Executive Education

Continuous Learning for Executives: A Competitive Advantage

Leaders know learning is important, yet corporate learning initiatives too often get set aside in favor of other priorities deemed more important. And when it comes to learning for leaders, it’s even more common – continuous learning and training at the executive level is often overlooked, ignored or just not taken seriously. Whether it’s simply forgotten or assumed that an executive doesn’t need continued training and development, it’s holding organizations back from greater success.

The reality is that learning is just as important for business leaders and executives as it is for other employees. And committing to continuous learning at all levels can help organizations gain (or keep) a competitive advantage.

The importance and growth of corporate learning

In many ways, corporate learning and development has never been more important. With the rapid shift to remote work on a widespread scale, employees at all levels have had to quickly adjust to new technologies and methods. Working remotely also requires different ways of communicating, putting a spotlight on what are often considered “soft skills” – things like interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.

Consequently, learning initiatives are on the rise. According to LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, more than a third of global learning and development pros expect their budgets to grow year over year – with online learning programs seeing the most growth. The report also found that 83% of learning and development pros said executive buy-in wasn’t a challenge, but only 27% of CEOs were active champions of learning. It’s important for managers and leaders to model learning from the top down.

The importance of learning at the executive level

Learning and development initiatives shouldn’t stop before the top; executives also need to be continuously learning and gaining new training. It can be way too easy to rest on one’s laurels, so to speak, once you’ve reached the executive level. For those who reach the top echelons of their organization, there’s a temptation to think there’s nothing left to learn.

This can be a dangerous mindset. Think about the most talented professional athletes – just because they’ve reached the top doesn’t mean they stop training. They know there is always room for growth, for practicing the things you’re learning, for trying new methods and approaches. For senior executives looking to move further up the corporate ladder, gaining new skills and leadership training can be a major part of their own career development as well.

Another benefit of having executives engaged in this kind of continuous learning is the impact it can have on the rest of the organization. For example, when executives get involved in creating and curating content, it can help drive employee engagement, too. It’s the “practicing what you preach” phenomenon that demonstrates authentic leadership and makes others want to follow your example.

Future-focused soft skills training

For executives, soft skills carry huge weight; these are a major part of being a good leader. And as mentioned above, this is key for executives’ own career development paths as well as key for their current roles. Having a plan and a competency framework in place helps ensure executive learning happens on a regular basis in alignment with corporate goals and initiatives.

These competency frameworks are associated with different levels within an organization. A good framework clearly lays out career steps for leaders at each level and the competencies required at each step. Many organizations do not have this clear training path in place, but it’s the foundation of a strong learning and development program.

This sets the absolute requirements of what kind of training you need, but that’s not enough. You also need to allocate the budgets for training in your organization, but that’s still not enough. You need to take it a level further. You need to actually build it into your organization’s compensation plans. Many of today’s incentive models are looking back in time at an employee’s achievements and deciding to reward them for that. It’s not wrong to do this; it’s just not a future-focused model. With respect to training and continuous learning, you need to look forward. You need to prepare people for what’s coming in the next year, and the next year, and the year after that. This model rewards training being completed in anticipation of what’s to come, instead of back at the past.

Strategic learning leadership

A lot of the narrative about learning and development at the moment is framed as a lack of skills and feels targeted to entry and midlevel positions. It’s not that this assessment is incorrect; it’s just not the whole picture. Continuous learning at the executive level is often overlooked or assumed to be unnecessary. After all, if people have made it into the C-suite, don’t they already know all they need to know to be successful?

As many a disgruntled direct report can testify, the answer is a resounding “No.” Soft skills can make or break an executive, and it’s crucial for organizations to support the success of all employees – including their leaders. Executive participation in ongoing learning sets an example for employees to follow, and it also prepares the company for what lies ahead. Tie learning into your compensation plans to chart a clear path for both your leadership and your organization as a whole.

Written by Lars Vestergaard.

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Lars Vestergaard
As chief executive officer of LMS365, Lars Vestergaard has built strong momentum in providing effective digital learning to learners across the globe. Lars has over 20 years of experience in leading management positions at various international IT companies including IBM and Timextender. With his business expertise, Lars volunteers as a mentor and judge at Venture Cup Denmark, where he provides feedback judging startups and business ideas. Lars Vestergaard is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on on LinkedIn.