It used to be that what a person learned in college was enough to last through most of their career. Things didn’t change that much, and the learning that happened in school was enough for them to get by. That’s no longer the case. Today, leaders and employees at all levels need to be constantly learning and establishing a learning culture within their organizations.
When researching for my book, The Future Leader, I interviewed more than 140 top CEOs around the world about the skills and mindsets leaders need to master to be successful in the next decade and beyond. I heard over and over again about the need for leaders to become perpetual learners, but only a few leaders touched on the importance of extending that mindset to the entire organization. One of the them was Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP. She leads a team of 2,300 employees to serve 38 million members around the world. Jo Ann is definitely a super perpetual learner, but she has also worked hard to create a learning culture at her company and develop future leaders.
Creating A Learning Culture
Jo Ann believes that a learning culture isn’t just something that’s nice to have; it’s so powerful that not having it can lead to a company’s demise.
“Organizations that are not continually learning and adapting will lose their competitive edge and ultimately won’t survive,” she said.
Clearly, continually learning and encouraging others in your company to do the same is imperative. Jo Ann encourages her employees to try new things and fail fast. At AARP, employees know it is ok to fail and learn, as long as they share that learning across the organization so no one else makes the same mistake. This is particularly noteworthy for a company that had long been much more risk averse. Jo Ann says the new approach promotes risks towards big opportunities for AARP to engage more members and engender brand loyalty.
One of the biggest things to continually learn about is technology. Jo Ann says that even though technology is changing at a rapid pace now, this is the slowest it will ever be. To succeed, leaders of the future must stay ahead of new technology and continually innovate, take measured risks, and be ready to change and adapt at any moment. Leaders can’t lead with their heads down but must look around and be aware of what’s happening around them by talking to people, experimenting, and looking to what’s happening on the horizon.
Employees want to work for organizations that provide learning resources and opportunities. Jo Ann also told me, “Organizations that do not develop a learning culture will not be able to hire and retain the kinds of talent they need to succeed. Those people will just go somewhere else. For future leaders, this type of perpetual learning is as essential as air and water.”
Developing Future Leaders
AARP places a huge emphasis on developing future leaders at all levels throughout the organization. The foundation of all future leaders is the company’s values: impact, innovation, humanity, empowerment, and honesty. Every AARP leader is expected to practice core behaviors including Talk Straight/Listen Actively, Take an Enterprise-wide View, Make Informed Decisions, Inspire and Engage, and Exhibit Integrity. Jo Ann says applying the core values and behaviors helps the company create leaders who are challenging the status quo and taking AARP in new directions. Current leaders aim to organize teams that possess strong technical skills, critical thinking skills, and creative problem-solving skills that will be crucial to future leaders.
Jo Ann and AARP created two leadership development programs to not only teach their employees skills for the future but also build the company’s learning culture. The first leadership program is called the AgL Program and is targeted at AARP’s vice presidents and higher. Leaders at the director level participate in Leading From the Middle. In partnership with Georgetown University, these programs help leaders at all levels feel engaged and build their skills and sense of ownership.
As employees develop into leaders, they also find their purpose and meaning. Jo Ann understands the importance of having employees who are engaged in projects that allow them to express their gifts and causes they are passionate about. The more skills employees develop, the more passions they can find. Learning creates purpose and meaning.
“It doesn’t matter whether we’re just graduating college or coming to the end of a lifetime of service to an organization or cause, the same powerful impulse to express who we are through what we do remains alive at every point in our lives,” Jo Ann said.
Shaping The Future Of Work
Jo Ann and her team at AARP are creating a workplace that supports how people work today and how they will work in the future. The national office recently underwent a complete renovation to support a more interactive, collaborative, and mobile workforce. The updated offices include new fitness facilities to reflect AARP’s commitment to health, flexible meeting spaces to accommodate changing needs, and new technology and collaboration tools.
AARP isn’t just focused on the here and now—it is also developing innovative tools and processes for its future workforce. Its recent organization-wide technology upgrade was aimed at equipping the workforce of the future with the technology to work from anywhere, any time. This matches with Jo Ann’s belief that leaders of the future need to be technologically savvy and be a positive role model in adopting new technology.
The future of work doesn’t just happen with an updated office or a leadership development program. In order to shape the future of work, companies and leaders need to develop a mindset of innovation, growth, and collaboration. By valuing its employees and encouraging development and flexibility, AARP is shaping the future of work and creating a sustainable learning culture.
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