Permission to learn

 

Yesterday I mentioned how much I love Harvard Business Review, and I was reminded of how true that is today after reading Amy Edmonson’s article, The Competitive Imperative of Learning, in this month’s issue. Her article contrasts those organizations focused soley on executing business strategies and those that execute with a conscious desire to learn throughout the process. She used two eighties-era mega-companies as examples (GM as an example of the former and GE as an example of the latter). She points out what most of us know but so many managers are blind to see – that those companies which build opportunities for feedback and learning into their processes win over the long haul. In effect, they give permission to their employees to spend time learning (and not necessarily in a classroom) and they create, as she calls them, “psychologically safe environments.” These are places where people don’t work in fear of punitive reprimands, but are intentionally encouraged to try new things (which will often fail), learn, and share.

What a wonderful lesson for the Christian and the Church. For us Christians in the workplace, it’s up to us (particularly those in leadership) to reinforce what Solomon wrote in Proverbs 13:16, that “every prudent man acts out of knowledge.” Not every idea will be successful, but failures can produce invaluable knowledge. We have the power to create environments where learning and collaborating is not only safe, but deeply valued, and where rank and status take a backseat to dedication and thoughtfulness. Likewise, this is one of those arenas where the Church (the Christian church as a whole) can learn from it’s own mistakes and that of the marketplace. Like a company too rigidly focused on a tactical business plan, faith is not a series of tasks to be executed by legions of minions, but rather a dynamic and inspiring process during which we, as God’s precious creation, learn more about him through our shared experiences following Jesus. As Paul told the church at Rome (now, somewhat ironically, the Vatican) in Romans 3,

“But now God has shown us a different way of being right in his sight – not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done.”

Modern-day Elijah & Elisha

 

When I moved from Grand Rapids to Chicago back in the late nineties, I was blessed to meet someone that changed the course of my career. Deb is a veteran salesperson, greatly respected for both her talents and her character. Over time, she began to mentor me (although I’m not sure I ever called her my mentor until after I left Chicago), and I can thank her today for teaching me the ropes and giving me a tremendous foundation upon which to build, much of which I now share with our younger employees.

There are a variety of mentorship relationships in the Bible, but perhaps top on my list of interesting ones is that of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah’s incredible efforts to thwart the worship of the idol Baal has made his name synonymous with Israel’s great prophets. His protege Elisha stuck close to Elijah, not just learning from him, but offering him his sound loyalty (“As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”) When it came time for Elijah to die, Elisha’s only request was that he receive a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2), and he went on to perform some of the most amazing miracles recorded in the BIble.

With mentorship programs on the rise in Corporate America (check out this article from March’s Businessweek), now is the perfect time to look for a mentor, a protegee, or both. What a great way for us to learn, share, and perhaps earn the right to invest in someone else’s life.

 

How We Learn

Someone once told me that if I want to fix something mechanical (not my forte), that I should stare at it for at least a full minute. That advice has helped me much more than my Time/Life Homeowners Fix It book that sits on my bookshelf. By staring at whatever I’m trying to fix, I can begin seeing the interconnectedness of its elements, and that provides me the contextual understanding necessary to arrive at a solution.

The same dynamic happens with workplace learning. I’ve been through training courses and business classes hoping to just learn the content, but soon forgot most of it because I didn’t immediately get to use it. For me, the best learning opportunities are those that comfortably immerse me in a topic, orienting me and giving me a confident foundation to build upon, not those that try to make an expert out of me. In much simpler words, practical learning is not focused on remembering all the answers, but knowing how to ask the right questions.

I think the same is true about living out our faith at work. Solomon teaches us in Proverbs 9:10 that, “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in understanding.” (and when you read “fear” think of being in utter awe of the immensity of the ocean, not the terror of a chainsaw-wielding lunatic in your front yard).

To be an effective Christian in the workplace doesn’t require starting seminary courses. It starts with being in awe of the Creator of the universe who stepped into his creation in order to redeem us. It’s through that understanding, that incredible foundation of grace, that we know what questions to ask, what choices to make, and how to gain that which is “more valuable than gold and rubies” – wisdom.

Age and advice

 

I recently got reading yet another article about the generational dynamics happening within today’s workplace. It seems that this is the topic-du-jour right now, and on one hand I’m sick of reading about it, but on the other hand I’m fascinated by it. With millions of Baby Boomers exiting the workforce and only about half as many Gen X’ers to take their place, companies are facing both a knowlege-management crisis and a talent crunch. Well, at least they will until the mammoth number of Gen Y’ers flood the workplace. If those Baby Boomers would have only had their kids before their mid-thirties, we’d have a little smoother transition here.

