8 Signal the Value of Learning – The Upskilling Imperative: 5 Ways to Make Learning Core to the Way We Work


Signal the Value of Learning

Everything at your company sends a signal about whether learning is a top priority. It’s the job of the L&D team to stay vigilant and keep that steady drumbeat going. Individual employees may not be directly exposed to your team’s messaging on a daily basis. How can you be confident people still see your organization’s commitment and will keep doing their part to prioritize learning agility?

Leadership signals are the most powerful and impactful mechanisms for spreading a culture of learning. Senior executives can’t tout the benefits of learning if they’re not engaged in it themselves.

The term authentic gets thrown around a lot, but I don’t use it lightly. If your leadership team only pays lip service to the core value of continuous learning, you’ll end up in a situation where the reality of the employee experience doesn’t live up to expectations.

I doubt anyone at your company would deliberately stand in the way of a learning culture; they probably love the idea and embrace it on principle. But it’s easy for it to get lost in the daily grind. Research from McKinsey & Company showed a real problem with “short-termism in vital areas such as talent strategy, talent development, and recruitment.” Forty-one percent of survey respondents said their companies haven’t adopted comprehensive skills training simply because they have “more important things to worry about.”1

Herein lies the problem: seeing L&D as a separate “thing” from other business priorities. What if, when talking about the important areas where employees should spend their time, leaders spoke of learning agility as the key enabler for tackling those priorities? And those leaders aren’t sitting only in the C-suite. You need evangelists and champions across the organization—people like seasoned individual contributors and respected managers whose influence extends far beyond their immediate teams. But without vocal messaging and support starting at the top, L&D’s calls to action about embracing learning agility will lack teeth.

When I move around the company doing my listening tours, I’m not just asking leaders to cajole their people to spend time learning. I am increasing my grasp of what learning means for these leaders, what their own story of learning is, and how we can work together to communicate authentically with their teams about building agile learning into their day-to-day routine.

Remember Mike Olsson, my former boss from PCL whom I told you about in Chapter 3? He is an inspiring example of a senior leader who walks the talk when it comes to motivating people at all levels and celebrating learning. It helps that PCL has recognized the value of learning since its early years, having established the PCL College of Construction in the late 1980s, which served as the foundation for all future building blocks.

“The college was as much of a bricks-and-mortar entity as it was a philosophy—a philosophy that supported learning in the company. Importantly, it started with a focus on the soft skills, like communication, listening, negotiating, etc.,” Mike explains. “This really meant we were focusing on the person first—before the company. Some very wise PCL leaders knew it was best to invest in the individual, and that company gains would come later, but it was definitely not ‘normal’ at that time for companies to invest in people first. I believe it was because we were [and are] an employee-owned company.”2

When Mike describes PCL’s learning culture to others in the construction industry, they are naturally envious of such a large organization that has constructed (no pun intended) consistent training programs and an overall culture that’s aligned to closely held values and behaviors. Since they’ve been at it for so long, it’s not hard for PCL to correlate the strength of its learning culture to a real and significant impact on business performance.

Yet, even if PCL’s learning and development culture is a well-oiled machine at this point, Mike and his team don’t take for granted that it can carry on without human intervention. He points to a few of the ways PCL celebrates learning and recognizes achievement to keep the excitement and engagement going:

Valedictorian award for top student in PCL’s leadership course

Excellence in Construction award, which gives each district the opportunity to showcase great innovations and present them to the rest of PCL

Regular sharing through internal channels of myPCL stories about culture and leadership growth

Awards that highlight recipients’ leadership qualities in the context of PCL’s five leadership practices to signal behaviors and values others can emulate

PCL provides a useful example of how to invest in a learning culture and bake learning into every facet of a business. High-performing companies like PCL are working to align a learning culture with core company strategies and values to succeed in a changing world. The rest of this chapter will share more on the important link between learning and performance and how you can foster that connection in your organization.

Seeing Performance Through a Learning Lens

Another huge signal regarding the importance of learning at your organization is how you evaluate performance at the company and individual levels. Think about how your leaders 141talk about performance and react to outcomes—the actual language they use.

A company’s performance as a whole can also be examined through the lens of a growth mindset, even while pursuing obvious success metrics for revenue, customer acquisition, stock trajectory, and so on. Business strategies need to account for the inevitability of course corrections and incorrect decisions; after all, businesses are made up of people, and people are fallible. Companies can be held back by fixed mindsets as much as individuals can.

