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Shaun Thomson

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Leadership: how to create a learning culture from the top down


A learning culture can only really exist when it’s authentic and when leaders and senior managers set the tone.

Let’s get one thing straight – a company’s culture cannot be manufactured. Saying that you want your culture to be a certain way doesn’t make it a reality, which is why when I hear companies saying ‘we have a strong learning culture’ I cannot help but feel a twinge of cynicism.

Employees quickly see through a fad. To ensure that the culture is created and maintained, it has to be consistent and led from the top, with senior management setting the example and practicing what they preach.

The culture is in place when everyone takes pride and believes in the values. When it comes to learning it’s no different, and it’s often this team that have the greatest amount to gain from external and internal development.

The ‘bad boss’ endemic

The vast majority of senior leaders are blissfully ignorant of their shortcomings. This is mostly down to the fact that they don’t have an objective audience - after all, it isn’t in an employee’s interest to highlight their shortcomings.

It’s critical for leaders to examine their own psychology and how it affects both their leadership style, and the company’s productivity and growth.

In business most of us have learnt that a good relationship with the boss is a paramount for career progression. The way we describe our bosses to our friends can be quite different from the glowing reports we write in their 360 appraisals.

Lack of leadership skills is especially pronounced in founder-managed companies. This is because it is more likely that the founder started the company with a great idea, but has not had experience in leading, growing and motivating a team.

No one is born knowing how to be a good boss - leadership is a learned skill that can always be improved.

The role of psychology

The key is to ensure that this group is correctly engaged with learning from the outset so that they embrace and evangelise the benefits.

To ensure that you do this correctly, you need to look at the role of psychology in learning.

People react to situations, events and other people based on their own beliefs, which come from their unique individual history. This determines their behavioural culture and their psychology. We repeat patterns of behaviour and we do it so often that we become comfortable with it.

It’s critical for leaders to examine their own psychology and how it affects both their leadership style, and the company’s productivity and growth.

It’s very common for people to build up self-limiting beliefs that hold them back, such ‘I am not good with figures’, or ‘I am not good at motivating a team’.

They can genuinely believe it to be true, even though we all have choices and can learn to be better at something. A more accurate description would be ‘I do not like/want to be good at figures or managing a team’.

Choosing a tool

Leaders must examine their weaknesses and learn a model for behavioural psychology so that they understand they have choices, they can change and that their personal goals can be integrated.

With learning in place for the senior leadership, and coaching schemes implemented for the people they line manage, you will start to see the germination of a learning culture.

They need to examine the motives and reasons behind their weaknesses, learn to communicate these and take steps for personal improvement. In this way, they will start to understand what motivates and helps communicates with others.

There are many psychology tools that can be used, such as DISC, which helps assess personality types and how they correlate to workplace efficiency and what types of learning will work best.

By using tools like this you can identify people who are more likely to:

  • Be risk takers versus risk adverse
  • Make decisions quickly versus slowly
  • Be people centric versus task centric
  • Look historically versus looking to the future

Funneling knowledge downwards

Once the leadership team has the psychological foundation they can align it to learning processes.

For many leaders the best option is an executive external coach, or mentor, who may have also had a hand in the psychological benchmarking.

The coach must deliver value on a number of fronts, not just assisting the business leader with their own personal development, but also teaching them coaching skills themselves in order to build a company and keep their team motivated.

Once retained, the executive coach relationship must be given the time and priority it deserves. It must be considered sacrosanct – they should be measured and tracked on a weekly basis.

It’s all too easy to put things off when you look at the them 'in the future', so make the meetings a focus each week and block out time in the diary, with a commitment that the meetings cannot be cancelled.

Doing this it will showcase to the wider team that learning isn’t a ‘fad’ that can parked in favour of ‘more serious’ activities.

Linking to job progression

With learning in place for the senior leadership, and coaching schemes implemented for the people they line manage, you will start to see the germination of a learning culture.

For this to become engrained, it must become part of each employee’s job progression.

Career development is a huge driver for the vast majority of employees – indeed, for many it trumps pay.

Having formal schemes in place aligned to each employee, which looks at gaps and skills needed for promotion, you’ll soon see a culture where learning is revered and prioritised.

The benefits of this will extend beyond having staff that are more informed and engaged, to actual bottom line metrics as a measurable uplift in staff retention and customer satisfaction.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read How can you create a culture of hungry learners? Adopt a marketing mindset.

2 Responses

  1. Great article Shaun.
    Great article Shaun. “Authentic” is the keyword and yet so very few people truly understand this premise. In my last job I attempted to approach my executive peers in this manner but I think they see it as a sign of weakness as they are still locked into this “me vs you” mentality.

    And unfortunately, people at the top assume they don’t have anything new to learn. They think, “Well I made it to the top and there is nowhere else to go so I obviously don’t need to keep learning and growing.”

    So sad : (

  2. There is not a specific way
    There is not a specific way to dictate what type of leadership skills are best to promote an enthusiastic talent pool. However, everyone would most likely prefer a motivator type of trait to lead them as opposed to someone with a dictator style of leading. At the end of the day, it isn’t solely about having a huge following but it is also about knowing who are sincere in following you. You need to be a role model instead of just a leader alone.

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