UncategorizedIdentify (and Hire) Lifelong Learners

Identify (and Hire) Lifelong Learners

By Marc Zao-Sanders*

© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

From HBR.org Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Photos: Shutterstock


Talent management has undergone a massive overhaul, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Working environments, business priorities, and new technologies have been updated with prodigious urgency. In January 2020, the World Economic Forum called for a global reskilling revolution, and firms now require different skills of their workforces including resilience and adaptability as well as digital, design, and interpersonal skills.

These changes have been a challenge for job candidates and employers alike. But I believe that there’s a simple way to bring some much-needed clarity and guidance to the mix — while also adding value throughout the employee life cycle, from hiring to managing performance.

The secret is for employers to ask current and prospective employees a simple question: “How do you learn?” This is not about simplistic learning preferences (such as schedules and modalities) or broadly discredited definitions of learning styles. This is about an individual’s personal system for updating, improving, and sharing knowledge and skills. Does the job candidate you’re considering have such a system? And, for that matter, do you?

This may be the most pertinent question one can ask of a current or future employee. Future performance is as determined by high-caliber, systematic, intentional skills development as it is by past achievements and qualifications, the traditional fare of job interviews.

Lifelong learning is now widely considered to be an economic imperative and, according to one author, “the only sustainable competitive advantage.” Job candidates and employees who consider, update, and improve their skills are the high performers, especially over the longer term. Pressing ourselves on the question of how we learn brings a hard, pragmatic edge to the important but nebulous notion of a growth mindset.

Let’s consider how the question applies to two key stages of the employee life cycle: hiring and performance management.

Hiring and getting hired

Suppose the question were routinely asked during the screening process. Convincing answers would indicate high levels of curiosity and organization and a solid learning methodology.

As a hiring manager:

Take care to be inclusive and open-minded about what counts as learning. This is partly to be able to appreciate cultural and personal differences. It’s also to recognize that there is a dizzying proliferation of content from which one can learn: courses, books, people, poems, performance support tools, songs, films, conversations, observations, reflections, memories, and more. How does the candidate go about making sense of all of this? How does she face up to content overload?

Ask the candidate about something they’ve recently learned. And most importantly, ask how they could apply it in the role for which you are considering them.

Be prepared to have the same question asked of you. Show an awareness of the skills deemed to be of particularly high value at the firm — this is typically a list of 20 to 100 skills, behaviors, and values that have been defined with care.

As a job candidate:

Ask about the learning culture and facilities for learning at the firm. This will help you understand more about the environment you may be walking into, and will help demonstrate your interest in learning to your prospective employer.

Don’t wait to be asked about how you learn. Volunteer your thoughtful answer at the right moment in the conversation.

Be prepared to answer any and all of the above questions for hiring managers. 

Performance management

Asking the question “How do you learn?” can also lead to rewards during the appraisal process. In addition to assessing and rewarding past performance, a properly conducted appraisal will identify skills gaps to close and strengths to reinforce. And the progressive employer will have curated the right learning content to achieve this for their workforce, along with intelligent technologies to distribute the right learning to the right learner. They may also incorporate the question into performance management software, so it is fully embedded for everyone. The question usefully tees up the conversation for the next appraisal: “So what did you learn?”

A corollary of all this is that individuals should ensure that they have a system in place to reliably and consistently develop their skills and thinking. Even within a progressive and innovative corporate culture, responsibility for learning ultimately lies with the learner.

We all, as individuals, need to develop and demonstrate more curiosity about skills. Which are the skills of your best self? Which skills are the real differentiating strengths that are not only important in your current role, but to your entire career? Where do the gaps lie? How do we make abstract concepts such as communication, leadership, and resilience more concrete? How should we quantify, calibrate, and talk about our skills?

Skills are the lingua franca of talent management and run through all the important documents of the employee life cycle, from résumés to job descriptions to learning content to appraisals. We need to develop more skills intelligence, as individuals and as organizations.

There are many practices that may help the learner, including but not limited to:

•Developing Positive Learning Habits. A habit starts out as an activity. Choose activities that suit your personality, lifestyle, and working pattern so they are more likely to develop into enduring habits.

• Improving Performance Through Deliberate Practice. Deconstruct the skill you’re trying to develop, and take proactive and specific measures to improve each component part. This practice stands in contrast to just repeating tasks in the same way each time.

• Maintaining a “Learned” and “To-Learn” List that stays with you throughout your career, not just during your tenure at your current employer. This can be a simple spreadsheet or a Google doc. What’s important is that it covers what you learned, where and when you learned it, and ideally how you’ve applied it (written retrospectively). The list should enable you to answer an otherwise onerous question like: “What were you learning six months ago?”

• Utilizing a 2×2 Matrix Approach to Help You Choose The Right Skills to Focus on Now. Few of us have much time to learn, so we should prioritize our endeavors by weighing the benefits of applying a new skill against the cost of acquiring it.

The world and the workplace have changed. The skills we need to function and flourish have also changed, so we need to bring a smarter, sharper focus to knowing what they are and how to seek them out proactively, persistently, and methodically. One way of doing that is by asking ourselves and others: “How do you learn?”

*Marc Zao-Sanders is the CEO and founder of filtered.com.