March 16, 2022

Paid to Learn

During my first career, I had an incredible boss. His name was Eric. A tall, slender man with an unusually calm and confident demeanor, Eric was known for his ability to cut through complexity and lead through challenges — skills that would be especially useful when joining our team.

At the time of Eric's hiring, our group wasn’t doing well. The leader before him was fired due to "differences in values,” and we were divided. I was 23 years old, and I firmly believed I was right about everything, so I wasn't very helpful.

Begin by Pausing
One of the first things Eric did was to pull our team out of our day-to-day work. He booked a small place to host a retreat, and helped our team reset — both as individuals and as teammates. This was over ten years ago, but I still remember some of his first questions:

  • What makes you sad, sing, spit?
  • Why are you here?
  • Where could we be in 1 year? 5 years?

The questions throughout our time together weren't especially unique, but the mix of having a new voice, a new space, and a break from the dynamics that were plaguing our team was a much-needed respite. For the first time in months, we had a chance to pause. But it wasn’t just a pause — it was intentional, thoughtful, and well-facilitated.

Self-Directed Growth
After that first retreat, Eric continued to invest in our learning and development. He signed off on an array of learning opportunities we brought to him — from design courses to conferences. More surprisingly, Eric saw those experiences as work — not "extra time." He simply asked that we share our lessons with him and the team. Because of Eric, I had opportunities to learn more about public speaking, leadership, social enterprise, and visual design. I became a better employee, but more importantly, I began seeing learning as a part of my job.

Learning Today
The landscape of "learning benefits" has evolved greatly over the years. Today, learning is one of the most undervalued and under-represented activities in the workplace. We're so focused on making sure we hire great people, we can forget that those individuals will need to continue growing. Topics ranging from leadership skills, diversity & inclusion, innovation, and wellness are in dire need in every corner of the workplace. And yet, the mix of weighty demands and tiring workloads can push "learning" of any kind to the bottom of our lists — especially travel or retreat experiences.

The Fish Stinks from the Head Down
In order for a learning culture to take root, people with authority need to prioritize it for themselves first. The Ei team and I have loved watching leaders who see learning as both essential and joyful — an opportunity to learn, grow, try new things, and reconnect — and they dive in headfirst. They look for opportunities that are unique and memorable, and they reward learning as much as they reward winning a new client or leading a successful project. It’s not an “extra’ — it’s a must.

Start Simple
For many of us, embracing learning as part of work is a shift. So, start simple.

First, if you're at a job today, ask about policies for learning programs. What is covered in terms of opportunities, costs, and your time? And if you're in a position of authority, evaluate your policies and consider updating them in partnership with 1-2 key leaders in your company (design with them, not for them).

Then, consider taking it one step further. What learning opportunities involve new projects, new relationships (across teams or externally), and new environments? Those are often the most celebrated, but the most challenging to design and implement.

Change by Experience
For teams, companies, and our society to make progress, learning must be central and celebrated, especially opportunities for new and meaningful experiences. Allocating time, resources, and compensation will seem challenging amidst other priorities, but putting it off will create much greater challenges in the long run (burnout, turnover, dysfunction, lack of growth, etc).

When experiential learning shifts to a central activity, you and the people around you won’t only work better today, but you’ll also find yourselves looking back at these years with gratitude and fondness for the moments of growth that changed you for the better (thanks Eric).

PS: Last week, we announced that we'll be hosting a 5-day leadership retreat in Hudson Valley focused on core tenants of leading self, and self others. This Friday, the Ei & Remote Year teams will be hosting a 30-minute info session to share more and answer your questions. 11am PT / 2pm ET. Register below and we’ll see you then!

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