At Udemy, we do regular goal readouts and focus on what each group learned from its struggles and successes. On my own team, I ask every member to share a win or a lesson learned, and I start each team meeting by sharing a learning moment or asking someone else to share his or hers. So, it’s not just me communicating out to my team; everyone gets a turn, and everyone has a voice worth hearing from. They might share an article, summarize what they heard at a conference, or pass along a tip that might help someone else. This is how we’ve made learning part of how we operate every day.

My company runs regular engagement surveys to get a pulse on top-level topics, such as how much confidence people have in our leaders’ vision and whether employees believe they have a voice in decisions. Because we’re a learning culture, we also ask if managers are showing interest in employees’ career goals and if the learning opportunities available at our company are adequate. We include an open field for comments too. In our last engagement survey, we got more than 1,000 comments from employees eager to share their thoughts.

The engagement survey is how we learn more about ourselves as an organization. We’re pretty transparent in sharing the results because we want every department, team, and individual to take the feedback and apply the lessons learned. We use survey insights to build out action plans that will enrich our learning culture, not to rehash negatives.

It’s the same approach when our leadership cohort gets together to discuss the company’s performance on the most vital business metrics. Missing a revenue target isn’t good, but it can still be addressed from a growth-mindset point of view. This is what I mean about weaving learning into every work conversation: shift the tone from “Here’s what happened, and here’s what we’re going to do next” to “What did we learn from this and how can we leverage the experience to inform future initiatives?”

There are better ways to conduct employee reviews in a learning culture too. You should develop a shared vocabulary to help managers conduct learning-centric performance reviews and career discussions. This is part of my Feedback Is Fuel workshop and the manager trainings we do at my company. By providing frameworks that guide how to talk about growth mindset and learning agility, you can get more out of performance reviews, transforming them from unfeeling critiques to productive exchanges about opportunities for improvement.

Empowering the People

Outside of a formal feedback session like a performance review, an organization can signal in other ways its real commitment to giving employees time and space to learn. One of the most popular new L&D offerings at Udemy has been our self-advocacy workshop. It covers lots of scenarios in which an employee might want to speak up but isn’t sure how to go about doing so.

Certainly, given the fears and insecurities we’ve already discussed, people might hesitate to raise their hands to ask for additional training. This workshop serves as a great complement to Feedback Is Fuel, since learning how to advocate for one’s own learning needs is an important part of receiving feedback and pursuing personal growth. After defining self-advocacy and its value in the workplace, this training shows employees how to:

Discover their communication style and approach

Practice a method for setting goals

Identify strategies to communicate more assertively

Establish when and how to say no

Find an appropriate sponsor

Don’t get me wrong: we don’t have this all figured out and perfect at Udemy. At a fast-moving, high-growth company, situations can get stressful and patience can be tested. We expect people to slip into natural postures of defensiveness or aggression sometimes. But, after going through Feedback Is Fuel training, we also expect others to call out behavior that undermines our value of continuous learning and steer discussion back to a constructive tone.

Along with supplemental workshops on self-advocacy and manager training, we hope to give our students tools and techniques that will help them see themselves and others in a new light—one that gives people the benefit of the doubt, assumes positive intent, and acknowledges our collective responsibility to always be striving to learn and grow.

We Need to Talk About Failure

Let’s revisit the growth mindset—the belief that we all have the capacity to learn and grow if we work hard and apply ourselves. The harder part to live out is the acceptance that learning is a process, not an event, and that it comes with failures and setbacks along the way. These aren’t just hardships to get over; they are integral to our retention and application of knowledge.

When people are afraid of the consequences of making mistakes, they play it safe and stick to what they know. They’re less likely to innovate and devise creative solutions that haven’t been tried before but hold promise if successful. More than just demoralizing to motivated employees who crave challenges, a risk-averse culture is detrimental to your business results. And yet, according to the global leadership consulting firm DDI, “14 percent of first-level managers we surveyed feel failure is not at all embraced in their organization in pursuit of innovation or different ideas, and only seven percent believe failure is embraced to a very great extent.”3

We’ve talked about creating psychological safety around learning. The corollary is making it safe to fail. And not only that, we need to remove the stigma and confront failure head on by talking about it, sharing our stories, and using it as another part of the learning journey. To signal that learning is a priority, the best leaders don’t stop at taking courses or finding coaches. They are open in talking about their own failures, learning experiences, growth challenges, and personal goals. They model the behavior they want to see in their teams.

We can all relate to screw-up stories, whether they have happy endings or not. Indeed, some of the most resonant stories are the ones where an individual is penalized or shamed for messing up but then, with time and personal growth, they came to view the episode as pivotal in helping them become the better leader they are today and how they’re using that experience to inform how they respond to failure in their current role.

