Learning to learn – How Managers Really Learn


As part of our regular Summer review in the quieter time of August, I have been reviewing some of my older business and professional papers.  One of the more poignant items I discovered was a paper / article I wrote in 1999. Well, it’s been a powerful discovery and re-connection process to some fundamental principles that still inform my approach in my work with individuals, teams and groups. What I then described as a ‘developmental approach’ I now call a ‘coaching approach’.

I recall at the time I was between client projects so was able to turn my attention to writing for use with clients and as part of our suite of marketing materials. I wrote some ‘Thought Papers’ at the time describing my practice approach to client training and development work. I am struck by the strength of alignment to current principles that underpin my work today. 

At that point in time I was one of four founders and Directors of a thriving consultancy business that specialised in bespoke development and training programmes for large international organisations. As part of our mix of interventions we worked with groups, teams and individuals. We called the latter 1 to 1’s then. The coaching bodies that existed were in very early stages and not generally well known. Coaching then was seen mainly in the corporate market, either as a high status perk at Board level, or remedial. In some organisations it is still perceived this way!

In my development work then, I drew on my organisational experience, alongside several of the well established theories - Maslow on motivation, Transactional Analysis, Learning Styles and a number of psychometrics like FIRO and Myers Briggs, as well as various theories around management and leadership. I had read around the field of learning and related in particular to the humanistic school of thinking – the likes of Carl Rogers, Maslow, Carkhuff and Roger Harrison. 

It was still early days for concepts such as Emotional Intelligence and use of Competencies. I hadn't yet embarked on my Masters in the field of individual, group and organisational learning, so had not yet discovered the formal fields of Adult Learning, and group dynamics. Some of the latter patterns of behaviours I could see intuitively playing out in various roles I had held, in ICI, as an external consultant and in my development work with groups and teams.

It is interesting now to see how much intuitively I held beliefs from my direct experience that I can now see align closely with the underpinning key principles of Adult Learning (see my earlier blog-article). Today (as always) learning is inextricably linked to how people think, feel and relate to others, particularly in an ever changing, complex world. It is this reality, unique to the individual’s context, that coaching works with more directly than other formal learning activities. 

So, the paper that follows is an exploration of my perspectives and thinking at that point in time. The underpinning fundamentals of my practice approach I see have remained pretty constant, although how I put these into practice has evolved considerably as I have gained in my diversity of experience.

The Original Paper (1999): How Managers Really Learn

Training and Development will not be seen as relevant to success in business until it addresses the issues of how managers reallylearn, especiallyin today’s complex business environment.

Much is written these days about the Learning Organisation. This is as much a function of how individual managers learn as the information systems and processes that companies put in place to enable transfer of knowledge. Training and development you would think therefore should therefore be moving centre stage. Not so.

Most formal training and development activities are not generally regarded by line management as contributing to their career progression or longer term success.

Most training is seen as having a temporary effect at best. “Don’t worry, he’s obviously just been on a training course; he’ll soon be back to normal.” is a typical comment when someone returns from a training course.

Understandably, most managers are unaware of how they learn, nor do they stop to think about it. They just get on with it and if something is not working, give up and try something else.   Managers are usually focussed on more immediate practical business priorities rather than taking time out to reflect on how they have developed, what works for them, what doesn’t and why.

Where Training Has Traditionally Come From

Traditional training either aims at:

  • Simple tasks that can be isolated and are narrow in focus, for example writing or presentation skills, or

  • Acquiring and applying specific knowledge i.e. where there is a heavy emphasis on content or subject matter.

While valuable for certain requirements the limitations of this approach are where the nature of the learning is more complex.

Yet traditional training approaches have proved not to be of great help with the following typical learning needs managers in organisations face today:

  • What is required of me in this fast changing organisation where the job description I had a year ago doesn’t seem that relevant?

  • How do I develop more general business awareness and then apply it tomy situation?

  • I know my approach as amanager works for me in 80% of situations but I know it doesn’t some of the time, and what should I do about it?

  • How do I deal with the wide range of different people I have to work through, often of very different nationalities and cultural backgrounds?

  • How do I influence the many people I depend on for my results but over whom I do not have direct authority?

Recent developments...

have recognised the need to find different ways to deal with today’s demands on people in business.

For example, recent years have seen the advent of the “change programme”, along with which often goes a programme of coursesrolled out through the organisation,  focusing on communicating a strong “vision” of the direction the business needs to go in and what is required.

Cascading from the top,  where these programmestend to fall down is if people at all levels do not have the opportunity to think it through for themselves andtake responsibility for applying it to their part of the business. At worst, if they are not followed through on a long-term basis, these programmes can in fact do damage to the credibility of the company’s leadership and can be cynically written off as “yet another initiative.

‘Competencies’ have become increasingly widely used, both for business strategy and to provide performance benchmarks for individuals, against which they can receive specific feedback on their performance. This was, again, a step forwards in providing a framework to link individual learning needs to the needs of the business. However, managers can be understandably sceptical of an approach that, if too rigidly applied,  can over simplify for the complexity of the real world

Daniel Golenz’s concept of Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, brings an additional dimension to competencies. It promises to bring rigour to the assessment and development of areas that most people intuitively have always recognised as being central to success. Qualities such as the ability to take a longer term view, to manage conflict constructively, to be realistically aware of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, have always been known to be important to personal effectiveness. Golenz promotes that these qualities can be learnt, thus bringing a potentially powerful tool to training and development in business.

