3 Things I’ve Learned About Learning

300-3-things-Ive-learned-about-learningI recently returned from a leadership retreat in Slovenia where, on the third day, I found myself sitting amongst a group of four teachers. One was my business partner Sara (a former teacher who worked for three years in The Balkans), and there were three others from the Steiner school. I remarked that I was outnumbered, but the others countered that I was as much a teacher as they were!

I guess they’re right – but it got me thinking how much there is to learn about learning. So here are three vital lessons I’ve picked up during 30 years of working to develop people.

It mostly boils down to the basics

I come from a pro sport background, and for about five years taught golf to business people, who were mostly novices.

After a couple of lessons focusing on the grip, stance, posture, ball position and alignment, I would inevitably get the question – “Come on Andrew, what does Tiger Woods work on with his coach?”

When I replied that it was mostly minor adjustments to the grip, stance, posture, ball position and alignment, they invariably looked disappointed. What they were seeking was something more advanced – a secret formula that only the most successful apply.

But, of course, most things boil down to the same core principles – basic concepts which have been around for a long time.

You only have to read Dale Carnegie’s classic tome How to Win Friends and Influence People to see that things haven’t really changed all that much.

The book was first published in the 1930’s but its principles remain relevant to this day – learn to listen, show appreciation, take an interest in people etc. All pretty simple stuff, but it’s amazing how many leaders and managers are lacking in these areas.

Learning a skill takes time

I can’t remember where I originally saw this but I like the saying, “You don’t learn how to ride a bike at a seminar!”

Improving your abilities to listen, present well, show empathy and so on will be valuable, but they will take some time to embed as skills. At this point it’s worthwhile considering the four stages of learning a skill:

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

You’ve not been shown how to do the thing and you’re plainly not doing it in the right way!

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

After some instruction you know what to do, but you can’t do it yet. This is frustrating and those of an impatient nature often give up at this point.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

More coaching, lots more practice, and you start to have some success. You can do it right a lot of the time, but you’ve got to concentrate really hard. It’s a bit mechanical. There’s no ‘flow’.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

The ultimate destination. It seems effortless. You make it look easy. Examples: driving a car, walking, and writing. You’re not thinking about HOW you’re doing it. You’re in blissful flow.

The point is it all takes time and application and, even when you’ve achieved Stage 4, it’s possible to lapse into a self-conscious state – if, for example, you were to take to the road with an advanced driving instructor sat in your passenger seat!

Understand that if you’re seeking to develop a skill in yourself or others you need to look to the long term, with continual support and reinforcement.

Learning by experience

Although I was delivering (the storytelling) part of the aforementioned leadership programme in Slovenia, I was bowled over by some of the experiences created by the other facilitators.

The retreat leader, Miha Pogacnik, is a concert violinist, and has discovered a way to deconstruct classical music pieces to convey lessons in leadership.

One technique he uses is to have his delegates sit amongst the orchestra he leads, as opposed to the usual detached position. For me, this worked as a metaphor for getting closer to one’s employees and customers, something business owners frequently need to improve.

Melissa Harwood introduced us to eurythmy, a process which involves participants passing metal balls to one another.

It sounds rather childish and un-business like, but it delivered some profound lessons in the importance of giving and receiving, of team work, of coaching others, and the rhythm and flow of a successful organisation.

I also enjoyed meeting the wonderful Danice Purg, a professor and founder of the Bled School of Management – one of the most prestigious business institutions of its kind in the world. The school is especially renowned for its Arts-in-Business programme – which is based on the premise that if you want to stimulate creativity in an organisation, you need to go talk to some artists!

But Danice also has a passionate belief in experiential learning, and she explained how she takes leaders out of the classroom and into the real world.

A notable example was the tunnel that served as a lifeline for the inhabitants of Sarajevo during its bombardment in the Bosnian War.

A string quartet played in the tunnel throughout the conflict, a symbol of hope for the besieged population. And when Danice brought her delegates back to the hotel seminar room she introduced them in person to the very man who led that string quartet.

Needless to say this had a profound and lasting impact on those delegates, and before they completed their programme, she asked them to write a letter to their CEO suggesting the changes they would like to see (and lead) in their organisation.

Whether you’re a teacher or a pupil, I think it’s useful to reflect on all your experiences of learning.

The reflective habit is a useful one to develop anyway, but as a leader, manager or coach (and you may be all three!) consider how you can make it easier and more effective for others to develop skills and learn from their learning too.

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