The event was running over, the car was waiting, but the keynote speaker did not seem to mind. He was enjoying fielding questions from a large auditorium packed to the rafters with executives, aspiring entrepreneurs, and management students. “Get ready for an age in which we are all in tech,” he had told them, “whether you work in the tech industry or not.” The moderator called for one last question. “What’s the best way to get ready?” a woman asked. “Be great at learning,” he said without hesitation. “The moment you stop learning is the moment you begin to die.”
Calls for learning have long been common at corporate retreats, professional conferences, and similar gatherings. But with the furious pace of change that technology has brought to business and society, they have become more urgent.1 Leaders in every sector seem to agree: Learning is an imperative, not a cliché. Without it, careers derail and companies fail. Talented people flock to employers that promise to invest in their development whether they will stay at the company or not.2 And companies spend heavily on it. By one estimate, in 2018, corporate outlays on learning and development initiatives topped $200 billion.3
Despite the lofty statements and steep investments, however, learning at work remains complicated. People are ambivalent about it, if not outright resistant. We want to learn, but we worry that we might not like what we learn. Or that learning will cost us too much. Or that we will have to give up cherished ideas.4 There is often some shame involved in learning something new as an adult, a mentor told me at the start of my career. What if, in the process, we’re found lacking? What if we simply cannot pick up the knowledge and skills we need? I have spent two decades studying adult learning, helping companies design and deploy learning initiatives, and teaching and coaching thousands of high potentials and executives all over the world. And I have found that mentor’s words to be wise: Nothing truly novel, nothing that matters, is ever learned with ease.
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Furthermore, most organizations are not as hospitable to learning as their rhetoric suggests.
1. For instance, see R. Hoffman, C. Yeh, and B. Casnocha, “Learn From People, Not Classes,” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 3 (March-April 2019).
2. G. Petriglieri, J.L. Petriglieri, and J.D. Wood, “Fast Tracks and Inner Journeys: Crafting Portable Selves for Contemporary Careers,” Administrative Science Quarterly 63, no. 3 (September 2018): 479-525; and M. Bidwell, S. Won, R. Barbulescu, et al., “I Used to Work at Goldman Sachs! How Firms Benefit From Organizational Status in the Market for Human Capital,” Strategic Management Journal 36, no. 8 (August 2015): 1164-1173.
3. J. Bersin, “A New Paradigm for Corporate Training: Learning in the Flow of Work,” June 3, 2018, https://joshbersin.com.
4. R. Kegan and L.L. Lahey, “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2009).
5. A.D. Brown and K. Starkey, “Organizational Identity and Learning: A Psychodynamic Perspective,” Academy of Management Review 25, no. 1 (January 2000): 102-120; and G. Petriglieri, “Learning Is the Most Celebrated Neglected Activity in the Workplace,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 6, 2014, https://hbr.org.
6. J. Mezirow, “Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).
7. R.E. Boyatzis and K. Akrivou, “The Ideal Self as the Driver of Intentional Change,” Journal of Management Development 25, no. 7 (August 2006): 624-642.
8. G. Petriglieri, “Identity Workspaces for Leadership Development,” in “The Handbook for Teaching Leadership,” eds. S. Snook, N. Nohria, and R. Khurana (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2012): 295-312; and G. Petriglieri, “The Art of Great Leadership,” HR Magazine, July 25, 2018, www.hrmagazine.co.uk.
9. J.L. Petriglieri and G. Petriglieri, “The Talent Curse,” Harvard Business Review 95, no. 3 (May-June 2017): 88-94.
10. H. Ibarra, “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).
11. G. Petriglieri and J.L. Petriglieri, “Identity Workspaces: The Case of Business Schools,” Academy of Management Learning & Education 9, no. 1 (March 2010): 44-60; and G. Petriglieri and J.L. Petriglieri, “Can Business Schools Humanize Leadership?” Academy of Management Learning & Education 14, no. 4 (December 2015): 625-647.
12. G. Petriglieri, J.D. Wood, and J.L. Petriglieri, “Up Close and Personal: Building Foundations for Leaders’ Development Through the Personalization of Management Learning,” Academy of Management Learning & Education 10, no. 3 (September 2011): 430-450.