In the summer of 2021, amid a wave of the coronavirus in Germany, our eldest son Michael informed us that he would be starting his first full-time job at an environmentally-friendly start-up. We were excited to hear the news and followed with great interest as he told us about the company’s culture, which included activities such as group sports on Wednesdays and swimming in the river on hot days. As parents, it was wonderful to see our child becoming independent and enjoying his work. We were particularly happy to see Michael thriving in his new job and appreciated the supportive and enjoyable work environment at the start-up.
Michael’s career debut contrasted with my own experience at his age. At that time, I was working for a traditional company whose owners were proud to be the third generation running the business. The atmosphere at work was very serious and working beyond the legal maximum of 48 hours per week was expected. There was no concept of work-life balance, and sacrifice for work was considered a virtue. I was glad to see that my son was experiencing a different culture and energy, which is typical of startups. These companies are the engine of innovation in an economy and, although they may struggle to survive, they challenge the status quo with their disruptive ideas and can sometimes cause established companies to tremble for their survival.
A Standard & Poor study shows that the average lifespan of companies in 2020 is less than 20 years, down from 35 years in the 1960s. Organizations that cease to exist, whether they are long-established or new, are usually acquired by other companies, fail to find a successor, or even go bankrupt. In the latter case, one reason for bankruptcy is the failure to adapt to a changing environment. And if we consider that organizations are manmade organisms, then Charles Darwin’s quote is fitting: “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, but rather, that which is most adaptable to change.”
Change, this eternal aspect of life, seems to be accelerating in the business world today, coming from all directions simultaneously. Companies must deal with changes caused by the environment, wars, politics, pandemics, regulations, economics, technology, markets, and consumers. To make matters worse, change is also happening at the workforce level, limiting a company’s ability to adapt to the environment.
The usual recourse to bring in new talent from the outside is not as easy as it used to be, as many organizations are finding that there are few applicants who meet the job requirements. Another challenge comes from the young people entering the workforce, who have a different value system than that of previous generations. The old motivation system based on status symbols and monetary incentives is not as effective with them as it used to be with older generations. Young people expect flexibility at work, value learning on the job, are not driven by hierarchy or power, and ideally look for purpose in their work. At the same time, in most developed countries, there are fewer people entering the job market and people are expected to work longer years to compensate for the decline in birthrate and save for the retirement system, if it exists. This equation is not easy, especially with the rising mental health issues among all age groups, which reduce productivity at companies.
But perhaps, this is where lies the opportunity! Some facts are already pointing at it. It is proven now that the brain is never too old to learn. We just learn differently when we are older. We are also able to combine our learning with our experience. Learning on the job is also appealing to the young. Another overseen advantage is that multigenerational teams could enjoy different perspectives and be very creative. Last but not least, learning and working have a great impact on optimism in life, hence reducing the mental health problems.
“You should keep on learning as long as there is something you do not know” — wrote Seneca. What applies to individuals applies to organizations as well. And that’s the opportunity; in creating a Learning Culture in which everyone is constantly learning, helping their company, their team and most of all themselves, to develop new competences to adapt to an ever-changing world.
To grasp the concept of culture in an organization, one could compare it to the personality of an individual. The question arises then, are cultures like personalities apt to change? Or are they doomed to stay as they are? That’s the eternal debate between the determinists and the free will advocates. My belief, it all depends on the environment we have or help to create and on the choices we take. And both environment and choices are intertwined. Hereafter I gathered 8 principles, mostly inspired from systemic coaching*, that help creating a learning culture:
1. It starts with leadership. Leadership on eye level, as a coach rather than giving orders. Leaders should ask more questions than give answers. If leaders have all the answers, then there is no need to look for them. One just has to ask the leader. Dictators don’t ask questions. They own the absolute truth. That’s why democracies thrive in the long run, because many people are engaged in finding answers to unsolved problems.
2. But it takes two to tango. Leaders alone cannot create a learning culture. Individuals need to be ready to leave the comfort of traditional tasks to learn new ones. There is a hidden pleasure in being told what to do, in blaming superiors if things go wrong. Team members need to understand that it is for their own benefit and part of their personal growth to learn new competencies and to be able to come up with answers rather than questions.
3. Integrating learning into the culture is essential. Changes happen when they are integrated into the routine. One doesn’t become fit by exercising occasionally. One needs to integrate training into one’s routine. If we’re constantly checking on figures, then the implicit message to the team is clear: look at the numbers. Learning will then be relegated to that time that we won’t find, like those interesting articles that we save but never read.
4. Learning on the job rather than off the job. Many of us have experienced that “wow” effect at some trainings that we forgot the day we got back to our routine. To be productive and long-lasting, learning is best done in practice.
5. Failures are learning opportunities. I have the impression that we hear this in almost every Ted talk and read it in almost all business books, yet we seldom live it. If only successes are celebrated and failures are either penalized or covered up, then we’re not learning and we’re not encouraging people to take the risks necessary to learn.
6. Prototyping instead of launching large projects. Start small so that mistakes are also small and there is no pressure to deliver at any cost due to the promises of big projects. When success is clear, then scale it up. In systemic coaching, there is a saying: “Away from the event, and into the process.”
7. Learning as a team and in teams. Learning is not the responsibility of just one highly talented individual in the organization, but rather the responsibility of the team. It is best when colleagues can learn together or teach each other. Teaching others a task is a way of mastering it.
8. Creating space for learning — ”beware the barrenness of a busy life” — Socrates is known to have said. If we’re constantly sitting in endless meetings and managing emails, there is little room left for learning. Learning needs to be allocated time, or it will be postponed to that day that never comes.
Start-ups often require extra creativity and energy to survive, so they create a cooperative and positive atmosphere at work to foster these qualities. As companies grow, they need more efficiency to improve their financial performance, so they put structures in place and improve processes. However, bureaucracy can also creep in, along with ego and power struggles. This can lead to a loss of the company’s spirit and to a decrease in productivity due to internal conflicts. On the other hand, companies that cultivate a learning culture are less likely to experience these issues. Such a culture fosters an environment where intuition and creativity can thrive, which is essential for sustainable growth. It also helps to create an environment where employees of all generations feel engaged.