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Build A Culture of Lifelong Learning with Experiential Career Pathing

August 18, 2021 | By Donna Fitzgerald

I honestly can’t remember a time when conventional wisdom didn’t advocate for building a worldview that made learning a lifelong activity. If I took a poll and asked how many people majored in something that they are doing for a living today, I’m guessing the number would be fairly low. And even if you were lucky enough to get a job in your chosen field—like, for example, theater-set design—the higher wages that a public accountant earns can start to look very attractive after ten years (true story).

Nothing stays the same — not the economy, society, or even our own goals and objectives. So, rather than have someone else tell us what we have to learn and when, why not build a culture where we are always investing in broadening our knowledge?

The growing issue of disengagement

Years ago, when I used to teach a class for people who wanted to make career changes, I learned something that surprised me. Most of my students had what we would classically call good jobs; the problem, however, was that they were bored or feeling unfulfilled.

By the end of the course, most of them realized that they needed an avocation. They also learned the importance of looking around their current company to see if there was a new project or a new assignment that might rekindle their interest.

Clearly, the sense of dissatisfaction I recognized in my students back then has only escalated over the intervening years. After all, in April of 2021, the number of people choosing to voluntarily separate from their place of employment hit an all-time high.

So, is there a solution that can satisfy everyone? One that merges companies’ desire to ensure that their staff members have the right knowledge and skills to meet business objectives with the staff members’ desire to have a sense of personal fulfillment from their work?

I believe there is, and I don’t think it will cost any more time or money than is currently being spent. But first, we need to change our mindset.

Cultivating intentional learning plans

Rather than looking a people as plug-compatible widgets, we need to embrace the idea that all people are uniquely talented. What we call “personality” is actually a compilation of things our brain or body finds easy to do, our unique thinking style, and the knowledge and experiences we’ve picked up along our life’s journey. This means that even if we write a completely standardized job description, whoever we hire will naturally attempt to make that job their own.

If this is true, how can we ensure that everyone at our company has the right knowledge and skills to meet the future? To me, the answer is obvious: we must create a culture of continuous development.

What might that look like? If I combine lessons I learned at Intel and ROLM (both companies took career development very seriously), I’d start with something like the chart below. (See Figure 1.0)

Three Tiered Development Planning
Figure 1 Three Tiered Development Planning

This example is an individualized learning plan for a Financial Planning and Analysis Manager working at a midsized company. The key element of this approach is that it focuses on three areas: skills to learn, skills to master, and skills to share.

The skills to learn, as I envision it, are job skills that the company needs staff members to have. While I learned about mergers and acquisitions by being thrown in the deep end, a single 4-hour discussion group taught by a more senior peer (see skills to share) plus inclusion in the next merger evaluation would have significantly reduced my stress level.

Applying unique skills to mastery

The middle column, mastering a skill, will always be a personal choice. Mastery is where talent/interest/calling meets knowledge.

Early in a person’s career, it’s hard to draw the lines between a cookie-cutter approach to career development and a personalized approach. After all, the basics are the basics. The different pathways a career can go only start to emerge at some amorphous level of seniority.

Once upon a time, I was fortunate enough to be placed on the executive fast track. The only problem? I was going to have to move to a senior finance position in the sales organization, as was mandatory for a CFO-in-training. I knew immediately that it was the wrong move. I could name four of my peers who would do better in that job than I would, yet none of them would have survived working in NPD (my current position).

Sometimes, the choice of the skill to master is less important than what it telegraphs to an organization. The example above of learning how to draw stock and flow diagrams using Stella is in keeping with someone whose brain is wired to think in patterns.

So, where do people who think that way belong? They don’t belong in accounting, and, as I found, even being CFO isn’t as much fun as doing strategy planning or strategy execution.

A tremendous amount is being written about diversity in today’s press, yet few acknowledge the fact that we are all diverse (though I much prefer the word “unique”). The minute we begin to understand the gift of uniqueness that every staff member brings, we can turn our attention toward working with people to align the needs of both the company and the individual.

And, in some cases, they will simply be too far apart. I’ve lost staff members to the clergy and the shining lights of Hollywood — although, in both these cases, neither of them had any “talent” for their day job.

Deeper understanding through sharing

The third column (in Figure 1.0) is skills to share. As I mentioned in my discussion on skills to learn, nothing beats the learning that happens when a more experienced person shares their tacit knowledge with a less-experienced but eager listener. Plus, it makes the knowledge an experienced person has more tangible.

Chris Argyris articulated the concept of double-loop learning back in the 80s. This has since been extended to the idea of triple-loop learning, which is learning how to learn. When we teach someone about a topic, we effectively hand them a fish that will feed them for the day. Offering them an opportunity to reflect on what they know (through trying to teach it to others) is the equivalent of teaching them how to fish, thus feeding them for a lifetime. After all, it’s only natural that they begin to expand their understanding of the subject they are teaching.

Culture that benefits both people and their companies

The three-tiered development plan accomplishes two goals. First, it creates a culture of upskilling and reskilling while providing individuals with clear steps to both master and share knowledge. Second, it gives your people agency over their career development.

The result is staff members that are equipped to meet the organization’s business objectives while feeling greater personal fulfillment from their job. In a time when we’re battling disengagement, burnout, and high turnover, having the right people with the right skills who are engaged in their work is the key to innovation and progress.

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