This particular articlefrom Businessweek made an interesting observation – that younger workers (Gen Y or Millenials) are ignoring traditional hierarchical protocols and shooting off e-mails and phone calls to senior Baby Boomer leaders in order to tap into their expertise on various subjects.  Good for them. I’m all for them breaking down the boundaries and asking some VP for a little bit of knowledge if they need it.  I hope that this trend continues. Among the Baby Boomers in leadership that I know, I’ve witnessed a strong desire from them to pass on their wisdom to others before they reach retirement. I also got in a chat with our Western Canada sales manager recently and he told me about how “mentorship contracts” are becoming all the rage at the energy companies in Calgary. Baby Boomers are put on contract immediately after retirement to spend time in the office doing nothing but mentoring younger employees who need their help. Brilliant!

King David (who as King of Israel and father of wise Solomon should know something about providing counsel), wrote in Psalm 37:30-1,

“The godly offer good counsel; they know what is right from wrong. They fill their hearts wtih God’s law, so they will never slip from his path.”

What a good observation for all of us, young or old. I’ve been very blessed over the years to not only have older co-workers that were willing to teach me a thing or two, but a few Christian ones whose advice and wise counsel have made a real difference in my life. I hope that as I grow in my career that I can share a little something with some younger folks that are willing to ask. That is, if any of them are willing to bother with an ancient Gen X’er…

Story time

 

Much is being written these days about organizational storytelling – using stories in the course of the workday to communicate key ideas. I couldn’t be happier about this. When I first started in sales I couldn’t stand the idea of rattling off a bunch of product feature & benefit information while a customer just stood there. Fortunately, I had some fantastic storytellers to learn from who helped me to see how much more effective storytelling is than most other forms of sales (and business) communications.

While I often think about the ways that the Church (big “C” church – churches, para-church organizations and other ministries) can learn from the marketplace, in this case the marketplace is most definitely learning from the Church. The best ministry leaders have used stories to educate, capture interest, and provoke imagination for thousands of years. And of course, no one justifies the value of powerful stories as much as Jesus himself. The fact that he used parables as his key means of communication shows that stories don’t just help uscommunicate – they are a chosen means by which God translates his immense and infinite wisdom into bite sized nuggets that we can understand.

Thankfully, fifty-slide PowerPoint presentations are out. No one wants to be bullet-pointed to death every time someone else wants to offer up an idea. Stories make complex things simple, are highly memorable, and can be introduced into light banter, turning a presentation into a conversation. For a great article about how to begin thinking about using stories (particularly from a brand perspective), check this great article at Brandchannel.com. It’s story time!

Messing up at work

Happy Monday! I hope each of you had a blessed and reflective Easter. I was reminded by a very fine sermon at our church that the resurrection is just as important as the cross. Jesus died for our sins on the cross, but resurrection became real for us three days later. I’m glad that God is still in the resurrection business, because I make lots of mistakes – including in business.

As an example, I found myself apologizing to a coworker on Thursday. I hadn’t actually offended her, but I realized that I should have been more supportive earlier when someone else upset her. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve apologized to a coworker, and usually for offenses far worse than this.

I can’t remember who once gave me this advice, but I was told that a sincere apology is far more memorable than most offenses. Thankfully, I’ve found this to be true.  In Psalm 25:8-9, David wrote,

 The Lord is good and does what is right;
      he shows the proper path to those who go astray.
 He leads the humble in doing right,
      teaching them his way.”

If as Christians in the corporate world we really want to make a difference in the lives of our coworkers, we should begin by accepting God’s forgiveness for our own mistakes and offering apologies sincerely and often.

(and here’s an oldie but a goodly – DC Talk’s “What if I Stumble?”)

Menus and Mentors

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A few weeks ago I began to contemplate just how much about our business I don’t know. I’ve spent most of my career in marketing and sales, but when I look back on all of the topics I enjoyed studying in grad school – operations, finance, organizational behavior, human resources – I know far too little about how those functions actually operate within my organization. So on a whim, I dropped an e-mail to a guy I’ve casually known for a few years who is very respected in the operations side of the business and asked if he’d be up for lunch. I expected him to inquire as to what was on my mind, but instead he shot back a quick response – “Sure.”

Today as I headed to meet with him I wondered if I should come up with a few good questions to ask. I thought of one or two, but in reality I didn’t know enough about what he does to come up with many good ones. As we sat down I got just a little concerned that he might think I was wasting his time. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry about anything.

I told him that I was curious about his job and his side of the business and from there the conversation took off. Most of what he shared was probably pretty routine stuff for him, but I learned more in that hour than I did in a few weeks worth of business classes. It quickly became apparent to me that by learning from him I was becoming better informed about our organization and, ultimately, better at what I do. At the end of our hour together, he suggested that we meet for lunch regularly.

Sometimes I think we underestimate people. Sure, the corporate world has some hyper-political individuals who protect what they know, but most people are caring and cooperative folks that are more than happy to share their expertise. Most probably enjoy it.  Our plans at work – project plans and career plans – often “go wrong for lack of advice” but “many counselors bring success” (Prov 15). In the future, I won’t hesitate reaching out to someone to learn about what they do. It’s good for the organization – and it’s good for us.