I wrote this article in early February 2020, when the workplace commonly was a place almost all of us went to work, where we were continuously in close contact with others one and one, and, in small and large groups. As I was about to publish it online I decided instead to file it away as an unpublished article. I reasoned that people on the ground did need access to timely education and information but would be so overwhelmed with all the Covid-19 learning and coping, that they would not be open to this article, Always Learning, at this time. And so I wrote and published two other articles that I thought would be more timely: “ Ten Self-Care Requirements for Supervisors in Today’s Virtual Work Environment: Supervision in the Age of Coronavirus” and “Supervising in the Age of Coronavirus; a 12 Step program” Subsequently I produced webinars on both articles.
In writing the articles and producing the webinars, I realized that “Always Learning” and Learning Environments are germane to these times, and much needed. There is much to learn now, to adapt to the new normal and much to learn in the weeks, and months, and years ahead. And so, I pulled the February draft from my desktop, re-read it, and revised it as appropriate to take into consideration, social distancing, working from home and working onsite.
“No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks” and “School‘s out forever” are some of the lyrics to Alice Cooper’s song “School’s Out”. There was a time in my life and probably yours too when we looked forward to school being over, to being done with education. Well, I have some bad news and good news for you. The bad news is that school is not out; it’s never out. You may or may not ever be in a classroom again, but you must continue learning. The good news is that school is not out; it’s never out. You may or may not ever be in a classroom again but continuous learning will make you a better supervisor. Don’t take my word for it. Management guru, Peter Drucker (2006, page 194) says “…every enterprise [organization] is a learning and teaching institution. Training and development must be built into it on all levels – training and development must never stop”. Commit to Always Learning and be a learning environment of one, or a part of a larger one.
A Learning Environment can be as small as one or as large as everyone or some number/mix in between. If there is no formal support for a learning environment in your organization you can take responsibility for Always Learning and be a one person learning environment (and if you share what you are doing with others, your group might grow). If you are a supervisor, you can influence your department or portion of it, to become become a learning environment (and if you and your team share what you are doing with others, you might find your learning environment expanding). If you are the CEO or a senior staff member or have the support of them, the entire organization could become a learning environment. Caveat: I recall times in my career, when organizational belt-tightening was necessary, oftentimes, the first item to be cut, slashed, or eliminated, was education and training. I advise caution in cutting this line item and caution against eliminating it. Such behavior in my mind, is penny wise and pound foolish.
The Need for a Learning Environment – Change Is Inevitable
To that old saying “the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes”, I would add there is a third certainty in life, change. Life at work will change. Instead of being a victim of it, by Always Learning, you can be ahead of it; you can shape it, maybe even control it. Spencer Johnson in his book “Who Moved my Cheese” (Johnson, 2002, page 74) says “Change happens; anticipate change; monitor change; adapt to change quickly; change; enjoy change; be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again”. He also warns us (2002, Page 46) “If you do not change, you can become extinct.”
Change will be a fact of everyday work life and life itself, this year, next year, and for years to come. With advances in technology, the pace of change will quicken. So, be prepared. Always be a learner and help others learn too! I offer four resources for Always Learning:
Read to Learn
Reading is the easiest, most convenient, and least costly resource available for your continuing education and growth in the job or to positions of increased responsibility. There are no tuition or registration fees, and it can be done at the time most convenient for you. While I recommend building your own personal library (hard copy and electronic), if your personal finances won’t allow for that, there is always the public library. If your library does not carry the book you want, ask the librarian to search other libraries for you and arrange an interlibrary transfer. Your employer may already have a staff lending library, and if not, perhaps might start one if asked. If it is within your decision making authority, you can start an office library, suggests purchases, even invite staff to suggest purchases. Staff could be invited to donate or loan some of their personal books. Besides books, journal subscriptions are relatively inexpensive and can be shared among staff (coordinate subscriptions with different people subscribing to different journals and sharing them). In all my positions, I was fortunate that the organization valued reading as a learning and growth resource, providing a budget for books and journals. I always invited staff to recommend selections and sometimes allowed individual employees a dollar limit per year for book/journal purchases (with a rule that there would not be duplicate purchases). You can add book titles, perhaps a gift card to a bookstore or Amazon books, and journal subscriptions, to your holiday gift list for family and friends. As well, on holidays or for special occasions I would give books to my direct reports.
