I have interviewed hundreds of people about the impact of the leadership and management development programs in which they have participated. A consistent theme running through these interviews is the critical importance of a learning culture. For example, let's look at the case of Alice. She was on the fast track to move from mid level management to the executive ranks at Cutting Edge Technologies Inc. [Employee and company name have been changed to protect their identities.] Her last boss was very supportive of her career advancement and sponsored her participation in the company's leadership development program. In that program, she participated in a year-long series of three, five-day, off-site workshops and completion of a team project that she worked on during the time between workshops. However, her former boss, who was also her executive sponsor for this program, moved on to a new position and Alice's new boss did not see the same value in the time Alice was spending away from her regular job in his department. The new boss did not encourage her to continue involvement in the program. He didn’t ask any questions about the program and he didn’t engage her in any discussions about what she was learning. He made it difficult for her to leave for the five-day workshops. He did not give her an opportunity to apply her new knowledge and skills (e.g., team building) to her work in the department. Within a few months, Alice lost interest in the leadership development program. Gradually she stopped applying her new knowledge and skills.
Cutting Edge Technologies Inc. has a culture of training, not a culture of learning. Obviously, the company invests heavily in leadership development programs, but it does not invest in the factors that lead to important business results from the program. If the company had a learning culture, every executive would value the development of promising leaders. There would be support for managers to learn and to apply that learning on the job. If one executive moves on, the next executive who takes his/her place would have the same commitment to developing leaders and creating opportunities for this to happen.
A learning culture exists when learning and performance improvement are valued and supported throughout the organization. Learning and performance improvement are frequent topics of leaders’ speeches and writing. Employees at all levels are given the time and resources to acquire new knowledge and skills that will contribute to performance improvement. Employees are recognized and rewarded for learning and using that learning to achieve important business results for the organization. Leaders are recognized and rewarded for supporting the learning of their direct reports.
One manager told me that he estimated his company had invested over a million dollars in the development of his marketing team over the past year. This team was responsible for contributing to sales of multi-million dollar projects, so this substantial investment in their learning was probably appropriate. However, without a learning culture, there is a high risk that this million-dollar investment will be wasted. As we saw in Alice's situation, when learning is not woven into the fabric of organizational life, as executives change jobs, which happens frequently in fast growing companies, it is likely that employee development will not be sustained and significant business results from those interventions will not be achieved.