Why you need to prioritise learning in your teams
Here’s a question for you. How fast can you peddle a bike? 10mph? 20mph? You may know the answer because you’re an ardent cyclist with all the tech. Or you may have no idea and take a random guess. Now tell me what you think the record is for the fastest speed on a bike? I reckon that you doubled, tripled or quadrupled your first answer. Am I right?
This is what I see when I do this exercise with clients. It illustrates something fascinating about the way we think as humans. Our default is to think in a linear, not exponential, way. We’re amazed that the speed record for cycling is 184mph set by Denise Mueller-Korenek in 2018. And we’re self-referential when we make these judgements. Decisions are based on our own experience of the world. When we see something we don’t know, we think, ‘How hard would it be for me?’
This is where curiosity comes in. Without it, your team will look at your business in a linear way. Even when the world is full of examples of exponential thinking. The danger is by looking backwards, you’ll see what you achieved last year and use that as a benchmark for next year’s growth. It’s the trap I see so many businesses fall into. And it doesn’t lead to a high performing team.
Learning is the key here. Successful teams are naturally curious, constantly acquiring knowledge and using it to get better at what they do.
Look for exponential goals
A learning mindset will lead teams to look outside their own business for examples of best practice. I know this from experience – it’s been my approach at all the companies I’ve run. At Rackspace, churn was our secret weapon. The industry average was 2% but our customer base was growing at 3% because we’d invested in service. Even though this was already high, I went looking for a benchmark outside our industry that we could use to set ourselves a higher goal. I found it at First Direct, the UK’s first telephone bank. When I spoke to their CEO, he told me their annual churn was 4% – he didn’t think they could do better than this. This gave me my 200mph bike ride – and we had something bigger to aim for.
This type of curiosity makes all the difference. If it’s been done somewhere else, in another city, country or industry, you know it can be done again. And it’s motivational. The question is finding it.
Your teams might know their internal metrics – their profit per x, scorecard or revenue per head. The internal score is clear to them. But they need to know what the score is in the industry. How they measure up. Otherwise, they don’t get to repeat what the best people in the world have done. They can’t climb on the shoulders of giants.
Go out and find external benchmarks
A great way to learn is by getting a third party assessment. These can be invaluable. Take the Management Today Service Excellence Awards. They’ll tell you where your business sits not just in your industry but more broadly. Say you come 13th. The next year you can ring all twelve companies who were above you in the ranking to find out how they do things.
The year we won this award at Rackspace, we’d done 26 benchmarking visits. Yep, that’s right. 26. We sent teams of three people out to investigate what other companies did better than us. They came back with nifty ideas and, if they fitted with our culture and ways of working, we’d implement them straight away. In fact, during this time, I earned the reputation of a human magpie because I loved collecting shiny things and making them my own!
The team at Macquarie Telecom, one of my long-standing clients, are constantly learning and growing. They’re masters at finding benchmarks. Based in Australia, they’d decided early on that service was going to be their differentiator and Net Promoter Score® their tool to achieve this. So they went around the world looking for companies that had used NPS successfully. And that’s how they met me. I was Managing Director of Peer 1 and David Tudehope, their CEO, interviewed me to hear chapter and verse about how NPS® had driven our growth.
Macquarie’s non-stop quest for knowledge is inspiring and matches my own. I knew when I spoke to them that we would get on well. And we have. Since that first meeting, I’ve arranged further strategic visits to the UK. Each year, they get their executive team together to work out their one strategic priority. Then what they need to know. And, if they can’t find that knowledge in Australia, they ring me. ‘Dom – how do we add multi-million dollars to our telco revenue?’ Or ‘In relation to Microsoft and Azure, who in the UK is acing it with their Azure growth? ‘Can you help us find the 20 best cloud consultancies in the UK and arrange for us to meet their CEOs?’ Their stock price has increased exponentially. And it’s all down to curiosity.
Recruit for curiosity
Without a doubt, a learning mindset will drive individual growth and development. This is what you should encourage in all your teams. But it tends to be innate. Some people just aren’t curious and are happy with what they know. So you need to actively recruit for it.
My advice is, keep it vague at interview. Peer 1 was an IT infrastructure services business so I would say, “Come and talk to me for 10 minutes and answer, ‘Why cloud, why Peer 1 and why you?’” Candidates were primed to find out why they wanted to work for us. Some would parrot off a few paragraphs that they’d read on the website. Dull! Others might find something a bit more interesting from more extensive research. But the ones who invariably got the job had often done something more ingenious. Maybe, they’d rung our staff to ask them why they liked working for us. There it was – right there. Curiosity. It speaks volumes about their mindset.
Harness the super-powers of new recruits
Once you’ve recruited people with innate curiosity, they should know that they’ve joined an organisation that values learning. Treat them as people with superpowers that will fade unless they’re tapped into. Here’s a great analogy. My student digs in Newcastle. They were breathtakingly horrible. Brown plastic carpet, orange plastic sofa, purple plastic curtains – the first time you walked through the door, you felt sick! But after a few weeks, we stopped noticing.
Don’t let this happen to your new staff. In those early weeks, they’ll see what makes no sense. It’ll be blindingly obvious. A learning organisation will tap into this whilst it’s still fresh in their minds. You want them to spot all the things you do that are discordant. The low-level annoyances that wind people up. Any stupid rules or unnecessary processes. Ask them where they’ve seen things done better. You’ll know where you need to up your game. Great learning for your organisation.
At Rackspace and Peer 1, I gave all new staff a little black book on their first day. I asked them to write all this stuff down and then I’d take them out to lunch every month or so to discuss their thoughts. Not only was I tapping into their super-powers. I was also showing them that we were a team who liked to learn from each other. And we valued their opinion. Win-win!
If you’re inquisitive, you’ll go far!
And me personally? Well, I can’t help but learn stuff! ‘Learner’ is one of my top 5 Gallup Strengths. I think about what will make me more successful as a business coach and then throw myself into learning something new. This year, I’ve been doing NLP training. I’ve recognised that often, what holds companies back is the interpersonal skills of CEOs. So I’m hoping I’ll learn some techniques that I can share to help leaders realise their full potential.
It’s also why I do the Melting Pot podcast and newsletter every week. I get to interrogate experts that don’t know me from Adam about something that’s interesting to me. Even if no-one listens, it’s fine because I’ve soaked up all their information like a sponge. Likewise, I read books and articles voraciously so the newsletter gives me the opportunity to share what I’ve learned. I’m indulging my curiosity.