How executives learn

Making complex decisions

Executives and senior leaders have to make complex decisions all the time.  Their decision-making is often based on intuition and previous experiences, but what if these experiences are outdated in this more fast-paced and uncertain environment? New experiences and new skills are then needed, but how do executives learn?

Executives are highly paid and very successful and so almost by definition rarely experience failure.  The result is that they have never learned how to learn from failure and instead can revert to a defensive mindset and blame others, just at the point when they should be learning. The defensive thinking stems from a need to be in unilateral control, a desire to ‘win’ and to be as rational as possible, where their behaviour is evaluated by how well the stated objectives are met.

Being able to admit that ‘I don’t know’ is a first step. Recognising that you don’t have all the answers and do still need to learn is important, particularly hard but necessary in the realms of the high expectations of all your stakeholders around you. 

Many will then reach for a book or journal to ‘learn’ more, but there is a big difference between taking in more information and actually practicing it. Putting the learning into practice and changing behaviour is the key to making it useful and part of a new skill.

Leaders are very skilled at assessing issues and people, and as a result can become more guarded about learning from others. Developing a network of leaders and peers can provide a sounding-board or ‘critical friend’ support to explore the issues and learn from others.  Learning from others, peers or mentors, can help you tap into different experiences and alternative perspectives. 

Learning is a critical skill for leaders to continually update what they know, raise their performance to fulfil their potential and become the leader they should be. The first steps are being aware of your learning, recognise your expertise but also identify the areas where they may be gaps. Consider the impact of these gaps on the organisation and then very honestly assess how motivated you are to making the change and filling the gap.  What support or resources may you need to help you?  What barriers may you face and how will you get over these?

Finally, practice the new skill, welcome feedback, and work with discipline on the feedback to achieve mastery. Take the time to reflect, to analyse and understand why you made that business decision rather than just looking how effective it was.  Start or continue your learning journey to learn new skills and demonstrate them on a day-to-day basis so that it becomes second nature in your leadership.