I just returned from the Million Dollar Consulting® Convention in Boston where consultants, doing fascinating work all over the world, gathered to learn. Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting, brought outstanding speakers to the stage. This year, Chip Bell, author of 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service, as well as Noah Fleming, Dorie Clark, and Kevin Berchelmann were among them.

I learn best from those who share ideas and information using a positive tone; one that encourages me to think differently. Conversely, I find trickery, one-ups-man-ship, and smugness is antithetical to an open mind. I can’t shift without significant effort and, frankly, don’t want to.

Reflecting on my learning process, I was reminded that my work involves constant learning. However, leaders often come to me when they are in rough water or full-on crisis so learning isn’t on their minds.

A CEO who is in conflict with the board isn’t in a reflective mode. Click To Tweet

Neither is a CEO who acquired the ‘dream’ company only to find that things are rotten or a leader whose company just tripped over their own insular thinking. These leaders are not calling for help because they want to reflect and learn. They are knee deep in water and need to plug the holes and bail, not look at new, fancy motors.

When Wells Fargo’s troubles in their retail business came to light, the response came in an agonizingly predictable manner. Denial, minimization, scapegoating and only when insurmountable evidence was revealed, apology. It was as unconvincing as most mealy-mouthed, public relations colored efforts are. When John Stumpf testified before Congress, he seemed genuinely clueless about the magnitude of their troubles. It reminded me of the remark of Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Who can forget his comment? Hayward said, “I just want my life back.”

Crises are difficult, unpleasant and even traumatic. Once a crisis ends, relief is the dominant emotion. Oftentimes the collective fatigue leads an organization to resume their previous mode of operating, not necessarily out of ignorance but from sheer exhaustion. The idea of hanging around to reflect upon the situation is not appealing. Yet reflection is exactly what is needed!

Leaders need a cognitive clutch. An intentional break in the action. Not just in a crisis or following a crisis, but all the time. To shift from autopilot to manual control takes brainpower. The decision process that works for a leader 98% of the time may be all wrong during a crisis or when the stakes are high and a crisis is a possibility.

Marshall Goldsmith’s famous saying, “What got you here won’t get you there” is popular for a reason. We all recognize its truth. Sadly, most people think it applies to someone else. That’s because we find it so hard to shift, even when we see the need. The most damaging barrier to the ability to shift is blindness caused by overconfidence. Perhaps Stumpf and Hayward suffered from this, as have many a leader whose company value takes a hit following a merger or acquisition.

What works? Two things.

First, constant learning. A mindset of real-time, in the moment learning that enables us to make adjustments to our thinking and decision-making yields far better results than the belief that we’ve “got it.” This is why continuous exposure to situations that challenge us is good for our thinking, decision-making and probably our brains.

Second, vulnerability. The willingness to say, “I didn’t know that,” is not only helpful for oneself but provides a role model for others. I often suggest that leaders “learn in public” as a way to ensure that others will speak up when they don’t have needed information or don’t understand.

The mere idea that learning is a good thing is woefully insufficient to make it happen. Here are a few ways to create opportunities to learn:

  1. Read. That bears repeating – read.
  2. Pay attention. What are you ignoring? What might you see if you paid attention to what you consider unworthy of your attention?
  3. Ask “what if?”
  4. Take breaks from your routine. If you don’t have sufficient energy to press the clutch, you might just drive off the road.
  5. Do not allow your calendar to be full – learn to say “no.”
  6. Daydream.

What are you doing to create an environment of learning in your business? What are you doing to create an environment in which you will learn? Let me know in the comments.

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