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Photo: iStock

Opinion | Ask, question, listen: The habits that can make you an expert learner

Roles at top levels require a demonstration of ability to grow and develop oneself

The head of sales and marketing had just resigned, and the search committee had to decide whether to recruit someone from outside or consider internal candidates.

“What about Naveen," someone asked. Naveen was the head of sales for north India, about 40, smart, but a tad impatient. He had grown the business steadily in a demanding region through some very difficult times. The response: “Does he have the maturity for such a big role? Remember the Amritsar fiasco?"

Two years earlier, Naveen had upset the owner of the biggest dealership in the country. His hard push had ended with the dealer calling the chairperson to complain. Someone else explained that Naveen had since learnt to handle dealers better, and developed a more sensitive yet assertive style. Yet, the search committee paused to gather more feedback on him.

Assessing candidates for top roles is always rather tricky. Top roles are often much complex than other roles internal candidates have played, and all choices require a leap of faith. And that leap of faith is made much easier if the candidate is seen as someone who has been an expert learner in the past.

Kellogg University’s professor Andrew Sykes studies the habits of expert learners or individuals who are able to keep getting better at what they do to become top professionals in their fields. He studies expert chess players, race-car drivers and sales leaders.

His studies shows those who become the best in their field are not necessarily those who are the most talented starting out. Instead they are expert learners.

There are three habits that all expert learners share. Anyone can use these three habits to develop a sharp learning curve.

The first of these habits is getting feedback, and actionable suggestions. Now in the world of sports this often comes from your coach. Your coach watches you play, gives you feedback and then suggests new actions. In the organizational world, this feedback can come from many places, if you seek it out.

Your boss, your peers, your team, your customers—each of them can tell you what they think you are doing well and what you can do better. It can be as simple as asking them to tell you one thing they think you are doing well and one thing you can do better each time you meet.

Yet most of us hesitate. We are unsure about how asking for feedback will make us look. Will it make us look weak? Or we may be unsure about our own ability to handle comments. Ironically though, asking for feedback is actually an act of strength, and others recognize us for it. And precisely because this is so rare, when we solicit feedback and then do things differently, we are able to demonstrate our ability to learn and grow.

The second habit of expert learners is the ability to ask good questions. An often underrated skill, you can use questions in at least two ways, each one guaranteed to develop your skills as a leader. The first is to ask questions to truly understand complex problems. By the time you are in senior leadership roles, your greatest skills come from your ability to understand and solve complex problems. Complex problems almost always involve many points of view. Being able to ask good questions is the first step in building multi-layered perspectives.

You can also use questions to help develop problem-solving skills in others. The best questions force the listener to think in ways they haven’t done before. By asking questions that provoke fresh insights and solutions in your team, you grow your skills as a leader, and you grow your team’s capabilities.

This leads to the third habit of expert learners, listening empathetically. Asking good questions gives you the foundation to listen empathetically. To listen empathetically is to give our undivided attention to what is being said. Note it does not mean you need to agree with what is being said. Listening empathetically builds relationships as the listener feels heard. It gives you the understanding needed to think of better solutions to problems. Later when you action these solutions, your understanding allows you mature implementation.

The culmination of these three habits is in being able to use the insights gained for fresh thinking and new leadership behaviours. Just as a sportsperson must use feedback and new understanding to try out a new swing or a new shot, so must the leader.

But all this becomes so much easier, almost automatic, if you are practising the three skills of an expert learner each day.

And in Naveen’s case, all feedback received suggested that he had in fact grown to be a more mature leader in the past two years. He had shown eagerness to keep learning and growing. A few months later, in what was now a minor leap of faith, he did become the new head of sales and marketing.

Shalini Lal is an organizational development and innovation consultant with more than 20 years of experience.

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