Executive Learning: You Shouldn’t Stop at the Top

Corporate learning is often held as a gold standard within an organization, yet it has the tendency to play second fiddle to other priorities that seem more pressing. This is frequently the case with leaders, such that ongoing executive-level learning and development aren’t seen as critical and therefore aren’t given high priority. But it’s wrong-headed to assume that executives know all they need to know for their entire tenure. In fact, this mindset can diminish an organization’s success potential.

It’s time to embrace the fact that learning and development are just as important for business leaders and executives as they are for other employees. What’s more, committing to continuous learning at all levels can help organizations gain (or keep) a competitive advantage.

Why Corporate Learning is Growing

Today’s business environment has made learning and development even more necessary. 

With the rapid shift to remote work on a widespread scale, employees at all levels have had to quickly adjust to new technologies and methods. Working remotely also requires different ways of communicating, putting a spotlight on what are often considered “soft skills”—things like interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.

As the analysts at Deloitte Insights have noted, the challenge for learning and development teams now is to prepare for what’s referred to as a “super learning future.” Deloitte defines this as one that’s centered on skills and capabilities at the individual, team and organization levels. This will require a new approach, and it requires executive participation. LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report found that, while 83 percent of learning and development pros said executive buy-in wasn’t a challenge, only 27 percent of CEOs were active champions of learning. It’s important for managers and leaders to model learning from the top down.

Why Executive-Level Learning is Important

It can be far too easy to rest on one’s laurels, so to speak, once you’ve reached the executive level. For those who reach the top echelons of their organization, there’s a temptation to think there’s nothing left to learn. But learning and development initiatives shouldn’t stop before the top; executives also need to be continuously learning and gaining new training.

Otherwise, that “resting” can become intellectual stagnation. 

Consider the case of elite athletes—just because they’ve reached the top doesn’t mean they stop training. They know there is always room for growth, for practicing the things you’re learning, for trying new methods and approaches. For senior executives looking to move further up the corporate ladder, gaining new skills and leadership training can be a major part of their own career development, as well.

When executives are involved in corporate learning, another positive result is the impact it can have on the rest of the organization. For example, when executives get involved in creating and curating content, it can help drive employee engagement, too. It’s the “practicing what you preach” phenomenon that demonstrates authentic leadership and makes others want to follow your example. 

Focus on the Future

Soft skills are essential to being a good leader; they are more than just “nice to haves.” As mentioned above, this is key for executives’ own career development paths, as well as key for their current roles. Having a plan and a competency framework in place helps ensure executive learning happens on a regular basis in alignment with corporate goals and initiatives.

A good framework clearly lays out career steps for leaders at each level and the competencies required at each step. These competency frameworks are associated with different levels within an organization. Many organizations do not have this clear training path in place, but it’s the foundation of a strong learning and development program. 

Having a clear training path establishes exactly what is needed in terms of training, but that’s not enough. You also need to allocate the budgets for training in your organization, but that’s still not enough. You need to take it a level further. You need to actually build it into your organization’s compensation plans.

Many of today’s incentive models look back retroactively at an employee’s achievements and decide to reward them for that. It’s not wrong to do this; it’s just not a future-focused model. With respect to training and continuous learning, you need to look forward. You need to prepare people for what’s coming in the next year, and the next year, and the year after that. This model rewards training being completed in anticipation of what’s to come, instead of back at the past.

Learning Leaders as a Success Strategy 

Much of the current discussion on corporate learning centers around a lack of skills and feels targeted to entry and midlevel positions. It’s not that this assessment is incorrect; it’s just not the whole picture. Continuous learning at the executive level is often overlooked or assumed to be unnecessary. After all, if people have made it into the C-suite, don’t they already know all they need to know to be successful?

Legions of direct reports would disagree. Remember, most of the time, people leave managers, not companies. If someone makes it to the executive level by force of their subject matter expertise but has not developed their soft skills, that person—and their team—is in for a rough ride. Organizations must support the success of all employees, and that includes their executives. This includes encouraging—even incentivizing—executives to take part in continuous learning initiatives. Such activity encourages their teams to stay engaged in learning and pays dividends for the business down the road. 

As CEO of LMS365, Lars Vestergaard has built strong momentum in providing effective digital learning to learners across the globe. Lars has over 20 years of experience in leading management positions at various international IT companies including IBM and Timextender.