Learning is the most critical leadership competency required today.

Learning is the most critical leadership competency required today.

Learning is not just a ‘nice to have’, it’s a crucial component of the modern workplace.
Despite this, say Ruth Donde and Graham Hart, it is still not being done well. They explore ways to make learning stick.

For all of us in the workplace, learning agility and ongoing (lifelong) learning is what is going to keep us relevant.

According to McKinsey, “burgeoning leaders, no matter how talented, often struggle to transfer even the most powerful off-site experiences into behaviour change on the front line.” Further, McKinsey states that “becoming a more effective leader requires changing behaviours and adjusting mindsets …doing so can be uncomfortable for participants, program trainers, mentors and bosses.”

All of this makes sense and that is because, in most cases, the learning is still not being done well. Neither the learner nor the context are really being considered.

According to Emma Weber, author of Turning Learning into Action, “studies show that only around 15 percent of learning finds its way back into the workplace—but that an effective learning transfer strategy can boost results to as high as 88 percent.”

We agree that learning can be done so much better and it is not something that we want to leave to chance.



Gone are the days of the trainer being the expert in the front of a room pushing content to the learner. Information is available ad nauseum now thanks to the internet. Experts are now on YouTube, TED talks, podcasts… learners are mobile and more techsavvy. Millenials have grown up with devices and expect to get instant answers. Attention spans have decreased and are decreasing rapidly, so micro-learning—or learning in small, very specific bursts—is playing more of a role. It is not the answer in all situations, but provides an effective component to the wider learning approach. Tech-savvy users are not only the younger learners—in fact, 67 percent of those over 55 get their information from the internet. Face-to-face learning has a different purpose now—it provides a space for facilitated social learning, practising new skills and getting immediate feedback. It is estimated that in only two years’ time, learners will be completely in the driving seat of their own development, surrounded by systems and resources to support them—learning anywhere, anytime, anyhow.



  1. Learning is about intelligence— FALSE. Learning is an innate behaviour. We all have the ability to learn in us. Some of us practise and use deliberate learning strategies to develop expertise faster.
  2. Learning is an event—FALSE. Learning is a flexible process involving awareness of what is needed, through some type of assessment, diagnostic or feedback loop, followed by gathering information, knowledge and skills. These skills then need to be applied with feedback through others or through the action itself and reapplied to reinforce, embed and improve. Once a behaviour has changed in one area, then it can be translated to other contexts and learners. Whatever learning method is chosen, it is clear that learning requires:
  • A reason to learn (provocation);
  • Gathering information/knowledge/ theory;
  • Developing skill and the how-to;
  • Transferring this to create behaviour change;
  • Reinforcing this to enhance and create new habits.

3. Learning just happens—FALSE. We need to be intentional about our learning. Learning needs to become part of our regular activities, scheduling time if needed to make it a habit. Create a conscious intention to learn so that you approach an activity with this mindset. Know what you want to get out of your learning, i.e. what is your goal? Reflect after the activity on what you did learn. Keep practising; when we are trying to create a new skill or behaviour, it needs focused repetition before it becomes more automated/habitual. Learning is best distributed and built on over time rather than huge chunks all at once. Getting feedback is important so that the new skill is corrected before embedding. Practice does not always make perfect. Sometimes (and those who have ever had to relearn a tennis racquet or golf grip will understand the pain) we embed poor technique and we then need to re-learn once again.



In order to get the best outcomes from the learning process we need to consider some fundamentals.

1. Get the foundations right.

The first thing to do is to pay single-focused attention to the learning at hand in order to make it stick. Be in a relaxed state to engage your whole brain so that you can make your own connections. Memories last longer when we have some emotional charge, so being happy is helpful. And of course having the desire to learn (knowing your ‘why’) is crucial. Ensure your environment is conducive to learning. Ensure you are in a good mental, emotional and physical state to learn best. This also means moving during learning (keeping the blood flowing to the brain), ensuring you have adequate and healthy food and water, and have had sufficient sleep.

  1. Engage your brain.

Our brains are hardwired to be lazy so learning requires the brain to put in effort. The brain accounts for two percent of the body’s weight and yet consumes about 20 percent of the body’s overall energy! Learning requires activation of the prefrontal cortex so we have to constantly engage our brains to not take short cuts when attempting to master new skills. It is useful to remember that we need to go through the incongruent stage where things feel ‘clunky’ until they reach a minimum level of fluency, the sign that some skills are being hardwired. Providing novelty triggers dopamine release which then boosts the engagement of the brain to learn and absorb new information.

  1. The power of self-reflection.

Noticing our own learning, development and changes is one of the most powerful learning tools we have. It is a meta-skill which is often overlooked, and can include powerful sub-skills such as critical thinking, metacognition, self-control, resilience, adaptability and useful failure. Self-reflection requires quiet. Writing in a learning journal can be useful, and funnily enough, sleep can support embedding learning too.



In the modern workplace, learning is a requirement and not a ‘nice to have’. Some of the more valued lifelong learning skills include:

  • Creativity—creative thinking is required for novel solutions. Organisations need innovative products and services to stay relevant in a competitive and changing market
  • Problem solving—once again with a changing world we are needing to solve problems that we don’t even know exist yet
  • Critical thinking and information management—basic thinking will be done by AI. We will need to make sense of multiple streams of information. Our thinking will have an impact on global decisions
  • Leadership—makes everybody better. This is taking responsibility for motivating and developing others to make good things happen, not just get things done
  • Communication—effective communication across various channels means greater relationships, greater well-being and performance
  • Collaboration—working together to enhance value no matter where you are is needed as workplaces become more remote and diverse
  • Adaptability—personal flexibility is required to deal with trends of all kinds. Knowing when to take advantage of opportunities and shift to change keeps us constantly relevant
  • Curiosity—being open to possibility is key and is one of the foundations of learning
  • Reflection—this is what gives learning meaning; understanding the impact of it and how it has served us and/or others



So what can those leaders in organsations do to promote learning?

  • Create psychological safety and make it okay for people to learn on the job and be open about mistakes that are being made. Amy Edmondson’s TED talk on psychological safety in the workplace explains this really well
  • Encourage experimentation and controlled failure whereby people can learn as they go and, at the same time, develop some of the above-mentioned lifelong learning skills
  • Provide the social environment for collaboration as, once again, working with others provides the optimal conditions for release of dopamine and oxytocin, further enabling the brain to absorb new information. Remember, learning can take place:
    • On the job by exposure to new work, projects and methods;
    • Through social learning networks;
    • Using formal in-person learning to apply skills with feedback;
    • Using digital learning, games, and simulations. According to Dr Fred Travis, 70 percent of the connections in our brain change every day. Our brains are neuroplastic, i.e. able to change for a reason.

Maybe we should change our mindsets and instead of seeing learning as some external event, see it as innate to us as human beings.



  • Do I really understand what I am learning?
  • Could I explain this to a friend?
  • What do I need to practise more?
  • What are some of the most interesting discoveries I made?
  • What were some of my most challenging moments? What does that tell me?
  • How does my learning relate to other issues?
  • What did others do to support me/ this learning?
  • What did I learn about my own strengths?
  • What would I do differently if I approached this again?
  • How would I teach this to someone else?
  • What personal skill/attribute do I still need to develop further?
  • How can I reapply my learning moving forward?