June 21, 2022

Continuous Learning for Executives: A Competitive Advantage


Est. Reading: 4 minutes

By Lars Vestergaard, CCO, LMS365

Leaders understand that learning is important, yet corporate learning initiatives too often get set aside in favor of other priorities deemed “more critical”. And when it comes to learning for leaders, it’s even more common – continuous learning and training at the executive level is often overlooked, ignored, or just not taken seriously. Whether it’s simply forgotten or assumed that an executive doesn’t need continued training and development, it’s holding organizations back from greater success.

It’s time to embrace the fact that learning and development are just as important for business leaders and executives as they are for other employees. What’s more, committing to continuous learning at all levels can help organizations gain—and often keep—a competitive advantage.

The Importance and Growth of Corporate Learning

Today’s business environment has made learning and development even more necessary.

With the rapid shift to remote work on a widespread scale, employees at all levels have had to quickly adjust to new technologies and methods. Working remotely also requires different ways of communicating, putting a spotlight on what are often considered “soft skills” – things like interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.

As the analysts at Deloitte Insights have noted, the challenge for learning and development teams now is to prepare for what’s referred to as a “super learning future.” Deloitte defines this as one that’s centered on skills and capabilities at the individual, team and organization levels.

This will require a new approach, and it requires executive participation. LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report found that while 83% of learning and development pros said executive buy-in wasn’t a challenge, only 27% of CEOs were active champions of learning. Managers and leaders need to model learning from the top down.

Enhancing Executive-Level Learning

Learning and development initiatives shouldn’t stop before the top; executives also need to be continuously learning and gaining new training. It can be way too easy to rest on one’s laurels, so to speak, once you’ve reached the executive level. For those who reach the top echelons of their organization, there’s a temptation to think there’s nothing left to learn.

This can be a dangerous mindset. Think about the most talented professional athletes – just because they’ve reached the top doesn’t mean they stop training. They know there is always room for growth, for practicing the things you’re learning, for trying new methods and approaches. For senior executives looking to move further up the corporate ladder, gaining new skills and leadership training can be a major part of their own career development as well.

Another benefit of having executives engaged in this kind of continuous learning is the impact it can have on the rest of the organization. For example, when executives get involved in creating and curating content, it can help drive employee engagement, too. It’s the “practicing what you preach” phenomenon that demonstrates authentic leadership and makes others want to follow your example.

Future-Focused Soft Skills Training

For executives, soft skills carry huge weight; these are a major part of being a good leader. And as mentioned above, this is key for executives’ own career development paths as well as key for their current roles. Having a plan and a competency framework in place helps ensure executive learning happens regularly in alignment with corporate goals and initiatives.

These competency frameworks are associated with different levels within an organization. A good framework clearly lays out career steps for leaders at each level and the competencies required at each step. Many organizations do not have this clear training path in place, but it’s the foundation of a strong learning and development program.

This sets the absolute requirements of what kind of training you need, but that’s not enough. You also need to allocate the budgets for training in your organization, but that’s still not enough. You need to take it a level further. You need to actually build it into your organization’s compensation plans.

Many of today’s incentive models are looking back in time at an employee’s achievements and deciding to reward them for that. It’s not wrong to do this; it’s just not a future-focused model. With respect to training and continuous learning, you need to look forward. You need to prepare people for what’s coming in the next year, and the next year, and the year after that. This model rewards training being completed in anticipation of what’s to come, instead of back at the past.

Learning Leaders as a Success Strategy

A lot of the narrative about learning and development at the moment is framed as a lack of skills and feels targeted to entry and mid-level positions. It’s not that this assessment is incorrect; it’s just not the whole picture. Continuous learning at the executive level is often overlooked or assumed to be unnecessary. After all, if people have made it into the C-suite, don’t they already know all they need to know to be successful?

As many a disgruntled direct report can testify, the answer is a resounding “No.” Remember, most of the time, people leave managers, not companies. If someone makes it to the executive level by force of their subject matter expertise but has not developed their soft skills, that person – and their team – is in for a rough ride.

Organizations must support the success of all employees, and that includes their executives. This includes encouraging – even incentivizing – executives to take part in continuous learning initiatives. Such activity encourages their teams to stay engaged in learning and pays dividends for the business down the road.

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