Linking Proficiency to Purpose

Adult learning and child learning are different when it comes to focus.

Children are patient with the delayed application that “someday you’ll find this helpful.” Adults question the worth of knowing everything.

As adults, we want real-time relevance and application. With the tie to usefulness unclear, our attention is lost.

Proper protégé motivation is vital to protégé learning. Motivation is surfaced by linking what’s being learned with a greater purpose. As learners, we need the “why” as much as the “how.”

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. is known for extraordinary elegance and world-class service. Winner of two Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards, it achieved distinction through great quality.

A vital part of the Ritz-Carlton consistency comes through a clear vision: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Every employee from property general manager to housekeeper is clear on that vision.

As clear as its vision is, it’s useless unless it’s kept alive and fresh. It becomes no more than a clever laminated card unless it serves as the grounding for every decision.

When Ritz-Carlton employees do “line-up” — a stand-up meeting at every shift change — it includes an articulation of “what we learned today that would impact our guests’ experience tomorrow.”

Learning is tied to purpose.

Springfield ReManufacturing goes a step further. Employees are taught business literacy skills. “We want our employees to know the skills needed to run their jobs just like it was their own business,” said CEO Jack Stack. “If they don’t know the impact of their everyday decisions on the profitability of the business, how can we expect them to not be wasteful or inefficient?”

Mentoring with focus means taking time to link emerging acumen with an exciting goal. It might not be the global vision but rather some short-term objective of the unit.

Adult-learning guru Fredric Margolis has said, “When giving learning direction, always let the ‘why’ come before the ‘what’ or the ‘how.’ ” The crux of Margolis’s point is that learners can psychologically hear the “what” or “how” in a different way if it’s preceded by the rationale.

The rationale is always stated from the protégé’s perspective, not the mentor’s or the organization’s perspective.

From the organization’s perspective: “When interviewing someone for a job, you may or may not choose to reveal certain things about yourself or the organization. At Acme, we believe you should know in advance what you will reveal before you begin an interview. In a moment, I will provide you an opportunity to practice revealing information.”

From the protégé’s perspective: “When interviewing someone for a job, you may or may not choose to reveal certain things about yourself or the organization. What is important is that you feel comfortable and competent in revealing certain information to the person being interviewed. This feeling comes with experience. The more we risk, the better we become at taking risks. In a moment you will have the opportunity to practice revealing information.”

The rationale should communicate a personal and professional reason for learning. The reason presented should be one with which the protégé can identify, one that makes logical and emotional sense. It shouldn’t be a justification by the mentor of the needs of the organization.

Grounding is about creating a foundation for learning. Grounding lends a bolstering sturdiness to new knowledge. Think of the learning rationale as providing not only direction but roots. Building a foundation is by definition an initial act.

However, foundations only support when they are maintained. An effective mentor will circle back to the rationale and “help the protégé touch the touchstone.”

One way to do this is with a summary statement, such as “Overall, this skill is vital to what we are working to accomplish because …” Or you reinforce the foundation with “Tell me again the reason this learning is important.”

Adult learners need a sense of purpose to engage their enthusiasm. They need confidence to embrace change.

It’s not the words we speak — it’s the strategy employed to elevate learning from simply a task to be accomplished to part of a greater cause and a nobler endeavor.