When I first arrived at the airport in Las Vegas for the Skillsoft Perspectives event on Tuesday, I jumped into a cab, and the driver asked where I was from. I said Chicago and asked him how long he had lived in Vegas. He said 10 years, and I asked him if he liked it. He told me he loved it, that there are no rules here; that it’s always hot; why would you want to live anywhere else? I like seasons and rules, I told him. I think they exist for a reason. “You’ve got to break the rules to get places,” he said. “Some rules aren’t even rules, we just think they’re rules.” I wasn’t buying it.
The next day, the Perspectives event kicked off with the theme “innovate, influence, impact,” and business executive Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, took the stage. This guy’s old school, I thought. Sure, during his tenure at GE the company’s value rose 40,000 percent, but what can he offer today’s leaders?
From the minute he took the stage Welch offered profound nugget after profound nugget, and he had learning leaders rewriting their rules on leadership. He urged the audience to have their mantra be “Find a better way every day.” He said innovation should not be a word that isolates 10 people in a company while 90 sit on the sidelines waiting for innovators to innovate. Leaders have to get in the skin of every employee, know everything about them and have a relationship based on trust. They have to give employees a purpose and spend their time getting crap out of their way so employees can get their jobs done. Don’t give employees unnecessary development exercises.
I was a little surprised—isn’t it the employees’ role to remove the “crap?” Aren’t those unnecessary exercises the core of the learning function?
Then he really started to shake things up. He suggested leaders should grade their employees, the way teachers grade students. “Why is it OK to grade 12-year-olds in fifth grade, but if you grade a 30 year-old you’re cruel and abusive?” he asked. “Cruel management is taking someone in their 50s and letting them go after they were with you for 30 years and didn’t know their performance. Learning and development has to create the best team possible to play the game of business.”
Then he said mentoring programs are the jerk programs of all time! I started to think of the dozens of mentoring articles I’ve written over the years. You’re breaking all the rules, Jack, I thought. He said employees should see everybody as a mentor. Employees should grab the best of what they like in multiple people and run with it. Don’t get stuck in one person’s mold. Everything he said was true. Why aren’t we doing this already, I thought? Why are we following unnecessary rules where we feel we can’t grade employees, that they need assigned mentors and dozens of extra assignments so we can say they’ve been developed?
Jack (well, the cab driver, I suppose) set the theme for the rest of the conference. John Ambrose, senior vice president of strategy, corporate development and emerging business at Skillsoft, offered data that suggested an overwhelmed employee checks his or her cell phone 150+ times a day and can only focus for five minutes at a time — down from 12 minutes in 1998. We have to rewrite our learning and development content and use platforms that accommodate this employee, he said. Only a handful of people in the audience said they were using mobile learning. It became apparent that many had to go back to the drawing board for a pretty substantial overhaul of their content and systems.
To keep shaking things up, Erik Wahl later joined the stage with a presentation that had everyone floored. He urged attendees to take everything that they know logically about leadership, hiring and retaining top talent and set it aside. Start with a blank canvas with unlimited potential, unlimited possibilities. Where are the rules, I thought? There’s a reason we have been doing things the way we have.
But as Erik’s presentation progressed, I realized that wasn’t true. That so far the cab driver, Jack Welch, John Ambrose and Erik Wahl had been right. The systems we have in place worked for a long time, but many were created for an analog world with little technology and diversity in the workforce. These programs, ideas and strategies don’t work if you’re looking to be a leading organization today. You need to meet learners where they are, and they’re not always on your LMS on their work desktops. Companies such as Shell and Burger King have realized this, and they offered workshops at the event detailing how they have structured their learning offerings to better cater to their employees. They know employees are doing a lot with very little. They know improving the performance of their organization means improving the performance of their people. They have created engaging platforms that draw learners in. They have created packages in their portals for learners to gain information on specific topics with short videos, article summaries, simulations.
On Wednesday Lyn Heward, Cirque du Soleil’s director of creation, said “impossible” is only a word. And as the conference progressed, I realized that should be a mantra in our workplaces. Why do we say we can’t do things when we have the people and the resources? Why do we see creativity as a burden or a task for only a few? Heward offered these small steps for leaders to push their organizations to become more creative:
1. Jump on creative opportunities as they arise.
2. Awaken your senses and experience the world.
3. Look beyond the obvious; discover and invest in developing the full potential of the members of your team.
4. The nurturing environment has an open and inviting atmosphere which stimulates creative thought and action.
5. Take creative inspiration from constraints, worldly challenges, cultural differences and your customers’ expectations and dreams.
6. Risk taking is an essential part of the creative process and R&D the long, winding road to innovation.
7. The passionate creative leader never loses sight of the vast human potential around him and keeps fresh ideas flowing.
It’s a time for change, and as CHRO of Ventyx David Kuhl mentioned during his panel discussion, influence is a leader’s currency. Let’s mix things up. As a leader in an organization, you have the power to change the direction of the company’s culture. As a learning leader, you’re guiding the organization’s entire people and development strategy. You can be the rule breaker. You can question why things are done the way they are. You are working in the most dynamic business environment of all time, and it’s up to you to make sure you have the best people doing their best. It’s an exciting time, but it’s a challenging time, I know.
I’m curious, are there certain rules you think need breaking (this poem was mentioned at the conference as great guidance for change)? Please comment below or email me at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com, and enjoy the few photos from the event I have to share!