By Barrett Cordero, president of BigSpeak, a leading global speakers bureau representing business icons, bestselling authors, thought leaders and celebrities.
What do Apple, Google and Pixar all have in common? They are all learning companies. If your company isn’t currently placing learning as one of its top values, you might want to reconsider it. Learning has done wonders for the continued success of these companies and many others. It could do the same for your company. Think how those companies have evolved (spectacular successes and frequent failures) and ultimately grown over the years. (Full disclosure: Apple, Google, Pixar, Zappos and Ritz-Carlton, among others, have booked keynote speakers through my speakers bureau.)
Here’s why my keynote speakers bureau changed to a learning company: Before the pandemic hit, learning helped my company’s revenue grow by more than 100% a year, landing it on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies five times in a row. Learning helped again when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and eliminated our chief source of revenue: in-person keynote speaking events.
So what makes a business a learning company, and how do you go about practicing the value of learning?
What is a learning company?
A learning company is adaptive, flexible and open to new concepts. Its leaders are brutally honest on where they can improve and what’s not working. Similar to Ray Dalio’s five-step learning loop, a learning company sets goals, identifies and diagnoses the challenges, designs solutions, and then executes.
Learning is an intimate, stressful process but is powerful when honored and promoted. It can be practiced in all aspects of a business’s systems, processes and people. It could be trying out new content management systems, as my company did when it added Salesforce. It could be developing a new process for sales or customer service, like the Ritz-Carlton did when it developed its gold standards for customer service. It could be investing in the training and development of people, as Pixar does by allowing its members to take classes. Or it could even be like Zappos, which hires people who are interested in a culture of growth and learning.
How do you practice learning?
Learning companies practice learning every day. For these companies, learning is not just a value printed on a piece of paper, framed and mounted in the lobby, and completely ignored. Learning is embodied and practiced by the leadership and every employee in the company.
The method you use to learn depends on your resources and learning style. Like many learning companies, my company promotes personal learning. Our office has a library of nonfiction business books from business thought leaders to help spread new concepts. Leaders and employees are also encouraged to read blogs and listen to podcasts of thought leaders to further their growth. Some companies subscribe to online learning classes for employees, like the kind developed by LinkedIn.
There is also in-person learning. At my company, managers and executives meet regularly with executive coaches to develop and refine leadership skills. Peer groups are also great for developing. I joined the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) to learn from the experiences and challenges of other leaders. And, because my company is a keynote speaker company, all team members attend keynote speaker presentations (albeit virtually these days) to access the latest ideas.
How can you encourage and pay for learning?
A learning company needs to pay for and continually encourage learning. As an example, Pixar offers classes on its campus. It allows employees to choose any subject they are interested in, not just the ones in their field. At one time, Google allowed employees to spend 20% of their time working on personal work-related projects. My company offers a fund of $1,500 to team members to use as they wish. They can take online courses, hire executive coaches or focus on their wellness.
Finally, learning has to be actively and regularly encouraged. It’s not enough to offer classes or give a budget if no one uses the opportunity. The Ritz-Carlton team celebrates team members who come up with new ways to improve customer service in their company newsletter. At my company’s monthly meetings, we celebrate employees who have used their learning budgets and have them share what they have learned. We also ask each employee to make a personal and professional goal for the year and honor them when they achieve that goal.
Learning might not be your company’s most prized value today. However, the benefits of making learning a top value are shown by the success of companies like Apple, Google, Ritz-Carlton and more. With the openness and ability to learn and adapt, my company was able to pivot into virtual speaking events to survive and now thrive. I strongly encourage individuals and organizations to prioritize learning.