Far too often, I work with clients who love the idea of building a learning culture, but who aren’t taking any steps to create one. They’ve seen the dismal reports on levels of employee engagement, accepted the prevailing wisdom that learning and development opportunities are key drivers of engagement and retention, and then… they get stuck.  

Before starting a relationship with a client I always arrange a discovery session, basically it’s a chance for me to ask questions, listen, and see if we are a good fit for each other.

It’s kind of like the business version of match making. I strongly believe it’s the best way to start a potential relationship. The questions I ask usually include:

  • What does your reality currently look like?
  • Where would you like to go? What does success look like?
  • What challenges are getting in the way of your vision?
  • What are the strengths of your team?

Very quickly I get a clear sense of their vision and challenges, and if there is a potential connection. If I feel that the client is a good fit for me, one of my follow up questions is:

“On a scale of one to ten, how important is it to your company to build a learning culture?”

I usually get answers ranging from seven all the way up to ten—well above average. Interesting. I follow up with something along the lines of: “That’s amazing. What are you doing to get that score?”

Awkward silence. I try to ride this out, and wait until they start speaking. Often, it’s some version of: “Well, we had a speaker at our annual sales meeting, bought everyone a copy of the book… that pretty much blew our budget and available time… so…” They clearly know that their efforts aren’t capable of making a meaningful change in their culture.

Sound familiar? While just about every executive I know agrees that learning is an important element of a strong culture, very few of them are taking actual concrete steps to ensure that continuous learning is happening within their organizations.

Here are my top three tips to start to build a learning culture, right now. Don’t wait for your next annual all-staff meeting, or for that big industry conference. Start today, and the results will roll in sooner than you think.

1) Begin With the End in Mind

Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was one of the first business books I read, and it’s status as a classic is well-earned—the advice holds up almost 30 years later.

Get clear on what success looks like for you and your team at the end of the year or quarter. What does your team need to do to meet their targets? Are there any gaps in their skills or expertise that need to be addressed? Think about “soft skills” in addition to technical requirements—does your team need to improve their ability to collaborate, or increase their agility when responding to challenges? Do you think investing time on innovative thinking, communication or teamwork is important? Define what success looks like, and reverse engineer your goal, starting with the end in mind.

I use this principle when I have a potential client. I ask them to imagine we are meeting again a year from now, after we’ve achieved an unequivocal success, and resolved the issue they brought me in to address. What does that meeting look like? What has happened to make them feel that we’ve been successful? Their answer provides me with valuable information I can use to reverse engineer a learning and development program.

2) Define Your First Step

Ever been to a “brainstorming” meeting where a challenge is given to the group and everyone comes up with a list of ideas? What happens next? Usually nothing. Take that same meeting, add 10 minutes, and ask the team lead to select one item on the list. Assign a first step toward implementing your one item. Now you’re cooking.

Too often, people try to tackle big issues that are tricky to define. They want to improve employee engagement, or increase innovation, or become more agile. Those are excellent goals, but they are too big and too nebulous to really get started. Start with a small pilot to address a particular need your team faces. If your goal is to build a learning culture, your first step might be scheduling 15 minute 1:1 meetings with each member of your team to discuss their learning and development goals. It might be to circulate one article that is relevant to the team, and scheduling a time to bring everyone together for a discussion. Clearly define what the first step will be.

3) Make Learning a Regular Part of Your Schedule

One of the challenges of starting something new is making it a regular part of your schedule. Remember in January you said you were going to get up thirty minutes early to exercise every day? Are you still doing it?

Change is challenging, so make it as easy as possible. If you have a regularly scheduled weekly or monthly meeting, attach a learning component to it. Put it in your calendar and on the agenda. Too often, I see organizations rely on one-off training sessions to provide all of their learning for teams. But learning doesn’t happen that way. We learn best in small doses that can be immediately applied to our lives. Focus on incremental, consistent changes, and you’ll start to see lasting results.

You don’t need to be a learning and development expert to see positive impact—tap into the expertise of the team and encourage them to teach each other. Find out what people are reading, watching, and listening to, and use that content to spark a discussion that applies to the work your team does. Begin with a clear vision of what success looks like, clearly define your first steps, and put your calendar to work for you.

Last but certainly not least: model the behavior you want to see. How are you learning and growing as a leader? What steps are you taking in your own professional development? Share those actions with your team! You will signal that learning is a priority within your organization, and your team will follow suit.

Too often, leaders love the idea of improving their culture, but fall short of taking the required actions. It’s time to get unstuck, to take control of the changes we want in our organizations, and to build a learning culture that teams will need to keep pace with the rapid shifts in the business landscape.