What do driving, tying your shoes
and leadership development have in common? More than you might expect. How much
better are you at driving than you were five years ago? Think about it for a
minute, I will wait… Embarrassing, huh? If you are typical, your driving skills
will not change much between the ages of 25 and 65. We do something for 40
years and don’t get any better at it!
Do your shoes ever come untied? You look down, the laces
are flopping and you have to stop and retie them. If so, you are not alone.
Between one-half to two-thirds of people do not tie their shoes right. A
correctly tied shoelace will not come untied as you are walking. So why are so
many people spending precious time attending to errant shoe laces?
How did you learn to be a leader? Successful executives told the Center
for Creative Leadership that they learned the most from experience --
especially stretch assignments, hardships and mistakes -- and that they prefer
to learn this way. But executives and HR professionals say they are not
satisfied with the quantity or quality of their organization’s leaders even
though it is where they spend the bulk of their development dollars.
New Understanding About How We Learn
These three problems all stem from the same root cause --
the way we learn. All expertise -- from baseball to brain surgery – comes from
physical changes in the structure and functions of the brain. These changes in
your brain allow you to process thoughts, actions, and decisions so quickly and
easily that you aren’t even aware of it – you do it on auto-pilot. Automatic
processing makes performance effortless – but, skills on auto-pilot never
improve. That is why you aren’t any better at driving than you were 5 years
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. In the last 10
years, new research has produced an explosion of understanding on how people
build skills and reach the highest levels of performance -- and, why most of us
never come close to achieving the potential that is easily within our grasp.
Basically, we build expertise in three sequential stages that I call -- Facts,
Skills, and Wisdom. Learning is most efficient and effective when development
activities match our stage of learning and are in sync with the way our brain
Common Problems in Workplace Learning
What does this mean for driving, shoe tying and leadership
development? These three examples highlight common problems with learning and
performance improvement in the workplace.
Just like driving, performance in any endeavor will stall on auto-pilot
(and eventually decline) unless you purposefully make an effort to improve.
Effective learning requires an expert teacher, not an
expert doer. If you tie your shoes wrong, it is because someone failed to teach
you how to do it correctly. Don’t blame your mom -- auto-pilot makes it
difficult for experts to share what they know with new learners.
You learn leadership (or anything) from experience because
stretch assignments and new jobs force you off auto-pilot – you must learn or
fail. But learning on-the-job mixes stages 1 and 3 learning and skips stage 2
altogether. Trying to learn facts, build skills and use them at the same time
is, at best, slow and inefficient. At worst, it puts skills on auto-pilot
incorrectly. (If you’ve been tying your shoes wrong since you were 5 years old,
what else could you be doing wrong that you don’t know about yet?)
Learn and Improve Performance Faster
Relatively minor changes to your development plans can
bypass the limitations on learning and performance improvement that come from
the natural process of learning.
- Avoid a performance plateau by continuously
stretching yourself just a little beyond your current level of
ability. Always have one area of performance that you are working on
- Use expert teachers to help you create your
development plans, provide you with basic information and show you how
to practice skills before you start to use them. Ask mentors and
supervisors (expert doers) for advice when you are in the final stage of
learning – building wisdom with experience and reflection.
- Sequence your development plans to work with the three
stages of learning. The first stage -- learning the basic facts -- is
best accomplished with classroom or formal learning; the second stage
requires practice of fundamental skills (something we don’t really do at
all in workplace learning); and the final stage – building wisdom and deep
expertise – comes from using skills on the job and thinking about how to
Most importantly -- learn how to learn. Let’s face it; you
are responsible for your own development. If you understand just a little about
how the brain works, you can learn faster (as much as five times faster),
achieve higher, and avoid the stagnation of auto-pilot. Plus, never retie your