Become a Better Learner

by Ron Potter

photo-1444653389962-8149286c578aThat’s the headline from a Harvard Business Review article I read today.  Being a better and continual learner is one of the strong indicators of great leaders.  All great leaders are great learners.  But the first line of the article is what captured my interest even more.  It said:

“Staying within your comfort zone is a good way to prepare for today but a terrible way to prepare for tomorrow.”

Now that is a wonderful line.

I’ve worked with Dr. Dan Denison for a number of years.  Dan created the Denison Culture Survey which in my experience is still the best culture survey on the market today.  But it was something Dan said years ago that has always captured my interest.  Dan is an amateur race car driver and he really enjoys the sport.  During one conversation he said “If you’re always in control as go around the track you’re not going fast enough to win.”  Race winners are always out of control at some point during the circuit.

None of us likes to be out of control or out of our comfort zone for long.  But personal learning and growth or even winning races require that we step out of that comfort zone or reach beyond our control at least some of the time.

One of the advancements we’ve all seen taking place the last few years is in “big data”.  By analyzing huge amounts of data new learnings are beginning to emerge that were just impossible to see in the past.  It’s amazing to me how IBM’s Watson is now being applied to medical situations and other environments to help the experts in the field see new information or see new patterns in the old information.  However, I’ve also seen a dangerous pattern in corporate leadership that assumes more data and information will help leaders make more informed and better decisions about the future.  Let me cycle back to the quote that started this post:

“Staying within your comfort zone is a good way to prepare for today but a terrible way to prepare for tomorrow.”

More data may help us prepare for and react better today, but we still need to get out of our comfort zone and let go of complete control to make good decisions about tomorrow.  Making decisions about tomorrow requires a different skill set than making decisions about today.

You may be better skilled on one side of this equation or the other.  Often I see partnerships where the Chief Operating Officer is good at making today’s decisions, the Chief Executive Officer is good at anticipating the future.  Corporate Controllers are good at making today’s decisions, Chief Financial Officers are good at preparing for the future.  I can think of this combination at almost every level of the organization.  So how do you build both skills into the organization?  TEAM.  Building great teams that are good at all aspects of today and tomorrow and learning how to balance the needs of the company are the winners in the end.  Sometimes you just need to get out of your comfort zone or let things get out of control for a moment to win!

Which side of this equation do you fall on?  Who have your partnered or teamed with that helps balance your comfort zone or need for control?


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