Meta-learning: the key to helping leaders become better learners

Meta-learning: the key to helping leaders become better learners

Views around executive potential and development are changing, and meta-learning can play a valuable role in helping executives become more aware and better learners, writes Anthony Mitchell

Meta-learning is important because leaders cannot succeed simply by relying on the capabilities they’ve developed in their past. They must be willing and able to develop new capabilities, especially in the VUCA world in which today’s organisations operate.

For this reason, we have seen a marked shift in success profiles for senior executive roles. Only a few years ago, such profiles focused on what an executive could provide or what he/she demonstrated through their achievements. The ‘potential’ dimension of nine-box performance-potential grids usually included factors such as ‘strategic thinking’, ‘executive presence’, and ‘inspiring others’. All of these are certainly desirable attributes but suffered from taking a somewhat fixed view of ability.

Today, we see that the key ingredients of potential are more likely to be attributes such as ‘growth mindset’, ‘curiosity’, ‘agility’ and ‘learning orientation’. These attributes reflect a compelling body of evidence that the best predictors of success at higher levels in the modern world are less about who you are today and more about your capacity to adapt, grow and change to be a different, better version of you tomorrow. Those who move most successfully from, say, a GM level to a C-suite role, are those most open to acknowledging that they aren’t pre-equipped with everything they need to succeed. They are open and interested in forging new capabilities, mindsets and behaviours.

Given the challenges for both leaders and organisations today, it’s hard to imagine that any attribute could be more important than ‘openness to learning’. But when Socrates said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, he was making the point that it is not enough for a human being to be conscious – we need to be conscious of our consciousness.

The same is true for learning. It’s wonderful, but meta-learning is far more valuable.

What is meta-learning?
Quite simply, it’s insight into learning itself. In a leader, it has a couple of key sub-components: understanding how adults learn most effectively; and understanding what steps you need to take to ensure that you keep learning in a way that will equip you for what’s coming next.

“Those who move most successfully from, say, a GM level to a C-suite role, are those most open to acknowledging that they aren’t pre-equipped with everything they need to succeed”

To put it another way, it is not enough that an executive says “I am keen and open to learning about what it will take for me to become an effective CEO”. I have met many leaders for whom this is true, but who aren’t yet equipped to make this a reality. The reason is that they don’t understand the implications for what, and more importantly, how they must learn. Even many of those who have a strong track record of learning have achieved this almost accidentally – yes, they have a strong drive for learning, but they have little or no mental representation of learning as a capability. Accordingly, how they learn is sub-optimal and their growth is more serendipitous than strategic.

This is most prevalent (though not unique) in those with strong technical backgrounds, such as lawyers, engineers and finance executives. They may have shown a strong willingness to learn, but much of this may have been framed in the context of their technical discipline and professional role. They are less likely to have perceived the qualitative shifts associated with the increasing complexity and ambiguity of role and context. They are also less likely to understand what kind of learning will be most effective for these needs.

Indeed, many executives have very little insight into how they have learned most effectively to date. They are quite likely to mis-identify the activities and approaches that have had the greatest learning efficacy. Why do they get this wrong? Of all the capabilities they’ve been trained in, directly or indirectly, meta-learning probably hasn’t been on the list.

As a result, their learning is like shooting a blunderbuss at a barn – they may still hit the target through the sheer volume of learning activity, but the vast majority of it will miss the target because it was on the wrong trajectory from the outset.

By contrast, if their meta-learning capability was stronger, their choices of learning activities and approaches would be very apt, driving rapid, material and sustainable growth in the capabilities most needed for their future direction. Think how powerful this is. The ability to learn what is most valuable for your future in a rapid quantum leap is effectively a superpower. And unlike most superpowers, this is one we can all develop.

“It’s essential that all leadership development interventions start with helping executives learn how best to learn and continue building this capability”

How to help leaders become better learners
What do leaders most frequently get wrong about learning? Two things:

  • They don’t understand what is needed. They don’t see how a CEO needs different skills from a member of the executive team, or what a manager of managers needs differently from a manager, or what an enterprise function leader needs differently from a line GM, and so on.
  • They don’t understand how best to learn. Even when trying to understand what has been most effective in their learning to date, they frequently misattribute what has been most powerful.

For this reason, it’s essential that all leadership development interventions start with helping executives learn how best to learn and continue building this capability. By doing so, the organisation is doing much more than developing them. It’s actually giving them a superpower. In fact, it’s perhaps the greatest superpower, because it’s the one that enables them to acquire other superpowers.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Five key elements of great meta-learning
What must executives understand about learning to be better meta-learners? Key elements include more highly valuing the following:

  • The need to develop more sophisticated mental representations and higher levels of consciousness. Put simply, they may not recognise that they need to rewire their brains (while maintaining their identity).
  • The need and ability to grow their growth mindset. They need to let go of whatever fixed views they have about what they can and cannot do, and believe in their ability to adapt and evolve.
  • It is critical that they develop the vulnerability and courage to seek out what scares them and do their learning in contexts which they find difficult and risky. They need to recognise that if they are finding the learning process easy and comfortable then they are selling themselves short of the growth they could be achieving. It is only by being stretched into discomfort that they can truly make leaps.
  • Rapid, high-quality behavioural feedback. While some executives welcome feedback, it is usually too infrequent and too inexpert. Feedback has to be continual, focus on actual behaviour and delivered by those who deeply understand what better looks like.
  • Diverse, immersive experiences, matched with reflective practices. Novel experiences drive new perspectives and speed up capability growth, but are only fully effective if the leader has ways of crystallising the insights from these experiences.

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