Veterans Can Learn Like Rookies

Seasoned CEOs across global hotel chains missed perhaps the most disruptive change in travel: the emergence of the sharing economy.

While they were improving properties and competing with other hotels, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky was tapping into the unused capacity of people’s homes. In just six years, Airbnb has garnered 800,000 listings in 192 countries and is valued at $10 billion. How could the leading hospitality executives have missed this trend? 

Sometimes the most dangerous place to be is at the top. As Bill Gates said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” We think the people at the top of an organization have the best view of business, but senior leaders often work with blinders on. Executives have communication mechanisms and staff that distribute their messages but fewer mechanisms to bring unfiltered information to them.

By the time they get to the top, most executives have acquired deep functional expertise and a ready grab bag of answers. But when we have enough experience to quickly recognize patterns, it’s easy to stop noticing contrary data, seeing new possibilities and going down new paths. We can become trapped in an incremental approach to work, pacing ourselves and our teams while upstart competitors are disrupting reality and sprinting ahead.

Being a rookie and facing a new problem or a challenge for the first time can provoke top performance. Rookies have no resources to burden them and no track record to limit their thinking or aspirations. Facing a knowledge deficit, a desperation-based learning kicks in, causing them to work smart and seek guidance and feedback.

In the knowledge economy, innovation cycles spin so quickly many professionals never face the same problem twice. Thus rookies tend to outperform those with experience. In this environment, the most valuableleaders draw on experience, but also maintain their ability to think and act with the hunger and humility of a newcomer.  

The following three practices can help senior executives develop not just leadership but “learnership”:

1. Declare “I don’t know.” In fast times, everyone is winging it, but amazing things can happen when senior leaders admit what they don’t know. When columnist Liz Wiseman, then-vice president of Oracle University and global human resource development, sat with the three top executives to review feedback from a recent strategy forum, the feedback wasn’t good.

Participants felt like the executives’ strategy wasn’t clear. After some discussion, then-chief financial officer Jeff Henley said, “We know we need to fix this. The problem is that we don’t know how to do it. We’ve never run a $25 billion company before, so this is new to us. If you could help us learn how to do this, that would be useful.” Liz arranged for executives to work with a renowned strategy guru, and they emerged with a strategic intent that became a rallying point for the entirecompany. 

2.  Reverse mentoring. Instead of asking senior leaders to be mentors, let them learn from someone more junior with a different perspective and insight. When Gina Warren, a seven-year veteran with Nike, was tasked with creating a strategy day with the top 50 executives, she took a bold and unusual move. She handed meeting design over to a team of recent college graduates, who gave each of the 50 senior leaders a chance to sit with two newemployees to learn about Nike’s culture.The executives formalized the process into a “new crew” program to encourage game changing insights to come from any level in the company.

3.  Play with the amateurs.Sergio Marchionne, 61-year-old chairman and CEO of Chrysler Group,rejuvenated the company by moving out of his corner office and sitting with the design and engineering teams.

Too much of corporate learning and development is spent helping leaders move up a career ladder. As disruptive forces sweep in and boundaries are redrawn, these leaders can lead to stagnation. Savvy learning leaders will help senior executives climb new learning curves rather than career ladders.

This story originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.