Published by Tim Parkman

How to apply the ‘obligation to be curious’.

by Nathan Smith, The National Business Review, SPECIAL REPORT: EXECUTIVE EDUCATION

Lifelong learning isn’t the same as keeping up with The Economist, and it’s not about packing one’s mind full of information like a computer, either. 

The human mind consumes knowledge similarly to the way the body eats food. And just as overeating can increase a person’s clothing size over time, knowledge gluttony can make one’s brain “fat” as well. Any learning, therefore, requires the added mental equivalent of exercise, which is often the tough part. 

Raechel Ford, director of professional coaching provider ilume, says education isn’t about what a person knows, it’s about how they know. And that means people need to grow “bigger minds,” along with a deeper knowledge base. 

“It’s not just about the soft skills, or learning how to interact with people better. That’s part of it but more important is taking someone with all their hard-worked skills and building new ways for them to think. It’s about multiplying perspectives of the world to give a person a broader outlook on life,” she says. 

Being stacked up with knowledge, she says, is like a heavy backpack – it doesn’t help the person walk any faster. She says this reflects the two major forms of development: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal development is when information is transferred, while vertical development is the application of information. If the two don’t complement, the expensive education can be all for nought. 

Education as team sport 
Institute of Directors chief executive Kirsten Patterson says that’s why lifelong learning – and development in general should be a team sport.

“It’s essential for directors to constantly learn. They have an obligation to be curious. One of the great skills of a director is to be aware of the world, to be scanning and exploring new ideas for how they can grow great New Zealand businesses,” Ms Patterson says. 

With a team behind and in front of them, a person can calibrate what they might pick up in professional education courses and tease out the most appropriate concepts to practise and exercise with. But exactly what an executive should practice requires honesty from peers. 

“It’s essential for directors to constantly learn. They have an obligation to be curious.” Raechel Ford

“Self-awareness is incredibly important, and often people who take courses have self-identified a desire to up-skill and to continually improve. But we do need to get better at having adult conversations with each other, and these always need to come from a position of authenticity.
“We need to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses so we can approach these from a position of genuinely wanting the corporate boat to go faster. It’s about creating an environment in which lifelong learning is part of what we do every day. When it is part of a workplace culture, those honest conversations about what a person should do next are phrased in a positive context, as opposed to being performance management,” she says. 

In martial arts, when a person achieves their black belt, a whole new journey opens. A black belt is simply a recognition that the student knows the basics – as is the presentation of a university or course degree. Ms Ford says the important thing is to find a way to apply their new-found knowledge and exercise it.

“A lot of people get the opportunity to develop by someone offering it to them. But the other factor is frustration. People are concerned about being stuck where they are and failing to advance,” she says.

“They say they’ve done a lot of learning, been assessed up to their eyeballs on competencies but there’s something missing. Nine out of ten times, courses to develop leadership skills are what they were lacking. That’s what they tell us.” 

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