Applying a Strategy of Learning by Example

My Uncle Jack never wrote a book on leadership. I would be surprised if he even ever read one, much less attended a leadership workshop. He is not an expert in learning design, high performance consulting or how to engage any of the generations in the workplace. He is a retired Chicago-area sports writer. We all have special moments in our lives that seem frozen in time. One of those moments for me is when my Uncle Jack took me to see the Chicago Cubs game from the dugout during the baseball season. I noticed intently how my uncle interacted with the players and the mutual admiration they had for each other. I noticed how he really loved his job. I knew that somehow I wanted to be like him. I noticed everything about him – how fast he typed (100 wpm on a manual typewriter), his meticulous grammar and use of words, even how well he spelled. The effect was profound and lifelong. First of all, I became a lifelong Cubs’ fan (a habit that I am to this day still trying to break). He inspired me to learn without even telling me. I became an editor for my school newspaper. I did well in English and grammar, even taking Latin in order to increase my vocabulary. I eventually became a writer – subsequently authoring plays, scripts, two books and numerous articles.

I also learned a lot from my former manager. She not only read leadership books but wrote one herself. In fact, she is working very hard to become a leadership ‘guru’. She knew all the buzz words – collaborative leadership, holistic leadership, allowing others to rise to their potential, helping others succeed, etc. It turned out that she wrote better than she lived. She would cut you off if you even stood near her spotlight. She would surround herself with cronies and ‘yes’ people and she would work to undercut anybody who she perceived as a threat. She inspired me to learn how to keep my head low, not share ideas and c.y.a.

People learn by observing and doing. Learning by example is the oldest and still most powerful learning strategy. Back in the old days, when nobody ever heard of competencies or training and development, there was the idea of apprenticeship. A trade or skill was handed down from generation to generation by learning through a system of formal mentoring. In fact, family names were based on the skill that was handed down. Baker, Taylor, Smith, and Plummer were examples of skilled trades that became surnames. Even during the Renaissance, great masters such as Michelangelo started as apprentices for other great masters. They would stretch the canvas or mix the paint or do any other series of menial tasks, hoping to upgrade to perhaps assisting in painting backgrounds or providing shadows. They would then diligently observe the teacher and, after years of assisting and learning, would become masters in their own right and have their own apprentices. It was the pathway to succession planning. Not much has changed today in organizational learning. We still learn by observing and doing. The only difference is the technology.

Strategies to Learn by Example
There are two strategies for learning by example – mentoring/apprenticeship and games/simulations. Both can be effective if well thought out. As the stories above illustrate, the first rule of any learning by example is to be careful what message people are learning. People observe actions over words and you need to understand the real lessons that people are absorbing.

We all have people whose qualities we admire and try to emulate. When I was doing work for a very high level U.S. government training institution, I remember talking to the director’s administrative assistant who was involved in processing my expenses. On her computer was a screensaver which stated ‘What if you were Jackie O?’ I looked at it for a few moments to make sure I read it correctly and then I asked her to explain what the screensaver meant. “Well,” she quietly told me, “you know what it is like to work with some of the people around here. They are very smart, senior people with egos to match. I often feel very intimated and clumsy around them and then I think to myself ‘what if I was Jackie O?’ To me, she was so sophisticated and had so much grace, even in dealing with difficult people. When I think about what she would do, it allows me to copy those characteristics that I need to do my job effectively.”

Informal Mentoring or Apprenticeship
In the story above, the learner emulated the behavior of somebody whom she respected enough to take on the traits that were necessary for her to be successful in her job – Jackie Onasis. It did not matter that she never met her or that she died several years earlier. She recognized that, in order to be successful in her job, she would need to learn a skill that she did not believe she possessed and that she saw in her image of Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis. This is a good example of informal mentoring.

Informal mentoring can be effective because:

• The learner has chosen the teacher and is therefore the one driving the process and engaging in the change.
• They are highly motivated to apply what they have learned.

The problem with mentoring however is that, because it is informal, it cannot be uniformly applied. People may be selecting the wrong behavior or teacher. Formal mentoring, or apprenticeship, can be a better organizational learning strategy.

Click here to read part 2 of Applying a Strategy of Learning by Example