Learning to Lead

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Home > Articles > Learning to Lead

 Learning to Lead

Jo Owen | Today's Manager
December 1, 2018


Learning to learn the right way can help us regain control of our destiny and the random walk of discovery can become a steady jog towards the future we want.

As managers and leaders we all have to learn how to manage and lead. Some ways of learning are better than others. As an exercise, I often ask groups of executives how they have learned to lead. I let them choose two out of six options. You may want to see which two of the six options below you would choose:

  • Books,
  • Courses,
  • Bosses (good and bad examples),
  • Peers,
  • Role models (inside and outside work), or
  • Personal experience.

Virtually no one chooses books or courses, which could be bad news for an author who makes his/her living by writing books and delivering courses. Virtually everyone chooses some combination of personal experience and observed experience. This makes perfect sense. We see a boss or a colleague do something which works, and we try to copy them. We see them mess up, and we quietly make a note not to repeat that mistake ourselves.

Learning from experience is practical, free of theory, and free of jargon. You build up your personal leadership success formula: it may not work in theory, but it will work in practice. In particular, it will work in your unique context. Different contexts require very different skills: being the supervisor of a local service team requires fundamentally different skills from being the chief executive officer (CEO) of a complex multinational corporation (MNC).

This style of learning is the only realistic option for the many managers who are accidental managers: they are promoted into management with no training and no experience and they are somehow expected to pick it up as they go along. They serve an informal apprenticeship in which they watch and copy the masters of their craft. But there are three career-threatening problems you face if you learn to lead through this apprenticeship model.

1. The Problem of the Random Walk
The biggest problem is that the apprenticeship model is essentially a random walk. If you are lucky, you have good role models and experiences that will teach good lessons to accelerate your path to leadership. So you can hope to get lucky on your leadership journey, but luck is not a method and hope is not a strategy. There is always a risk that you will land up with poor role models and poor experiences which will lead you into a career dead end.

You have two ways of dealing with the challenge of the random walk.

Your first priority is to manage your career. In any firm, it is obvious who the death star managers are, and what the death star projects are. If you land up with either of these, you are in trouble. Equally, it is also clear who the good bosses are, and you should have a good idea of what sorts of assignments suit you best.

Managing your career does not mean relying on the goodwill of the human resource (HR) department. They want to put people in boxes, although people should never be put in boxes until they are dead. They may or may not be able to put you in the right box. If there is a boss you want to work for, go out of your way to get to know them and help them out. Bosses are normally delighted to find someone with initiative, ideas, and enthusiasm; they remember who helps and supports them and those who do not; they are flattered when people take an interest in them. And if your good boss tells HR that she wants you on her team, HR will normally comply: they like it when the person fits the box.

Equally, when you see a death star assignment looming, assume the Harry Potter cloak of invisibility. Make sure you are very busy and very much in demand on that vital project which involves counting all the spare paperclips in the office. Become indispensable elsewhere. As a last resort, volunteer for another tough assignment which no one else wants: always choose the lesser of two evils.

2. The Problem of Random Learning
Journeys of discovery are interesting precisely because you do not know what you will discover. That is part of the joy of learning. But management and leadership should not be about random learning. There are very specific things which you need to learn, and to learn fast, at each stage of your leadership career. First time managers need to learn delegation, motivation, performance management, goal setting, and team management at warp speed. Learning slowly may be painful for the manager, but it is even more painful for the team which has to suffer from all the missteps of their first-time manager.

This is where your firm should step in. Firms understand the need for induction programmes for new staff, including something of a settling in period. But most firms offer no induction programme for new managers, even though their mistakes have much higher consequences than the mistakes of a new employee.

If your firm offers no formal training, seek it out yourself. Most managers are unwilling to do this. Managers happily go on technical courses like “Managing Finance” because they see that as enhancing their skill set. But if they go on a course about “Managing People”, that implies that they are not good at managing people: it is seen as a sign of weakness. But the best athletes know that they have to keep on honing their basic skills, and it is the same with managers. Going on basic management courses is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Inevitably, there are some firms where you cannot even find the time or money to go on a formal course. So what do you do then? One solution is to consult Professor Google. But Professor Google is hair-brained: you never know what you will be getting. The better solution is to buy a good book, preferably one of mine (try How to Lead, or How to Manage: they do what they say on the cover).

The reality of any book is that you cannot start as a new manager on page one and end up as a great leader on page 276. Nor can you start a course at 8.30am and come out as the perfect leader by 6pm. That is not the point of books or courses. They help by putting some structure in your random walk of discovery, and by helping you make sense of the nonsense you encounter every day. They help you structure and accelerate your journey to leadership. Maybe there is still a role for an author who runs courses after all.

3. The Problem of Speed and Pressure
There are so many things we should do if we are to lead our lives the way the experts tell us to. We have to diet, exercise, find work-life balance, and constantly improve ourselves in every way. In the meantime, the deadline is looming, our boss is ramping up the pressure, we are being let down by our colleagues, and there is a mountain of administrivia which will not go away all by itself. So when a guru comes along and says you should take time to learn, reflect, and cultivate your growth mindset, it is natural to start thinking about important things, like remembering to buy some pet food on the way home. Learning and growth is great in theory, but there are other more pressing needs in life.

So how can you learn in real time?

Learning can be instant, easy, and effective. Here’s how. After every significant event, ask yourself two questions: WWW and EBI. A significant event can be anything from an important phone call to a big presentation to your board or a conference. This is what WWW and EBI mean:

  • WWW: What Worked Well? Asking what worked well allows you to build your success formula and build on your personal strengths. Even if the event went badly, there will be something you did to stop it from becoming a complete disaster: that can be vital learning for your future. Never, never, start with WWW’s evil twin: what went wrong? That is a recipe for gloom, negativity, and the blame game.
  • EBI: Even Better If… However well an event went, there is probably something you could have done even better. Think about it. And if the event did not go well, then this is a positive and actionable way of seeing how you can improve things in future.

As with any exercise, the first time you do it will feel slow and cumbersome. Eventually, it becomes second nature and you can do it as you walk down the corridor between meetings: instant and effective learning.

WWW and EBI are not just about personal learning but about team learning too. Ask your team to do a quick debrief after every significant event, using WWW and EBI. If you do this, you will be coaching them to success. Do this consistently, and it becomes second nature to the team. Instead of focussing on what goes wrong, they will learn to focus on what goes right.

Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own careers. If we learn to learn the right way, we can take back control of our destiny and the random walk of discovery can become a steady jog towards the future we want.



Mr Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams and 14 other management books. He is a founder books. He is a founder of the UK’s largest graduate recruiter, Teach First, and has started six other charities, a bank, and a business in Japan.


Copyright © 2018 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 4, 2018

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