The New Object of Continuous Improvement: You

Feb. 1, 2015
Do you have the skill set needed for success in a world of smart machines and the Internet?

While the manufacturing community is concerned about the skills gap on the plant floor, what about the skills gap in the executive suite? It's just as critical to the success of companies, says Edward D. Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business.

In an increasingly tech-driven world, says Hess, leaders will first and foremost need to be "adaptive learners"  -- employing a set of skills that will help them remain relevant even as knowledge rapidly advances and skills become outdated overnight. In his latest book, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014), Hess discusses the learning skills needed for success in the 21st century:

Get comfortable with "not knowing." In a world with more information than we can possibly retain, leaders will need to recognize what they don't know and be focused on continuously learning. Part of that, says Hess, involves understanding that humans are not optimal learners.

"Cognitively we all are naturally fast, lazy, reflexive thinkers who seek to confirm what we know. It is important to learn how and when to make your thinking more intentional and deliberate. You must actively seek to develop your critical thinking and innovative thinking skills."

Quiet your ego to embrace open-mindedness. When it comes to being an effective learner, it's important, to borrow an old Star Trek term, to "lower your shields" and train your brain to be emotionally non-defensive.

"Today people must learn to stress-test their beliefs and preconceived notions, not constantly seek to confirm them," he notes. "It takes courage to enter the world of the unknown and learn something new the first time. To make that process easier, people will have to learn to separate their ideas from their self-worth. Changing a previously held belief doesn't mean you are a bad or stupid person. It simply means you've learned to adapt your thinking based on new information or facts that you've received."

Be an "inner-directed" learner. It's natural to want to avoid failure, but that can be perilous in a world where innovation -- a process in which failure is a given --  is increasingly valuable.

"You'll need to see learning as its own reward," explains Hess. "Develop a learning mindset. Then, whenever you're learning, you're successful. The speed and quality of one's learning is what will keep one relevant and competitive."

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Rather than view mistakes as something you've done wrong, it's important to begin looking at them as learning opportunities.

"Learning is not an efficient 99% defect-free process," notes Hess, adding that mistakes can be good as long as you make sure you are learning from them.

Be willing to try. Self-efficacy is the confidence that people have in their own ability to meet a challenge or take on the unknown (within reason). "People can build self-efficacy by putting themselves in challenging situations that they have the ability to handle well," says Hess. "As their confidence grows, they'll be more willing and capable of taking on even more challenging tasks."

Develop your emotional intelligence (EI). Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of and manage one's emotions. It plays an important role, Hess explains, in your ability to recognize and appraise verbal and nonverbal information, manage feelings and aid in problem solving and creativity. All of those are critical to the ability to collaborate effectively.             

"If you can't manage your own emotions, read those of others, or connect with the people around you on more than a superficial level, then you won't be a successful collaborator," Hess warns.

Seek out constructive feedback. Negative feedback, though often hard to hear, is essential if you want to become the best in your field.

"Rather than getting the kind of specific, constructive feedback that can help us improve our skills, most of us will receive guarded or politically correct feedback that is fairly useless in practice," notes Hess. "Thoughtful and constructive feedback is a valuable thing, especially when you can foster your mindset to absorb and not deflect it, and it will only become more valuable as our workplaces become dominated by technology."

About the Author

Steve Minter | Steve Minter, Executive Editor

Focus: Leadership, Global Economy, Energy

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An award-winning editor, Executive Editor Steve Minter covers leadership, global economic and trade issues and energy, tackling subject matter ranging from CEO profiles and leadership theories to economic trends and energy policy. As well, he supervises content development for editorial products including the magazine,, research and information products, and conferences.

Before joining the IW staff, Steve was publisher and editorial director of Penton Media’s EHS Today, where he was instrumental in the development of the Champions of Safety and America’s Safest Companies recognition programs.

Steve received his B.A. in English from Oberlin College. He is married and has two adult children.

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