Book/journal clubs are great. They could be voluntary or mandatory. Both are effective. Voluntary clubs frequently meet over a brown bag lunch in a quiet room and discuss a book (or chapter of a book) that all read. In this time of Covid-19 these clubs could just as easily be virtual clubs meeting on such gathering platforms as Zoom. The group chooses the book (job related). Mandatory clubs can operate the same way but since management allow work time, management might assign the selection, perhaps related to an issue or topic at work (like working remotely, self-care, using virtual technology). In some work situations I would rotate among staff having one person responsible for doing a one page book report or summary of an article or book chapter and circulate the summary to co-workers at least three workdays before the club meeting which takes place the last twenty minutes of the monthly staff meeting (again, this could be an agenda item for virtual staff meetings). The person providing the report/summary would lead the discussion and all would be expected to read the material in advance.
Whether or not you participate in an office book/journal club, read on your own. If you read for even ten to 15 minutes a day, over the years, you will be quite well read. If you used a portion of your lunch or coffee breaks, daily or a few times a week, this would easily be possible. You could do this reading on your own time (just ten to fifteen minutes a day, more if you choose). “[Successful people] believe that books are a gateway to learning and knowledge “If reading as a pathway to success isn’t enough to get you motivated, consider these health benefits of reading: Reading has been shown to help prevent stress, depression, and dementia, while enhancing confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction” (Merle, 2016, page 1).
How do you decide what to read? I recommend it be purposeful. Set work related learning goals. Part of your daily reading should be connected to those goals. Write them down and share them with another person (peer, supervisor, and/or, family member). Ideally, and with the approval of you supervisor, include them in you own annual evaluation and those of your direct reports. That which is evaluated, is more likely to get done. Writing them down as a part of your annual review, or just for your own keeping, increases the likelihood of achieving them. This is more than just my opinion; it is fact. Dr. Gail Matthews (Matthews, G. 2007, “The impact of commitment, accountability, and written goals on goal achievement paper” presented at the 87th Convention of the Western Psychological Association, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.) conducted a study and found that just by writing goals down you were 42 percent more likely to achieve them. Further, she found that those who wrote down the goals, wrote down action steps to achieve the goals, and shared the goals and steps, were likely to achieve as much as 76% of their goals. Set goals as part of your annual review. On your own, directed by your supervisor, or a combination of the two, settle upon written goals which will inform your decisions about topics for your reading. In addition to choosing reading material related to your goals, you should choose reading material related to circumstances as they occur or are anticipated to occur at work. This Covid-19 Pandemic time should be a source for reading now and for years to come as we all need to learn to adjust to the “New Abnormal”. I highly recommend for your reading, the Resilience Series, a collaborative effort of the authors of Changemakers Books, developed in response to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. The series consists of ten short, easy to read books that will be a tremendous resource in our work, community and home lives in this Covid-19 pandemic environment and the post Covid-19 world of life and work. I hope you find it to be as helpful as I did.
CLICK TO READ NOW
Listen to Learn
Listen to what others say to you and each other. Listen to what they say and what they do. Be inquisitive and ask questions of employees, co-workers. You can learn from others’ successes and failures if you observe and listen. The workplace can be a gold mine of learning so mine it. In this Covid-19 work from home and social distancing work environment everyone needs to be learning, and much of that is learning on the go, on the job. So, when communicating virtually, listen to what others are saying and learn, and share what you are learning with your team members, so they can learn from you. Ignore it at your own peril. The workplace and the world are changing so do not be left behind.
Do you commute to work? This time can be very productive. Use some of your commuting time to listen to self-help and management books. Select them in the same way I suggested selecting reading material in #1 above. You can buy CDs, check them out of the library, borrow them from work if they have any (ask your supervisor to add some to the work library), request titles as holiday gifts and share among co-workers.
