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Credit: Sharon McCutcheon

Running a business can often feel like an uphill battle. Business leaders will be faced with challenges for which there is often no precedent. However the ability to respond and learn from these challenges is crucial to a business’s ability to survive and grow.

This week we ask: What and why do business leaders need to continually learn?

Ben Lucas, Director, Flow Athletic

Let’s Talk: Learning

I have been in the fitness industry for almost 20 years. I have spent the past 7 years as Director and co-founder of Flow Athletic and I was a franchisee before that. Despite the length of time that I have been running operations though, I have always had habits in place to ensure I keep learning, and frankly I believe that my willingness to not be complacent made it easier for me to get through the Covid lockdown situation. I often read a non-fiction/ business book that can inspire me or teach me something for 30 minutes every night. I always listen to podcasts every time I’m in the car and often when I am exercising. I make sure I go to conferences every year either here in Australia or overseas. Getting to a place that is comfortable is all well and good, but if you don’t continue to feel inspired and learn new ideas and ways of doing things, you will get left behind.

Nathan Baird, CEO of Methodry, author of Innovator’s Playbook

Let’s Talk: Learning

Learning has always been the key to growth and development at an individual level right up to an organisational and even country level.

Right now it is even more important for leaders to be able to learn, adapt and grow. In innovation we have Design Thinking – a customer-centric, creative and experimentation driven approach to problem solving. It is quick to apply and great for managing and navigating in VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity).

Where traditional management thinking skills are great for managing in certainty an innovation project is never certain and the way forward is often complex and ambiguous. Design Thinking applies experimentation to navigate the unknown by rapidly prototyping, testing and learning to validate hypothesis and provide enough confidence to move forward. Design Thinking is tailor-made for learning and growing in the unknown. And you couldn’t get much more VUCA than now.

Brian Sands, business strategy advisor, author of Stop the Bleeding

Let’s Talk: Learning

Leading organisations through the pressure cooker that we now call business as usual demands a real-time adaptive approach, enabling us to get inside the information that informs our decisions. Call it evidence-based learning.

In this rapid-change world we face unpredictability, fragmented information, operating variables and a need to respond yesterday. At the core of this uncertainty is an extraordinary volume of data and an inability to manage it all.

Learning how to second-guess and triple-check the evidence that we receive, whilst on-the-run operationally, is fundamental to everything.

Data drives decisions, and ultimately, success or failure. Having technology, talent and process is a great start however that alone will be a waste of time unless we have learnt how to test it, rather than simply just trusting it.

No doubt this may bring an unfamiliar complexity and a leap of faith in understanding the process, however it is critical that we can and know how to constantly ‘sense-test’ the evidence that we transact, transform and influence with on a daily basis.

Arash Arabi, founder of Sprint Agile, author of The Wise Enterprise

Let’s Talk: Learning

A business leader who does not believe continuous learning is essential would not be here, reading this.  But how can a busy business leader most effectively use their precious time learning what matters most? I believe effective business leaders need to be generalists. They need to be able to understand a broad range of disciplines.

There are certain fields that I believe are essential for any business leader to expand their knowledge in irrespective of the field they operate in. And these are systems dynamics, economics, and emotional intelligence. I also believe that understanding of accounting, information technology, and marketing are highly valuable assets for business leaders. Competence in these fields is going to set you apart from other business leaders making you the star performer in your organisation. 

Paul Crighton, Managing Director ANZ, NetApp

Let’s Talk: Learning

No matter how fast or slow-paced a day is, there are always learning experiences that we can take into the way we approach tomorrow. What’s important is taking the time to truly reflect and think about what has been learnt and how this can help you improve. I swear by my favourite habit, a regular ‘brain dump.’ As the Managing Director, I talk with many customers, partners and the team over the course of a week. Some days are Zoom after Zoom, so I need to commit my leanings to memory, or else conversations and insights can get lost in the mix. My brain dump is a chance for me to write down everything I learned from my meetings and how this is going to help me in the coming days/weeks/years. This could be rethinking how we support our customers and partners or something small, like making time to take a short LinkedIn learning course. I like my brain dump to be raw, authentic and completely transparent – this is the only way you can truly step back and take stock of everything.

Angus Dorney, co-CEO, Kablamo

Let’s Talk: Learning

Leaders need to learn curiosity if they’re not already naturally curious. This is because curiosity drives the discovery of everything: from the existential threat to their business, to the new opportunity that puts them ahead of their competition. Curiosity is leveraged by open-ended questions that coax others to fill in the gap—and your own team can be your most valuable classroom. Look in your own backyard for answers and insights. E.O. Wilson, the legendary ecologist, tells his PhD students to go walking in nearby woods and pickup the first small organism they see and write their thesis on that. His point is that there is literally so much valuable information all around us which we can use profitably, if we only pay attention to it.Sometimes you see other CEOs, CIOs, CTOs refusing to be curious about things right in front of them, refusing to change old ways or accept new technological approaches. Usually it’s fear of being disrupted or displaced that stops them. If you’re curious, you can’t really be afraid, and a culture of curiosity inspires more curiosity and more growth. 

Marcus Marchant, CEO, Vistaprint Australia

Good leaders never stop learning! The importance of continuous learning in leadership is invaluable, both in and out of the workplace. Successful businesses leaders have a genuine and deeply rooted desire to continue to evolve and grow as individuals. This effort to learn more about themselves naturally integrates itself into the workplace, which in turn leaves an energising impact on those around them.

One of the most beneficial areas any business leader can dive into is what motivates them as an individual. The more you understand your own personality, the more you can understand your strengths and how to leverage them within the workplace.

