Create a Can-Do Learning Culture

learning culturePerhaps you’re seeing what we’ve been hearing from many of the managers we’ve been coaching and training in recent years. In addition to fulfilling their traditional leadership responsibilities, many managers are increasingly expected to maintain a level of technical-functional proficiency that enables them to roll up their sleeves and do more of the professional work themselves.

In today’s increasingly knowledge-driven, cost-competitive work world, many organizations need their managers to continue to develop and apply their advanced technical knowledge — not only to properly direct the work and manage the people who report to them, but to help their team solve complex problems. And, as key knowledge workers, managers need to be able to fill in when short-handed.

Working alongside their teammates can give these hands-on managers many on-the-spot opportunities to role model the kind of learning culture that gets everyone focused on what they can do to keep getting better.

But too often, when hands-on managers get involved in doing work they behave in ways that can limit their team’s learning. They jump into the fray, heads down, and plow through the work like the individual contributors they used to be. Or worse, they become micromanagers who encourage boss-dependence.

What’s needed is for these hands-on managers to first learn how to think differently about their dual roles as both players and managers. Instead of being held back by orthodox management thinking that encourages managers to think in terms of “either I’m leading my team or I’m doing work,” these hands-on managers need to shift their thinking about workforce development to a mindset that says “I can do work and do it in ways that accelerate learning for my team members.” Then leading and doing become mutually reinforcing, ongoing activities.

Once hands-on managers adopt this “both/and” mindset, they can begin to recognize the many opportunities they have to create a learning culture while working with their team members. But the key to taking full advantage of these opportunities is for hands-on leaders to learn some trainable skills. These include:

  1. Knowing when to engage in “situational doing”: Have a protocol that helps hands-on managers decide whether or not it is situationally appropriate for them to take on a task they might have delegated. Teach them how to do this work with a manager’s mindset.
  2. Learning how to use the “Think TP&L” mantra: Help hands-on managers learn how to use this mantra to remind them to consider the task, people and learning issues that might need to be addressed when they engage in situational doing. Emphasize the need to identify what needs to be learned.
  3. Learning how to be a role model when giving and getting positive-negative feedback: Managers need to learn how to give real-time feedback that reframes their team members’ mistakes as opportunities to learn and to keep getting better at what they do. And, perhaps more importantly, they must learn how to interact with their team members in ways that help them feel comfortable about giving their boss constructive, on-the-spot feedback.
  4. Becoming adept at conducting Blue Angel-style postmortem sessions: Managers must learn how to bring their team together after an important event or activity to share direct, candid feedback with each other. The goal here is to guard against escalating breakdowns in team performance and guide team members in the direction of continuous performance. Everyone should leave their rank at the door to focus solely on working toward the common goal of continuous learning, just as the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron does after every performance.

Because funding is often limited these days for learning and development, many learning leaders are trying to find creative ways to help their organization’s workforce continually develop needed knowledge and skills. Getting your hands-on managers on board as your can-do partners in workforce development could prove to be an effective strategy to do just that.

Frank Satterthwaite is a professor of organizational leadership at Johnson & Wales University. Jamie Millard is co-founder and executive partner for Lexington Leadership, a leadership consulting, training and executive coaching firm. They are co-authors of “Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager.” To comment email

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