Other resources include online learning, workshops, lectures and trade shows, professional meetings or convocations (many of which have been cancelled or postponed just now, but will likely be back with social distancing adjustments, and/or, virtually, and of course, online certificate/degree programs. Most often, there will be costs associated with these choices. Perhaps your employer will pay some or all the cost. Your own personal membership or organizational membership in a professional organization may entitle you to free or reduced fees for some offerings. Frequently there are planned networking events at professional gatherings where you can meet peers and exchange knowledge with them. If there are no formal networking opportunities there are always informal opportunities at breaks, during meal-times, in between, before, or after sessions. Degree programs will be the most expensive but might be a worthwhile and necessary investment in your future. They will necessitate a significant time commitment necessitating adjusting time use at work and in your personal life. Both Linkedin and Facebook host interest groups. You can search both platforms for interest groups on management, leadership, supervision, coaching, self-care, and more. Such groups provide a forum to ask questions, share information and read informative topical articles. Oftentimes, people post information on low and no cost trainings and webinars. I belong to multiple leadership, supervisory and management groups on both platforms and enjoy and learn from the give and take postings. As with your choice of the other learning resources covered above, these choices should be made in relation to your professional goal setting to maintain your skills and broaden skills and knowledge, keep up with and shape change, and opportunities for advancement. In the current uncertain Covid-19 time, with many people working from home and social distancing, online learning, linkedin/facebook discussion groups and independent reading, are excellent avenues for learning and a useful distraction in these stressful times.
Use Mentors or Coaches to Learn
Utilize the services of a management mentor and coach. Many coaches and mentors, especially in this Covid-19 time, offer an initial consultation free. Be aware that there is a difference between the two though both share a similar goal of improving the person being coached/mentored. There is a wealth of information on the internet differentiating the two.
A professional coach is a person, outside the organization, employed by the organization to assist the employee in acquiring a particular skill, or piece of knowledge that will improve the employee’s performance in that job. It is generally for a short period of time (days and weeks, maybe months). Skills might include memo writing, public speaking, or conflict resolution. The coach is recognized as expert in the particular skill he/she is engaged to teach.
The mentor is a senior management person, most often an employee of the same organization recognized as a successful manager/executive in his/her personal and professional life. The mentor is a longer term role, generally nine months or longer and emphasizes building a trust relationship between the mentor and mentee. The mentor emphasizes the mentee’s development for the future in the organization and beyond. The mentor assists the mentee with such matters as building self-confidence, work/life balance, understanding impact of personal life on work and vice versa, and self-perception.
Some of the confusion between the two roles is that a mentor can also serve as a coach and a coach can serve as a mentor. For the first time supervisor, he/she would likely be more in need of the assistance of a coach to help improve on existing skills needed for the job and learn new skills or knowledge needed for the current job. Frequently, a new or junior supervisor does not have the resources to pay for a coach and so looks to a senior staff member to be their mentor but one who would provide the needed coaching. Increasingly, organizations are implementing formal mentoring programs, but if they don’t (or even if they do), you can ask a senior person to facilitate your growth and help acquire and/or improve specific skills. For more information and resources about mentors and coaches visit these websites: International Mentoring Association www.mentoringassociation.org; ICF International Coaching Federation www.coachfederation.org/
Share With and Teach Others to Learn
Share with your direct reports what knowledge and skills you have and acquire. Ken Blanchard (2015, page 92) says it best “…if you find it useful, you will share it with others”. Don’t be selfish and keep knowledge to yourself. If your team fails it will reflect on you. If it succeeds it will reflect on you, favorably. So be a coach and mentor to your subordinates. Use what you know and are good at to help them. If you are good at a particular skill but another employee in your department is better, have that employee be the coach for that skill. Coaching others yourself and asking others to be a coach, will improve the functioning of the department, enhance your image among your staff, building respect and trust. In the process, not only will your employees learn and grow, so will you, resulting in you being better at what you do and better at teaching your employees (it becomes a good vicious cycle of learn, share, learn, and so on and so on, Always Learning).
In supervision, identify and build on employee’s strengths. Make Always Learning part of the annual personal goal setting process for each employee. Support their requests for learning and encourage, even mandate, that they avail themselves of the learning resources identified in items 1 through 3 above. If there is a budget for it, give books/journals as gifts or rewards. I have given books on self-care, management, and leadership to my senior staff at Holiday time. Occasionally I have recommended specific books or journals to an employee at annual review time, and sometimes even given a book as a gift that I thought would help them work on a particular goal.
Creating and supporting an Always Learning Organization is as much a part of the supervisor’s job (Drucker, 2006, page 181) as hiring, firing, giving work direction and evaluating. If the above resources are utilized widely you and others will notice it. Yours will be a very positive, cooperative, collaborative work environment, the kind of workplace people will be reluctant to leave and the kind of place others will want to work – an Always Learning Organization. The good news is school is not out, it is never out.
For more information about Always Learning in the workplace read Chapter 11 in my book “Being a Supervisor 1.0” .For more information on Leadership, articles, webinars and useful resources for supervisors visit my website at: http://cantstopleading.com