Are You a Lifelong Learner?

As Professional Problem Solvers (PPS), consultants thrive in environments where they have to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity, develop a structured way to gather the information they need to efficiently and effectively solve the business challenge, and quickly drive towards a solution. Consultants are lifelong learners who draw parallels between industries and complex situations, customize and adapt frameworks (and in some cases, build their own), and find have a number of go-to resources that they use to build their knowledge and skills across functions and industries.

A March, 2016 Harvard Business Review article Learning to Learn summarizes the importance of learning in a world where business models are constantly changing, new technologies are developing, and consumer preferences are shifting. The article cites business theorist Arie de Geus’ claim that, “the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” This not only represents a competitive advantage for businesses, but also can be a differentiator for the people who form the backbone of these companies. Pushing boundaries, exploring opportunities, and acquiring new capabilities — all while performing your job — enable you to grow and continue to add evolving expertise to your company, community, and clients. The article cites four key learning attributes — (1) Aspiration, (2) Self-Awareness, (3) Curiosity, and (4) Vulnerability — that enable us to continue to reflect, adapt, and advance across our learning curve.

1. Aspiration: Learning is an Ongoing Journey

As a change management consultant, I see resistance all the time. It is far too common, and indeed, natural for people to focus on the negative aspects of change. Why do we have to do this? Won’t this take too long? Aren’t things fine as they currently are? Don’t they realize this will never work? Aspirational learners focus first on the positives — how the efforts to learn new knowledge and skills will lead to a brighter future. Flipping the script and focusing on the anticipated long-term benefits and results rather than the short-term losses of time and practice can help drive results. In change management, we refer to this as building the awareness and desire to change. We can it the WIIFM — what’s in it for me — and this becomes a critical component of our messaging. Unlocking the WIIFM can be a powerful motivator and a reminder that short-term pain can lead to longer term gain. Being an aspirational learner can help you overcome initial barriers and build a more agile learning curve.

2. Self-Awareness: Reflecting on Your Gaps

Author Erika Anderson shares in the article, “that the people who evaluate themselves most accurately start the process inside their own heads: They accept that their perspective is often biased or flawed and then strive for greater objectivity, which leaves them much more open to hearing and acting on others’ opinions.” Part of ongoing learning is identifying your blind spots and reflecting on your gaps. Being open to continuous improvement and feedback, rather than being defensive can help you and your team advance. Interrogating your own assumptions and perspectives and reverse engineering how people arrived at their feedback for you can help you grow faster. Once you identify your blind spots and gaps, you’ll find yourself more open to feedback and better able to implement it.

We sometimes make excuses to protect our ego, when we should be digging into the feedback more. Feedback is just one person’s perspective based on a snapshot, or snapshots in time. It is worth reflecting on how they reached that perspective and testing that perspective to validate it. Being mindful of feedback can help you spotlight your blind spot(s) and build a plan to address them.

3. Curiosity: Asking the Right Questions

Its been fascinating watching my nearly one year old daughter fidget with things, experiment with her toys, and piece things together. As we grow older, many of us lose that sense of wonder and curiosity. People who retain that curiosity ask questions and try something until we can do it or understand it. They find ways to make things more interesting — perhaps tinkering with the process, or setting a goal. Curiosity is a language and constant learners find themselves asking how, why, what and then actively seek the answers. In consulting, having that sense of curiosity and asking the right questions can often unlock a host of answers. Being able to approach a problem or process with how, why, when, what, who and focusing on results can help you achieve better outcomes. Like a scientist, you follow a method, form a hypothesis, and may be able to sharpen and evaluate that hypothesis as you capture more information.

4. Vulnerability: Establishing a Growth Mindset

Vulnerability and fear are closely linked and as we gain expertise and proficiency in other areas, we often become less likely to admit that it takes time to become good at something. Balanced vulnerability is the mindset that you may not be good at something immediately (and that is ok), and with practice you will get better. Carol Dweck, famous for her research on the growth mindset, has highlighted how brain elasticity enables you to grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds transmission of impulses. Brene Brown, whose research on vulnerability should be read by all advancing and aspiring consultants, has written that perfectionism hampers achievement because it leads to analysis paralysis, missed opportunities, and is correlated with addiction, anxiety, and depression. This fear of not meeting expectations keeps us from striving forward. Brown goes on to write that this self-destructive behavior creates unattainable goals.

There is power in admitting vulnerability. I think I have been at my most authentic self and received the best feedback from my team when I showed vulnerability by admitting that something was not my strength or that I did not have an answer for a particular situation. Admitting this opens a door for peers, and even more junior people to step up, offer feedback, and help you grow. It also enables you to identify strengths on your team and help your team perform at a higher level. When I was vulnerable enough to admit to my team that slides and design were not my strength and that several slides that I developed might make the team’s eyes bleed, the team responded good naturedly and became more open with offering feedback. Several junior members with a keen eye for details even took the lead in updating the slides. Not only did this admission earn the team’s trust, it also enabled several more junior members to step into the limelight and shine, enabled me to learn a few design best practices, and ultimately strengthened the final product for the client. There’s no shame in that!

The ability to adapt and gain knowledge and skills quickly and continuously will help you advance in consulting (and really, any career). Recognizing that learning is part of an ongoing journey, being aware of your strengths and limitations, asking questions, and being willing to be vulnerable will help you become more than just a good consultant, it’ll help you become a lifelong learner.

Evan specializes in change management and is the author of Case In Point: Government and Nonprofit.

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Evan Piekara

Evan specializes in change management and is the author of Case In Point: Government and Nonprofit.