations who commit to the long-range thinking needed to decide who will lead next. Start by sketching out what qualities are necessary for your successor, then cultivating and curating that talent. In this case, you become a mentor to your successor, thinking 5, 10, or even 15 years ahead.
When briefing the board on this, the focus should be as much on the “what” as it is on the “who.” For example, having the conversation early about what the next CEO will need to be proficient in – what technical skills, leadership attributes, adaptive skills – allows you to think about who within your organization has the potential to fill the role, and when he or she will be ready. Your legacy will include the quality of leadership you leave in your place, so you must build an environment now where you are not only taking responsibility for your own learning, but also for who will follow.
A culture of learning
The important thing to remember is the role each step plays toward cultivating an environment of learning. That becomes something that not only is valuable to you, today, as CEO, but to all employees and the future of your business. Perhaps former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi said it best:
“Never stop learning. Whether you are an entry-level employee fresh from college or a CEO, you don’t know it all. Admitting this is not a sign of weakness. The strongest leaders are those who are lifelong students.”
And the strongest organizations are full of them.