Stop Pretending to Be an Expert All the Time

By Erika Andersen

As Janet walks back to her office, she reflects on the meeting she’s just wrapped up with her team, the top learning and development staff in their large consumer goods organization. They had been discussing their new people management curriculum rollout, and at one point, she suggested they all participate in one of the pilot groups. Their response? Dead silence, and looks ranging from surprised to puzzled to irritated.

Janet tried again. “We’ve all agreed that many of our executives aren’t excellent people managers. Wouldn’t it be great for us to model the kind of openness to learning that we expect from them?”

No one disagreed with her outright, but she could tell they weren’t comfortable with the idea. She could mandate her team’s attendance. But if they show up looking bored or spend the course surreptitiously checking their phones, it will have exactly opposite the effect she wants.

The other attendees will see them as know-it-alls who don’t think they have anything to learn about people management. And, she thinks to herself, the irony is that every one of them — including her — could use some improvement in their management skills.

Janet’s difficulty is all too common. Senior executives — including learning leaders — often resist learning, even when they need it. From leadership development to learning new company processes, new technologies or industry advances, senior people often act as though they’re supposed to know everything already. It makes it difficult for them to keep up with the demands of an ever-more-rapidly changing world.

What’s a chief learning officer to do?

Fortunately, it is possible to help people at any level become masters of mastery: learners who expand their skills, knowledge and understanding daily. These three things can help you and others become high-payoff learners.

  1. Publicize and reward the power of “noviceness.”Many of the most effective, innovative leaders are willing to be beginners, to acknowledge they don’t know things, and to open themselves up to acquiring emerging skills and knowledge necessary for success. You likely have some of those in your company. Find them, and find ways to showcase them — for not just their achievements but also the learning process they went through to get there. Point out how they tried new approaches, made mistakes, got better and finally succeeded. Most people — most companies — tend to emphasize only the happy outcome, rather than the learning that came before the success. Focusing only on the end product reinforces people’s unrealistic, and unhelpful, expectations about having to be expert at all times. Learning leaders can make sure people are acknowledged for doing the learning that leads to better results.
  2. Make sure learning is happening in learning. Janet has the right idea about having her team model openness to learning. She just has to help them see the value for them and the rest of the organization. People often only want to do new potentially daunting things when they can see the personal benefits of doing them. So, rather than trying to convince them to participate in the pilot management skills course, she could go back to them and ask: “How might it benefit you to be a part of the pilot? How might it benefit our function? How might it benefit the company?” If they can answer those questions in ways that are meaningful to them, they’re more likely to attend and benefit from the training.
  3. Recognize the inevitability of “being bad first.” Humans love to be good at things. But every time we need to learn something new, we’ll likely be bad at first. When you’re attempting to get good in a new area of skill or knowledge, you’re going to feel clumsy, make mistakes, have to ask 101-level questions. You can’t change that, but you can make the process easier by simply accepting it. Tell yourself and others: “We’re going to be bad at this until we get good at it.” If Janet can help herself, her staff and their senior executives shift their mindset into “accepting being bad,” at the start of new learning, it will make them feel less pressured, more capable and hopeful. That will make it easier for everyone to learn and grow.


AUTHOR:  Erika Andersen is the founder of Proteus, a consulting, coaching, and training firm and author of “Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future.” 



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