Impact of Today’s Needs On Approaches to Training

Helping people to cope with the increasing complexities they face in learning to operate in their role is a challenge for business and HR specialists.

An analogy is that of learning to drive. You can break this down into its different components, yet this does not ultimately reflect the range of awareness and skills involved in driving a vehicle. It is unlikely we would say someone is a good driver immediately after they have passed their test.

One criteria of good driving might be a high level of anticipation, or awareness of the infinite range of possible events you may need to react to and need to know how to react to in different ways under different circumstances.  We often call this ‘road sense’ . The challenge facing organisations is how to help managers develop ‘role sense’ , or how they can operate more effectively in their role in the business.

Towards Defining ‘Development’

The dictionary defines development as “to come or bring to a later or more advanced or expanded stage; grow or cause to grow gradually”.

A crucial aspect of development is that it is a step by step process. We cannot get to an end point without going through the stages en route.   One stage builds on the previous stage.

Development is a process which takes place instinctively and intuitively and which embraces a complex, interrelating series of factors all operating at the same time. 

The extent to which we are able to learn and develop is a function of our awareness of this range of factors which come either from ourselves, or our environment.

For any training to be effective, it has to take account of these fundamental principles of how people learn – a developmental approach.


A Developmental Approach to Training

Rather than rigidly separating training and development, as some can do, a developmental approach to training is to design and run training events which inherently build in fundamental developmental principles:

  1. The importance of motivating the ‘learner’. If managers cannot see the relevance of a training programme or how it will help them, they are not going to be motivated to learn. Too often companies do not give sufficient attention to this and managers can attend courses because they’ve been told to go with no expectation that it will be useful. At worst they can be hostile, at best not ready to take responsibility for their learning.

  2. Awareness as a pre-requisite to learning. When people don’t even know there is a problem let alone what it is, they are not ready to consider or take in new information or perspectives.

  3. People already know a great deal more than they think they know. When given the right environment and space, people have a lot of wisdom about what works and what doesn’t. The learning issue is about opening up that awareness and then developing the ability to apply it.

  4. Learning has to be seen as relevant both by the individual and the business – it cannot take place in a vacuum. This means starting with understanding the needs of the business and how this relates to what is required of people in their roles. One of the tutor’s roles is to help people interpret and make sense of what is happening in their organisation as it impacts on their role. This puts a responsibility on training and development professionals to really understand what is going on in the business in order to judge what is needed and then to help managers with their learning needs in that context.

  5. People have to develop objective self-awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses in order to learn how to extend their capabilities in more demanding business situations. That is, to be able to see themselves as they are generally seen by others. It requires a balanced acceptance of oneself and how one is, combined with the judgement to be able to manage oneself and be able to flex behaviour according to the demands of the situation.

  6. You can’t tell people what to do, you have to help them see what to do. This is partly creating an environment where their own natural awareness can be accelerated, and partly providing frameworks and experiences which help people make sense of it for themselves.

  7. Learning and awareness take place stage by stage. If people have not yet developed a certain level of awareness about themselves or their environment, anything they are told will miss the mark as they will not be able to relate to it from their experience. You have to start with where people are in their experience and awareness and-and build on that.

  8. Learning can be an emotional experience and there can be blockages to learning which have to first be overcome. For example fear of failure can be a major blockage to learning for some.

    For some senior managers who have developed a style where they have established themselves as the authority on most issues, public acknowledgement that they do not have all the answers can be difficult. For this reason, as HR professionals readily recognise, some senior managers are “untrainable”.

  9. Individuals have to take charge of their own learning. Part of the objective of any programme should be to build a foundation of awareness and confidence which enables individuals to do be more capable of managing their continuing development.
    There is another factor which is operating in business which leads to this as a prerequisite.

    In today’s organisations where no one person has all the answers and there is more freedom needed for individuals to scope the answers for themselves, the ability of people to be self directed and not wait to be told is essential. A developmental approach is directed towards helping people take more charge of this.

  10. Learning is unique for each individual. Critical to a developmental approach is the recognition of the need for a high quality of attention to individual needs. Any group development and training activities should have built into them the opportunity for the individuals to make sense of the experience in terms of what it means to them personally. This places particular demands on the design of development programmes and places particular demands on the tutors.


In Conclusion

In designing and developing training and development programmes, HR professionals need to bear in mind the fundamental principles of how people learn. 

Too often a great deal of money is spent on programmes which are then imposed without taking sufficient account of the way people operate, thereby not achieving the training objectives, either for the individual or the organisation.

It comes back to the old adage “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. With people this will always be the case, but at least by taking more of a developmental approach you can greatly increase the liklihood of real learning taking place.

Some questions to leave you with:

  • What were you doing 15 years ago, and retrospectively what role did ‘a coaching approach’ play in your work, (from yourself, or colleagues) even if you didn’t call it that?

  • What have been the career experiences and theories that have most influenced your personal coaching approach?

  • How does my description of the core principles I named at that time as forming part of a ‘developmental approach’ fit (or not) with your personal coaching approach?

In my next blog-article I will review how those principles are increasingly being put into practice in organisations.  As part of this I will explore some of the issues they raise for developers and coaches through review of some current client case examples.