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Reviews & Reflections

Putting Learning in the Work

This is the phrase I’ve often used when urging leaders to be reflective, to be in a continuous learning mode, to accelerate their own development, and by extension, that of their organization.  It’s the inside-out approach to building an adaptive, aka, ‘learning organization’. My motivation for using this phrase is also fueled by my objection to how our society has made learning overly academic. The last 30 years of leadership development research has shown a minimal, long-term impact from a college degree or formal training upon the ability of a leader to influence and get results.  Having challenging experiences in the work, with the help of a coach and/or mentor, is much more impactful.

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There was a problem with my statement, though: outside of personal development, I couldn’t grasp what this might look like in a whole organization....until I read the 2016 breakthrough book from Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, “An Everyone Culture”.  Dr.’s Lahey and Kegan are Professors at the Harvard School of Graduate Education, and long-time writing partners, having published articles in the Harvard Business Review, as well as the books, “Immunity to Change” and “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work.”

The authors profile three learning organizations: Next Jump, an e-commerce company managing other companies’ employee incentive and perk programs; Decurion,a family-owned real estate and entertainment company; and Bridgewater Associates, a successful hedge fund manager.  All three companies have experienced sustained success in their industries. While the industries and cultures of these companies are different, Kegan and Lahey found common themes to the practices across the three companies and also showed how these practices, whether intentional or not, aligned with 30 years of research about the theory of adult development.  

While the book is rich with useful models and practices, Kegan and Lahey deftly organize the book into a three-part organizational framework that houses their findings and deep expertise in human development.  They describe three critical attributes common to the companies “Deliberately Developmental Organizations”: Edge, Home, and Groove.

Edge represents the application of developmental principles in a person, including that person’s aspirations and stage of mental development. These stages, or plateaus, follow the maturation

from the teen years to much later in life and mainly deal with how our minds handle complexity. In our teen and early adult years, we are learning the skills and norms of getting along with other people. When we reach this plateau of the “socialized mind”, we become good followers and team players.  What we don’t yet have is a self-authoring mind which allows us to take a stand, drive our own agenda, and begin to lead others. The dark side of this stage is an attitude of “My way or the highway” and the inability to see reality from other perspectives from our own. Thus, the third state of the “self-transforming mind” enables one to see the world from a meta-perspective, and tolerate the ambiguity of competing perspectives.  One might think of it as a strategic mind. (This frame is evocative of Stephen Covey’s Maturity Continuum from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: dependent /independent /interdependent).  Practically speaking, helping someone learn a new skill or body of knowledge can often require reaching a plateau for real growth to occur. For example, a middle manager in an organization will struggle with the transition to executive work, one filled with ambiguities and complexity, without having reached the “self-transforming mind”.  In each of the three companies, employees are challenged to be open to feedback, reveal their thinking, biases, and assumptions, so that they can move up and through these developmental plateaus.

Home represents the community in which the person works and/or resides, a community where there is no privilege in rank, where everyone receives and gives coaching and feedback, and everyone builds the culture.  This is represented in a powerful and simple mantra from NextJump: “Better Me + Better You = Better Us”. In all three organizations, senior leaders model the desired behaviors and build a culture of trust and candor. For example, Ray Dalio, Chairperson of the Board and Founder of Bridgewater Associates, speaks of a work culture where people strive for “meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical truth and radical transparency.”  At Bridgewater, all meetings are recorded, and all developmental feedback is public within the company. One story: Jim H, one of Ray’s direct reports, gave Ray this message in their public feedback system, “Ray, you deserve a ‘D-” for your performance today in the meeting ...you did not prepare at all because there is no way you could have and been that disorganized.”  Ray shares this story and also what it means to build an “idea meritocracy” in this Ted Talk.  

Groove is the set of formal practices and procedures that are built into the work routine and challenge people to develop as they work. In all three companies, if one can perform their current job exceedingly well, then they are ready for a new job.  The philosophy is that all jobs are developmental. An example of a formal development system is Bridgewater’s Dot Collector, where all feedback is publicly posted, and an algorithm analyzes these observations, giving each person a profile describing their thinking patterns, biases, strengths, and weaknesses-- for all to see. NextJump has “Talking Partners” a form of peer mentoring, where pairs meet daily over a company provided breakfast to discuss work issues, home issues, or just vent to “get the toxins out”.  Decurion routinely has business meetings in a “theater in the round”, where the direct reports and colleagues of leaders sit as an audience, observe the live meeting and give each meeting attendee live feedback as to whether they are helping or hindering decision-making.

In late 2016, my friend and colleague Patrick Donahue, VP of Learning and Leadership Development at Danaher Corporation, asked me if there was anything new in the area of Employee and Leadership Development. I answered, “Not really”. New leadership books are often time-honored wisdom in new packages. Experiential course design and action learning have taken hold in leadership programs.  Organizations revered for their succession management prowess spend an inordinate amount of their budgets on the relatively few “high potentials” in their organizations. Employees and leaders alike leave their jobs to get trained and/or developed in formal programs. Learning management systems in companies struggle to keep up with what’s generally available on the internet.  (The Italian course that I am taking from duoLingo for free far surpasses the quality of e-learning I experienced when I was an employee in corporate America not too long ago.)  Revelations from neuroscience research are helping to refine approaches to the learning processes above, but nothing was busting my paradigm about designing learning in organizations,... until I read this book.

So then I told Patrick,“I think Kegan and Lahey are onto something.”  They and the companies they have profiled have flipped the whole paradigm of traditional training and development.  Not just the privileged few get intense development, but everyone. People don’t leave work to get better. They get better because of the way they work. Training & development is not a drag on the bottom line; rather learning and getting results is the same bottom line.

William Fanelli