Don’t feel you have to be nice, but listening to your team’s experience pays dividends.
In an ever more globalised knowledge economy, success in business is increasingly dependent on how far leaders can keep on top of key developments in their industries. But even more importantly, success also depends on how committed leaders are to ensuring their employees engage as much with education as with their work.
This is because the old distinction between work and education is fading fast. Today, smart students build practical experience into their studies, and smart employees remain engaged with learning. Smart business leaders are aware of this and facilitate it.
So how can you build and lead a learning team that will also be a commercial success? Here are three key ingredients.
LEADING A LEARNING TEAM
The biggest challenge for a business leader is to avoid turning leadership into an ego trip. The key to success is listening to your team and making sure the various team members listen to each other.
This is not the same as seeking compromises all the time or being nice. It is about creating mutual respect and an understanding that the success of one individual is dependent on the success of others. So a leader will strive to replace office politics with solid team work. Learning together, and being engaged in innovation sessions, helps with bonding and creates a sense of shared objectives.
Sharing mistakes is a sign of trust and is the best form of both risk management and continuous learning. The best leaders are better at listening than speaking (or shouting), and they encourage progress rather than create fear. At the same time, they are transparent towards all team members about what the expectations are.
HAVING THE RIGHT ATTITUDE
When it comes to judging success, there is a classic debate about what comes first, shareholder value or stakeholder value? The truth is that the second will normally ensure the first.
While it is important to listen to employees, it is also vital to listen to clients and customers (even potential ones). A full understanding of what makes customers happy, and what they might value, is at the basis of any commercial success.
If you are able to anticipate what customers might want, not just now but also in the future, success is near enough guaranteed. This requires sensitivity and the right mind-set – not just from the leader, but from the senior team as a whole and thorough the organisation at all levels. Getting that message across internally, especially in larger organisations, tends to be the biggest challenge.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The trick to making success lasting is understanding reflective learning.
Reflective learning means that you use quite simple techniques to reflect on every action, especially failures or partial successes. What could we have done better?
Reflective learning is not just standing in front of the mirror, beating yourself up or, worse, staring at yourself in self-admiration. It is about getting structured feedback, either on an individual or team level.
It’s important to remember that there is rarely such a thing as failure, however – aside from covering up errors, denying them, or repeating the same mistakes. Reflective learning is about accepting that not everything can be 100 per cent successful.
Indeed, the real challenge is to learn from experience. Successful business is ultimately always a learning process. The better an organisation is at learning, the higher its commercial success will fly.
Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen is rector and chief executive of London School of Business and Finance.
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