Lifelong Learning: Executive Hazards Ahead - Keep your Dissonance

A venerable multinational is forced to search in unusual places to reverse a creeping decline, and emerges stronger than ever. After a series of painful experiences, a senior executive questions his assumptions and unearths invaluable lessons. His quest for lifelong learning begins.

In this turbulent business environment, shareholders and stakeholders, in particular young leaders, are demanding that organizations are able and willing to learn. Recent research (including Amrop’s exploration of ‘wise decision-making’) leaves little room for doubt: in order to effectively embrace change, leaders must constantly call into question the way in which they lead, and more importantly still, learn.

Organizational survival and prosperity are the rewards. Multiple failures to evolve mark the path to extinction. Yet it is precisely in the ability to evolve, and how that evolution takes place, that the answers lie.

Learn or die

Both organizational and executive learning have become central to corporate reinvention and renewed entrepreneurial vigor. In the recent past, organizations too inwardly focused on their own operations and industry have often failed. A bank looking at another bank for ideas on how to survive may well be looking in the wrong place. Key to understanding our world and to reinventing ourselves is to seek out ideas from where we normally don’t, from customers, suppliers, other industries, start-ups, NGOs or from people within our own organization other than the usual suspects. However, this is not an instinctive move.

Organizations coming under threat will often intensify their inward focus and become more effective at what they have always done - increased efficiency will leave them as ‘the last man standing’, or so the theory goes. But this ‘go lean and mean’ approach is today more often a race to the bottom. It may work in the short term, but it is essential to open up and consider foreign and disparate contexts to achieve long term prosperity.

As a business lecturer at IMD business school and a former executive, Lars Häggström is a passionate proponent of a new business dictum: embracing the new and managing the discomfort that often comes with it singles out the successful organizations and leaders from the rest.

In this honest interview, Lars shares his hard-earned insights into lifelong learning – at both organizational and individual level. Here are some highlights:

Organizational level – creating tandem impact

“Commonly, executives complain that their organization needs to be more innovative and agile,” says Häggström. “But those same executives then act in the same way as they have always done. They dampen the learning process by the way they act as individuals. It seems that executives are effectively saying "the organization needs to change, but I personally do not”.

The answer to the problem, according to Lars Häggström, lies in the fusion of organizational and executive learning - where the executive sees the benefits of openness to learning, both for the organization and herself personally. Openness means risk-taking, which for the individual executive is scary. But if the organization is set up to learn and is ready to embrace that risk, openness will become part of the culture and learning will become endemic. “Imagine a matrix with on one axis “individual learning and impact” and on the other axis “organizational learning and impact”. The most effective way to work with learning is to be in the upper right hand corner.”

Individual level - 4 reasons why executives stop learning

Ben Bryant, an IMD Professor of Leadership and Organization, has identified four distinct areas in which executives hold themselves and their companies back. Our human defence mechanisms underpin all four factors. We do not decide to employ them, they occur in us naturally and unconsciously.

  1. Routines kill curiosity - organizational roles are full of routines
  2. Over-confidence – “I’m senior therefore I’m right”. This tends to get worse the more senior you become
  3. Repeating the successful formula - this seems as if it is the best way to avoid failure (an illusion)
  4. Fear of vulnerability (caused by lack of feedback) - even though vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.

Making learning a way of life – tips and tricks for young executives

Lars advises:

  1. Realize that this is the only way. If in doubt, look at organizations that have failed or succeeded and you'll find the evidence you need.
  2. In parallel, look at your own past and try to identify when you've been impactful and happy, or the opposite, and you'll come to the same conclusion as me, that learning is key”
  3. Find the most compelling way for you to learn. I'm no big reader of business books, but I like to observe and I get hooked on stories, from real people with whom I consciously engage.
  4. I like to reflect on my own past, and my current behaviors, trying to analyze what did and didn’t work, and why. 
  5. I'm a sucker for feedback. Rather than just relying on my boss, I reach out to people that I trust and respect, asking for specifics.

Finally, I have some tips on how to best cooperate with executive search consultants. How to sort out your plans for the future, increase the chances of your plans being realized and make sure you’re aiming for an industry and/or a company where you’re likely to be successful.

  • Try to get to know a search consultant you really trust, someone who’s able to probe for your true values and identify what must be in place to make you successful. Someone who has your best interests in mind. Once you’ve done this, foster this relationship as it’ll be a wonderful asset for your continued growth.
  • Move from your vision of where you want to be to a practical level. Discuss with your trusted search consultant on what that plan might be and how to act on it. Search consultants do this for a living. Not tapping into this insight is simply stupid.
  • When you are in the process of getting a new job be aware of all dynamics at play that might increase the likelihood of things going wrong. For example, an employer who’s keen to get you may well be telling you more what of you want to hear than the truth, whilst you, if you’re like most people, being a sucker for confirmation and praise, are less critical than you normally are. Hence, my advice is to sort out what your values are and what needs to be in place for you to be happy and successful. To ask for as much evidence as possible that this is in place, or secure the mandate ito put it in place yourself.
  • Finally, once you’re in the right job, realize that the first 90 days have a tremendous impact on the likelihood of success. Rather than giving you tips and tricks, I refer you to the book “The first 90 days”, by Michael D. Watkins. Read this, and act upon it, and you’ll be well positioned to succeed.  

Go here for the full interview.

By Richard Walker