Ways for managers and leaders to learn new skills depending on your learning style

Guest blog by Stefan Palios

The hallmark of any good leader is not her ability to command, but her ability to learn. With the increased pace of change, critical thinking and adaptability have become two of the most in-demand skills of any leader. And while adaptability and continuous learning can be stressful, it doesn’t need to be. Education comes in all forms, especially in a technology-driven world, where you can find more ways than ever to learn new skills that work for you. 

Whether you learn by doing, thinking and talking, or analyzing and just observing, we’ve compiled useful strategies for how to learn that suit your style.  

For people who learn by doing

Learning by doing is one of the best ways to cement knowledge since you’re building muscle memory for a task. When leaders and managers learn by doing, they are able to show their teams ‘how it’s done’. If you’re someone who learns by doing, you should consider peer group learning, project-based courses, or simply trying something out yourself. 

Peer group learning

Learning in peer groups is all about finding people who are in the same situation as you – a similar title, company size, or experience. When you do this, the key is to find out which kind of group works best for you (or try both). The primary types of peer groups are those with the same role and industry or those with the same business stage. 

Same role, same industry peer group

This kind of group would be, for example, a group of tech company CEOs. You’re from all different walks of life and experience levels but you all run a tech company. This can be impactful for gaining experience from the “been there, done that” CEOs. On the flip side, you may be more knowledgeable about new technologies or processes and you can help them understand. Groups like Peerscale in Toronto are known for this kind of peer group. 

Same business stage peer group

These groups are predicated on people within similar businesses. For example, a group that focuses on leaders in companies with $1-10 million in revenue. So the experience is not necessarily the person, but the business stage. With these groups, you may have seasoned professionals or newcomers, but you’re all trying to break through similar problems – in this example, pushing past $10 million in revenue sustainably. The goal of these groups is discussing problems with people who are facing the exact same issues so you can collaborate on solutions that work for your unique businesses (since the problem may be the same, but the solution will differ based on industry, company culture, and other factors). 

ways managers learn - business group

Project-based courses

If you’re a learn-by-doing type of person, you may value project management courses. That way you gain the structure of a formal course that you can apply to the hands-on applications of projects. You may even like different agile training or scrum courses so you can learn new principles and concepts then put them to work on problems you’re facing on the job.

Try it yourself

One of the best ways to learn by doing is to, well, do something. Start by reading blogs about new technology concepts then try something out. There will likely be more failure at the beginning, but you’ll also learn in your own unique way. You don’t have exams to worry about and you don’t have to change your mindset to someone else’s teaching style – you are in total control. 

For people who learn by thinking and talking

If you learn by thinking deeply about an issue from start to finish or talking through it, then you’re well suited to more traditional styles of education. This can be great for leaders since you’ll cultivate the ability to explain things in-depth to your team, helping them learn as well. 

Online or in-person courses

If you’re trying to learn a new skill, like coding for example, you may benefit from taking a course. Depending on the school you can take courses online or in-person, giving you different ways and opportunities to learn. If you’re continuing to work and this course is part of professional development, you may choose a part-time course over full-time to fit better with your lifestyle. Online courses themselves may be live, in which you log into a classroom a get actual face time with your instructor. Online coding bootcamps are among schools leading the charge. 

MOOCs (massive open online courses)

When you take a course, you’re fully engaged in the material and get some sort of documentation of completion afterwards such as a diploma or degree. With MOOCs, you can “audit” courses from top universities around the world, for example from Yale University, Oxford University, or National University of Singapore. These courses are recorded on providers such as Coursera, EdEx and Khan Academy and touch on nearly every topic you can imagine and give you the opportunity to sit back and listen, much more like lecture style education. The benefit is that these courses are usually free or inexpensive and can be done at your own pace.

way managers learn - taking courses

TED Talks or similar thought leadership talks

TED was founded on the premise of “ideas worth spreading” and collects dozens of talks about nearly every topic you can imagine. Each talk is between five to 20 minutes and focused on one specific thing. Some famous TED Talks reach millions, such as Brene Brown’s viral talk on vulnerability. These talks are perfect for people who learn by thinking, as TED speakers tend to be the top in their respective fields or have a unique global experience. You can also find similar videos on YouTube from other providers, so if TED isn’t your style then you have other options.

For people who learn by analysis

Similar to people who learn by thinking, analyzers are the types that let the data teach them. Instead of listening to a professor or thought leader explain the logical steps, these people want to dig into raw data and identify the logical patterns behind the lessons themselves. A leader who learns by analysis will be great at data orientation, a skill that matches well with people who set visions. 

Read primary research on a topic

Instead of listening to the TED talk where a professor summarizes their learnings, go read their actual paper on JSTOR or another academic paper provider. It will likely be dense and certainly contain their methodology, some of their raw observational data, and academic sources, giving you first-hand knowledge of a topic. You may even find a different conclusion within their data or identify areas where the researchers simplified the findings for the sake of, say, a TED talk. If you’re an analyzer, these findings will excite you and you’ll learn much more than if you watched the summary video or literature review. 

Run data tests

If you want to analyze data to learn something, the best way to find it is to create it yourself. Look at data points within your organization or in others that you can find and analyze for patterns, trends, and more. (There are plenty of serious training courses in data science and popular data science tools like Python to help you on your journey.) Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, is an example of using data tests to explain business phenomena – he spends his career analyzing why things go viral (and published a book about it, too). Thinking like a researcher will help you a lot in this regard, since you can borrow study frameworks from academics to ensure your mini-tests are comprehensive and you don’t let any data bias creep into your study time. 

Leaders always learn

Regardless of how you learn, you can get a lot done. The key is to never stop learning – the world is changing rapidly and all good leaders need to do their best to keep up. Depending on your style, there are a lot of learning options in leadership and management, but don’t be afraid to mix up your styles as well. The more ways you can tackle a challenge, the more likely you are to solve it and cement the learning.

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