Why lifelong learners make great leaders.

I live my life by the tenet that learning is a lifelong mission at the core of personal and professional growth. I instilled this value in my children and I used it as a pillar on which I built a global organization.

In the year 2000, when I established the Decision Management Organization at Citi, I created a mission and identified five core values to create a unique culture. My intent was to:

Foster a continuous learning environment to anticipate solutions for future business needs.

Learning was chief among the five core values. I then determined five traits that would enable both the organization as a whole and the individuals within it to grow as learners:

  • Admit and learn from mistakes
  • Look for and take advantage of opportunities to learn and teach
  • Provide coaching and ask for feedback
  • Invest in learning
  • Continue self-development

As a leader, I worked everyday to embody these values and lead by example.

How do you nurture a value of learning?

Everyone knows the old adage: “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

At Citi, I wanted an organization that could feed itself.  So, when it came time to introduce a new credit card optimization technique and we didn’t have the expertise, I invested in a top management consulting firm to “teach” us. This was a critical competency in the market at that time, and I didn’t want an outside firm to just “give us a fish” – I wanted my organization to “learn to fish.”

My small team from Citi spent months at the consultants’ offices, working in their systems side-by-side with their employees. They set up a dedicated room for us and they established an instructional day when they flew in their industry experts to provide an academic training environment for us. By digging into the data and analytics, working on pricing and revenue management and testing pricing and offers, we mastered the optimization technique. In the years to come, we creatively developed our “fishing” skills, continually feeding on our learning.

This credit card optimization technique ultimately became our “premier” sustainable capability. As a result of that learning experience, we generated billions – yes, billions – of dollars.

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Why life-long learners make great leaders.

Although learners take all shapes, they all possess the same raw material: intellect, desire and a passionate interest in something. I look to provide these individuals with opportunities that allow them to broaden their horizons. In doing so, we create experiences. Through experience, we form memory. Through memory, we learn.

Further, creating a learning culture rewards creativity. Creativity is the path to discovery. Creativity – imagination, inventiveness, ingenuity – is how we take ideas and concepts and transform them into products, services and technology.

In a recent Johns Hopkins Magazine article, “A Lot To Learn,” exploring the science of learning, Barry Gordon, professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, finds:

“It takes a lifetime of learning to learn how to live.”

The article discusses the theory that at a neural level learning is a function of creating memories. Expanding on Gordon’s thought, the author Dale Keiger, concludes: “That lifetime of learning is a lifetime of accumulating memories.”

To become a great leader, you must experience deeply and learn from every experience. Great leaders are continuous learners. Analytics leaders are no different; we just have more data.

When an opportunity presents itself, a door opens to lead you down a path. A different door may lead to a different path. As Lou Reed sings: “There’s a door up ahead not a wall.” (Magic and Loss, 1992)

When taking an opportunity, you can never fully know what kind of experience awaits you, but you can approach any experience with your eyes wide and a willingness to learn. It’s not about the decision you make. It’s about seizing the opportunity to experience – and learn.

How about you? Tell me about a great learning experience you’ve had and how it helped you become a better leader.

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