What we need to learn

Bring to mind one of your best working moments.  One of those times when you felt on top of the world, when you were just 'flowing' or when you felt the warm glow of success.  It could have been when that new client signed up with you.....when you finally worked through a long-standing conflict with someone while at the same time growing a positive working relationship....when you overcame your fears to achieve a breakthrough of some sort.

You will doubtless have many of these moments.

Right now, focus on just one of them.  Recall what you were doing, who was with you, how you felt, how others responded to you.  Enjoy it as you recall it.


Now bring to mind of your worst working moments.  That time you wanted the earth to open up and swallow you....when you felt so bad that you couldn't look others in the eyes....that moment you would like to wipe from your memory because the mere thought of it ties your stomach in knots.  Don't dwell on it for too long, I don't want it to infect your day.

I will lay good money on two things: 1) the thing that made your peak moment so awesome and your worst moment so dreadful was probably less to do with technical expertise or lack thereof and much more to do with your personal capabilities, and; 2) the thing that made these moments what they were, are unique to you and your makeup (i.e. who you are), and therefore what you need to learn is also unique to you.

I want to address these two assertions because they have important implications for professional development.

Assertion 1: Technical know-how vs. personal capability.

Many organisations have realised that what makes us up as humans is absolutely pivotal to how we execute our work, even if they don't know what to do about that.  We are living in an age when our personal beliefs and values, our emotions and our motivations must be accorded their due attention when it comes to performance at work.  While technical information and job-specific content is, of course, absolutely essential in order to carry out our jobs, they are not sufficient.  They are merely the 'what'.

Who we are, as people, drives how we carry out our jobs, and organisations would do well to incorporate this into how they approach learning and development.  It is not enough to pay it lip service.  A genuine effort ought to be made to incorporate opportunities for real and significant personal growth and development into workplace learning.  There is a world of difference between learning about interpersonal skills and developing interpersonal skills and I've been fortunate enough to have worked with many organisations who have provided spaces for people to do both.

Given the current state of many learning and development offerings, if I were to attend a training seminar about Communication Skills, I might expect to come away with a sheaf of notes and information.  If I chose wisely, I might have also come away as a slightly different person, having had opportunity to actually practice or rehearse some new skills.  I've just done a search: "How can I improve my communication skills at work?"  and it brought up 21,700,000 results.  Quite a lot of those are top tips or short information-heavy seminars.  Handy for some, but what about when we look at a "top tip" and say to ourselves, "Yes, but how do I actually DO that?"  It'd be like me trying to learn Stem Turns by looking at a book entitled "Learning to Ski" and feeling annoyed that I can't actually get on a slope and try the thing I want to learn, so that I can develop the actual skills I need.

This frustration or stuck-ness can come about when what we get is mostly information about stuff.  If a business is sending people on a training course and there is no corresponding shift in how people do their jobs, something quite different might be in order.  In my own experience, I've lost count of the number of times an prospective client has said to me, "We've sent people on the 'Difficult Conversations' training a number of times but it still hasn't made a difference."  Investing in something which grows actual capability and does not simply add (or repeat) information was, in those cases, the "something-quite-different" that made the difference.

This seems especially relevant the higher up the ladder we go.  If what you do involves "managing people", is at C-level or is hovering around C-level, your job is likely to be less about technical expertise and more about intra- and inter-personal capability.  Capability, mind you; not knowledge.

Assertion 2: The #1 capability that you should learn.

The thing that made your worst working moment so horrendous was more than likely unique to you.  The more people I work with and the more I do the work I do, I become more convinced that the "Ten Top Tips for......." are of very limited usefulness, particularly if they are to do with personal capability.  I've spoken with so many people who've tried them with little sustainable success, and in some cases, have felt a failure because they couldn't do what is suggested.  It has nothing to do with them being inadequate, it has more to do with what they want to learn and how to approach that.

Human development is not one-size-fits-all, nor paint-by-numbers.  We are still infected by the old mechanistic, cause-and-effect way of seeing the world, hence we are compelled to read something when it promises enlightenment in five easy steps.  On the rare occasions I do it, I'm left wanting.  The world is not that simplistic nor black and white, and neither are we humans.  There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.  If you are looking for the #1 capability that will transform you and make your working life 73% more satisfying, read no further.  I don't have the answer.

Well, I do, actually.  But I don't.

The answer is: the one that YOU most require.  Think back to that "worst working moment" I invited you to recall earlier.  If, as I suggest, moments such as these are more related to something within us as humans and less about technical expertise, then the things we need to learn in order to have better conversations.....or relationships....or negotiating ability....or confidence at work....are going to be something very unique and individual to us.

Many training and development courses promise to provide us with learning that is tailor-made or relevant to us, but how many actually work with OUR real concerns, help us to really overcome the things that catch US out, assist us to really face the things that scare US?  How many of these courses actually leave us a different person when we walk out of the room?  A learning programme is tailor-made when it accommodates our learning preferences, when it takes account of our current knowledge and capabilities and builds on those, when what is learnt is directly relevant and applicable in our day-to-day and when the providers tune into us and what transformation we are at the threshold of.

How do we work out what we need to develop?  Some of us just know.  If we have embarked on a path of self-knowledge, we may be able to have some sense of the areas within ourselves that require further growth and development.  There will be other areas that are less known to us.  We can surround ourselves with trusted friends and associates who don't shy away from sharing uncomfortable truths with us.  We can develop mindfulness: this is not sitting on a yoga mat burning jossticks (although it may include this); it is developing a discipline of non-judgemental self-observance.  The Top Ten Whatevers may be interesting bits of information, but they are unlikely to transform us.

The point again: what is the #1 capability we should be learning?  Answer: the one (or ones) that WE most need; right now in our lives, taking account of what we already know and know how to do and our current situations in life.