Workplace Culture

Intentional Learning Develops Leaders for New Business Reality

Business challenges across global boundaries have created an environment which is complex, uncertain and volatile. It calls for a new leadership development approach like intentional learning which is already proving its success.
— By Anna Gonsalves

It was not that long ago the business environment was slow to change, but the description no longer fits. Companies of all sizes are operating in a global environment filled with technological, economic, governmental and social challenges on a routine basis. The reality today is not stability. It is volatility, complexity and uncertainty, all of which require leaders who are resilient, adaptable, and able to engage and influence people and teams across cultures and geographic boundaries. To finding business success and sustainability in a continuous change global environment, leaders must be able to rely on their unique strengths and skills, rather than a one-size-fits-all mold of conventional leadership taught through formal training and development. The challenge is developing leaders who are not locked into a single focus and have a mindset in which learning itself is a skill that is continuously developed. Leaders who are intentional learners have a mindset in which every experience, event, and interaction is an opportunity to develop and grow.

Learning Becomes a Fundamental Skill
Mckinsey & Co first described “intentional learning” as the most fundamental skill that business professionals must develop. The skill is the practice of treating every experience as a learning opportunity, an ideal approach in an ambiguous and volatile business environment. An experience is not viewed as an isolated event that occurs separately from other experiences and events. It is continuous learning in a continuously changing environment. The intentional learner is set apart from others and develops a growth mindset and a curious mindset. The growth mindset is a perspective in which mistakes and failures are viewed as guides for development. The curiosity mindset enables people to overcome the fear of trying new things or the fear of asking questions.

Possessing these two mindset traits is crucial for leadership success in business settings in which change is perpetual. The World Economic Forum has embraced intentional learning as an important upskill for all people who want to succeed, making it clear that only focusing on technology and scientific skills will not fill the need for specialized skills concerning interactions with others. The WEF says, “Yet while it will be necessary for people to work with technology, we’re also seeing a growing need for people to develop specialized skills for how they interact with each other. These include creativity, collaboration and interpersonal dynamics, as well as skills related to specialized sales, human resources, care and education roles.” Clearly there is a need for leaders with the ability to develop the personal mindset for learning in order to assist others with developing the ability to learn intentionally also. The workforce will not upskill unless managers have upskilled because this is a whole new way of approaching work.

Intentional Learning in Practice
A variety of companies are embracing intentional learning as a strategy for leadership development. In “Kincentric Top Companies for Leaders” companies were identified in which leaders are willing to try new things and accept the idea of “failing fast,” and adaptability is encouraged. One of the companies was Mahindra & Mahindra which identified six pillars of leadership behavior it wants leaders to embrace. They are the ability to make use of both left and right brain; being a multiplier of passion, energy, and sense of ownership; ability to manage fear and leverage failure; having mindfulness in the age of distractions; maintaining a global mindset and openness to change; and being comfortable with ambiguity and creating a culture of trust.

Another company Kincentric identified as a top company for leadership is John Deere. The VP of HR said, “At John Deere we believe that leadership is about creating a vision that drives engagement. Leaders are carefully developed to understand the larger picture and to communicate a vision to all key stakeholders, especially our employees and customers. Effective leaders are actively engaged with their employees rather than simply managing people. Leaders give employees autonomy, are conversational, create mutual trust, and clearly align objectives to our strategy. Leaders must earn followership.” Leaders who are intentional about learning always have the bigger picture in mind and focus on relationship building rather than managing.

Mckinsey & Co first described “intentional learning” as the most fundamental skill that business professionals must develop. The skill is the practice of treating every experience as a learning opportunity, an ideal approach in an ambiguous and volatile business environment.
Five Core Skills
Developing intentional learners requires a leader to self-assess and then develop five core skills as outlined in the McKinsey report. One is to set tangible goals so that curiosity is an effective tool and not a distraction. Goals must be concrete and have personal value. The goal is also to embrace every single opportunity as one of learning, requiring reframing through the growth mindset. A second skill is to develop three traits that remove distractions: honestly evaluate the personal operating model, be mindful in every moment, and conduct experiments to find the best way to protect time to hone the ability to become an intentional learner. The remaining three core skills are actively seeking actionable feedback from others and experts; practicing deliberately in context, being willing to try, fail, refine the approach, and try again; and practicing regular feedback.

The intentional learning strategy requires making learning essential to the company culture. Most leader and staff training and development is treated like an add-on event – attend a workshop or finish online lessons. To successfully implement an intentional learning strategy, employees must view learning as essential to professional growth. Employers must give people opportunities to develop the right mindset and core skills, making learning as important as other business performance expectations. One process that John Deere uses to develop executives in intentional learning is through Dartmouth’s Tuck Executive Education program. Action-learning projects connect classroom learning to real world business-relevant applications to develop a global mindset and drive innovation.

At the heart of intentional learning is real world application. It is the only way to fully understand how learning is present in every business opportunity.