Alex Dreiling, CEO and co-founder, Clipchamp

Let’s Talk: Learning

Learning is the cornerstone of startup success. Understanding what does and doesn’t work as well as taking action fast makes or breaks a startup. Being exceptionally adaptable is key to surviving and growing into large businesses. That much we knew, practiced and enjoyed before Covid-19.

When Covid-19 hit, every goal post started moving. It was no longer “just” an exercise in learning how to build a product and scale its adoption. We needed to re-learn how to manage the company, hire, collaborate and many other things while at the same time experiencing significant growth because the world needed more video solutions. We took things week by week.

Covid-19 taught us that whatever we take for granted is yet another variable when external conditions change. It also taught us that no matter how many things change at the same time, there is a way to come out stronger on the other side by embracing the fact that we need to constantly learn and adapt.

Sreelesh Pillai, General Manager, Freshworks Australia

Let’s Talk: Learning

Learning is a fundamental part of daily life and it’s no different when it comes to a business. I’ve never forced myself into a learning regime – it should be part of everyday work. Two things I would highlight: always be actively listening to the market, team and customers, and don’t be afraid to take risks. 

Listening brings forth pockets of knowledge we need to refresh or deepen. It allows one to also understand the problems bottom up, further supporting a leader’s direction for the business. 

At Freshworks, our culture is similar to design thinking where we encourage learning through experience. You may not always have the most perfect plan, but you can take a calculated risk which will improve it through each iteration. It allows creative, real-time problem solving and enables teams to execute quickly in a competitive market.

Be mindful of your environment and get executing, to learn as you do!

Mike Featherstone, Managing Director ANZ & APAC, Pluralsight 

Mike Featherstone

The need for business leaders to remain curious and continually learn is paramount to unlocking true business success. Business leaders committed to being lifelong learners, and fostering their hard and soft skills will remain agile and ahead of a tech trend curve that’s shaping business models across all industries. By taking responsibility for their own development, business leaders are empowering their teams to reflect the same level of accountability which will inevitably produce a future-ready workforce.

With COVID-19 accelerating digital transformation initiatives, the need for tech skill development has never been more urgent, or more important for business leaders. While few things in business are predictable, as we’ve witnessed firsthand in the past few months, one thing is for certain: your tech strategy is your business strategy—and you can’t have a winning tech strategy without a commitment to tech skills development driven from the top-down.

Simon Davies, Founder & CEO, Bastion Brands

Let’s Talk: Learning

One of my biggest learnings in business has been to constantly educate myself. I do this in 3 ways: 

1. Read – I am a huge fan of business books, including biographies, and I often will mirror the things I read about that I find useful and applicable to me.

2 Mentors –  Mentors and advisors have been instrumental to my journey. The key thing here is to have, as Ray Dalio says, believable people who have successfully achieved what you want to achieve and can use their experience and learnings to guide you.

3. Stay connected with news – I run a health advertising and medical marketing agency and our clients include some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical brands. It is critical for me to understand the issues and shifts that are happening broadly and how they may affect our clients so staying on top of the news cycle is a must.

Monica Watt, Chief Human Resources Officer, ELMO Cloud HR & Payroll

Let’s Talk: Learning

Leaders don’t need to be able to do the job of each and every staff member, but they need to understand it. The world has changed a lot in a very small window of time and there are jobs now that didn’t even exist a year ago. 

For leaders to understand the challenges, opportunities and risks across their business they need to understand what each area of the business is facing. In particular, leaders need to know how technology is reshaping the way roles and jobs can be performed.

Understanding on a macro level the changes in automation, big data and technology will help leaders make better informed decisions.

Vijay Sundaram, Chief Strategy Officer, Zoho

Let’s Talk: Learning

If the ongoing pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of evolution. Almost overnight well-established business processes were turned on their head – in many instances irreversibly – and those that didn’t adapt were left behind. Today, as business leaders have had to guide their teams and customers through extraordinary challenges, these leaders – many with decades of experience – have become students of their trade once again. As the world advances and the needs of customers and employees evolve, so too should the service businesses provide them. If leaders stop learning, their offerings would eventually become obsolete; surpassed by those who are prepared to learn. So, the key to a prosperous business is a leadership team that never stops learning. After all, the most effective leaders understand that ‘leadership’ is not a trait they can develop then forget; it’s a long-term and regular commitment to learn, grow and improve. 

Bruce Perry, Chief Operating Officer, Wontok

For many businesses change is not only about technology, products and practices, but about people, their expectations and behaviour.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated change, particularly when it comes to employees and consumers. People have had to learn new skills or upskill overnight, alongside charting new priorities. 

Continual learning is vital to predict the future in a constantly shifting landscape. Business leaders need to monitor and absorb a wide array of information to anticipate new trends. Psychologist Howard Gardner has identified a need for “searchlight intelligence” – the ability to connect the dots between people and ideas.

Continual learning is also about continual research: leaders need to be open to and curious about the world, and adapting vision and strategy based on the insights generated from available data.

Balder Tol, General Manager, WeWork ANZ:

For me, the best leaders are those who never lose sight of the desire to learn and grow. They’re able to effectively balance the needs of the company, amid a fast changing business landscape, with employee satisfaction. 

We’ve all learned big lessons this year, and one of the learnings that stays with me is the importance of empathy and having a mindset for continuous improvement. As a leader, you work closely alongside people, and every human is different. It’s only by practising active listening and challenging yourself to understand different perspectives, that you can lead a strong and happy team. And active listening extends to yourself too: being self-aware and willing to share your vulnerabilities, and understanding the impact your positive energy and authenticity has on a team, goes a long way in building trust and motivating others.

Ultimately, investing in people is the key to achieving greater cohesion and organisational success. Amid challenges and uncertainty, I truly believe caring and being curious about others and their wellbeing, on a human level, is what sets good leaders apart.

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Ann Wen

Ann Wen

Ann is a journalist at Dynamic Business.

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