What Great Bosses Know about Learning

Bosses are expected to know a lot. The smartest ones keep learning. That’s why we published five resolutions for aspiring great bosses to keep in 2010 and my subsequent columns and podcasts are sharing tips to help you with each resolution.

So far, we’ve covered doubling your feedback, leading strategically, and doing a systems check. Now it’s time for: learn something new and scary. The scariest part, at least at first, may be finding space on your packed calendar to add in “feed my brain.” But unless you schedule it, it won’t happen.

Here are some things to help you decide what new and scary topic(s) to tackle:

1. Mind the gap. Adults choose to learn when they perceive a gap between where they are and where they want to be. They want learning that helps them solve a problem, avoid a mistake, or reach a goal. Sometimes our bosses give us feedback that identifies our “gaps” — but smart managers don’t wait to hear they’re lacking in some skill. They’re on the lookout for opportunities to grow. They identify their gaps and act on them.

2. Be selective. With limited time for learning but many options for topics, how should you set priorities? I suggest you start a little selfishly. What do YOU long to learn? What would make you happiest and most motivated to take on the work? Next, what would your employees want you to learn? What knowledge would help you help them? What gaps of yours cause extra work for them? Think like a Venn diagram — look for the spot where all those interests intersect and it may help you choose.

3. Learn YOUR way. Each of us has a preferred way of learning. To demonstrate that, I often ask members of a management seminar group to tell me how they learned to use a brand new cell phone. Their replies always vary. Some read the manual. Some ignored the manual and jumped right in, using trial and error. Some asked a smart buddy to coach them. Inevitably, someone will say, “I just let my kids set it up and show me the basics.” If you’re going to undertake learning something new and scary, make certain you know and like the way you’ll be taught, or you’re more likely to drop out.

4. Use it or lose it. Let’s say you’ve decided to learn some multimedia skills. At the end of the class, make certain you put your new skills to work right away. Don’t wait. Create something. If you’ve learned a piece of software, keep playing with it. A foreign language? Find a chat partner or keep a journal in that language. Without practice immediately after your lessons, your learning doesn’t move from your short-term into your long-term memory. It simply fades away.

The advice I’ve shared so far focuses on one-topic learning or skill-building — mastering a new piece of software or hardware, or a soft skill like listening or collaboration. You could also make a resolution to become better informed on industry trends, say, mobile platforms for journalism.

But what about something much bigger? Lately I’ve heard from newsroom leaders who are considering something big and potentially scary — earning a graduate degree while keeping their day jobs.

As someone who did that just a few years ago, while teaching, writing, consulting and being a wife and mom, I’ll share some personal insights on learning adventures of all sizes in today’s podcast, “What Great Bosses Know about Learning”:

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

You can subscribe to this podcast via RSS or download a series of these podcasts free on iTunesU.

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