Effective leadership, like success in life, is as much a social journey as it is a learning journey. There’s simply too much change happening for anyone to expect success without change. As Marc Varner explained to me, “If you are not in pursuit of continual improvement, you will soon find yourself extinct.”
Varner is the vice president and global chief information security officer at McDonald’s Co. I’ve been privileged to work with him and 120 other industry leading executives over the past few years researching leadership. In that time, I have found one consistent variable of success: They’re all continual learners. Varner told me: “Any great leader never ceases to learn.”
So, how do leaders learn throughout their career? Roland Cloutier, ADP’s chief security officer, said, “You learn by watching people and how they live out their sense of mission.” Steve Young, chief information security officer at Kellogg Co., said, “You learn from your peers.” Louie Ehrlich, former president of IT and chief information officer at Chevron, said simply, “Find a buddy.”
The lesson here is that teachers need not be executives. Executives don’t have time to personally mentor everyone in their organization anyway; it’s buddies, peers, those in your microclimate who help you learn throughout your career. Ehrlich said he learned this lesson early on when as a recent computer science grad he was “thrown into a room with some computer equipment” as a new hire at Chevron and told to “find something useful to do with it all.”
“It took me about two seconds to realize, I don’t know anything about the business I am in,” he said. “If you are new and don’t know anything, what are you going to do? You do it through someone else. Meet someone. Form a relationship. Look for the win-win. Don’t be ashamed to go ask. You learn from being curious, unafraid to ask for help.”
Of course, you can learn vicariously through others. John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, author of the “Pyramid of Success” and mentor to many, taught me a lot. Varner’s question to me was, “Great, how many times have your talked with John Wooden?” Well, none. “We all read books,” he explained, “but learning leadership needs to be much more personal than that.” You can learn vicariously, but to know exactly how you would act in trying situations, you need to know how that person really operated.
Most executives I interviewed had a ready list of people they admire. And they all recommended having a list of leader names and documenting what you admire about each. Whether it’s their character, knowledge or demeanor, write down what you would like to remember and emulate. Turn those notes into leadership rules, and your rules into an oath. That’s the leader you want to be. Your oath should guide your decisions, actions and literally inform how you show up every day.
Face it, bad days will come and put you under pressure. That is not the time to start thinking about the leader you want to be. “Whatever your oath is, and whether you have it written down or not, it will come out,” Ehrlich said. “So you better be clear on what that is.” By knowing — and living — your oath, you can better align yourself to credible teachers from whom you can learn.
In life and in your career, effectiveness comes from your ability to continually learn, mainly from those most immediately accessible to you. For instance, front-line leaders learn from other front-line leaders, individual contributors and managers. On the way up the ladder, your learning will come from more senior leaders across your ecosystem. You will learn vicariously through those you don’t know and explicitly through those you do. Find those teachers, and keep being curious, unafraid to ask for help, and continually work to understand the business, how others view it, and your role in it.
Tim Rahschulte is the chief learning officer at Evanta, a CEB company, and the architect of the Professional Development Academy.