Turning “Failures” into Learning Opportunities

You’ve got your leaders talking about it, but how do you make it safe to try new things at the team and individual level? And how do you ensure employees really mean it and will support each other through difficult times? Peers can be the toughest critics when someone makes a mistake. I discussed Feedback Is Fuel earlier in this book because it truly is the foundation upon which all else is built. You can’t expect people to talk openly and constructively about failure if they haven’t already learned how to give and receive feedback effectively.

First, look at your vocabulary. I’ve used a couple of phrases I don’t recommend in practice: “screwing up,” “messing up,” or even “failure.” In growth-mindset parlance, these should be discussed as learning opportunities. Also be mindful of distinguishing between flawed decisions and the person or people behind them. Flip the script from “You were wrong” and “We failed” to “We learned” and “We know how to do better next time.”

Some companies do postmortems after projects to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. That’s a great start, but it’s not enough to encompass your entire work culture. Postmortems are useful for optimizing process, but they don’t typically get around to promoting individual growth. An employee is more than his or her performance on a project. To help people get comfortable talking about and acknowledging failure, those conversations need to be frequent and ongoing. In my L&D team’s weekly meetings, for example, everyone comes ready to share a win and a learning.

The commitment to learning can’t fluctuate with changes in leadership either. It has to be one of your stated company values, a guiding light for everyone’s work that’s so baked in as to be almost invisible.

But beware: your company will have to reckon with tension and confusion if your culture purports to value learning but doesn’t back it up and sends contradictory messages about failure.

Proactive Managers Promote Learning

The managerial layer of your organization is important because managers are the connective tissue between high-level signals from senior leaders and individual employees tasked with integrating learning into their daily routines. It’s one thing to encourage direct reports to approach their managers to discuss their career goals and the areas they want to grow into. It’s another thing for managers to get to know their direct reports well enough to share unsolicited learning opportunities that align with those goals.

Younger employees, in particular, may have strong ideas of where they want to develop their careers, but they might not be clear on where to start and how to build on existing knowledge. Managers have to keep their eyes and ears open on behalf of their reports, so their teams can take advantage of new programs from the L&D team as well as external learning opportunities, such as conferences that would support growth.

My Udemy colleague Darren Shimkus is one of our greatest learning champions, and it comes through not only in what he says but also in what he does. He’s learned that the key is to tap into something people care about—on an individual level. “Not everyone is going to be an enthusiastic lifelong learner on their own, but I do believe everyone wants 148to take on new challenges at work and grow their career. But they don’t always know how to go about doing that,” Darren explains. “I use learning as a bridge to the things they care about.”

Of course, Darren can’t achieve this from a distance. His management approach is to get to know every person on his team to understand each person’s motivations and goals. “You can’t encourage any behavior or habit formation until you know what they’re trying to accomplish,” Darren says.

As the company has grown rapidly, it has become harder for Darren to forge deep relationships with every employee. That’s where he relies on the people managers who report to him, with an assist from the L&D team. Manager training includes how to have career conversations and connect employees to learning opportunities that will keep them engaged and excited to come to work. Those conversations filter up to Darren, so he can maintain a holistic view of his team’s learning needs and challenges.

Udemy offers two programs that nicely illustrate how this dynamic can work:

Our Manager Curriculum is offered to help new managers, in particular, adopt the management mindset to engage employees, build a productive and positive team culture, create conditions to promote trust and commitment, and set clear expectations and establish accountability.

The Public Speaking Club is designed to help employees get comfortable in front of an audience by having them commit to regular practice. The club is limited to 20 participants per cohort, and they meet twice a month to learn as much as they can about public-speaking anxiety, impromptu speaking, and using visual aids.

Both our Manager Curriculum and the Public Speaking Club have open enrollment, meaning anyone in the company can sign up. But people are busy. They may not be aware of every program available or it may slip their minds as they get caught up in other things. This is where a manager can step in to encourage direct reports to participate. If they’re having regular one-on-ones that include career discussions, the manager should know which L&D programs align with the report’s interests.

When a manager gives an employee the heads-up about a specific program, instead of an employee having to take it upon themselves, it sends another signal that learning is a priority. It says, “Your managers and leaders are looking out for your learning needs here and will actively share opportunities that contribute to your growth.” It’s not lip service.

We know how difficult it can be as a first-time people manager and how critical manager effectiveness is to employee happiness. We want to give people the tools and know-how to manage themselves, manage their direct reports, and manage the work being done in service to overall business goals. This is complex, multilayered information, and we need to deliver it through a combination of modalities: online Udemy courses, in-person workshops, social (i.e., group) learning sessions, and self-service tools and references.

Although we are still evolving this content, we’ve already launched our pilot program to the company. It shows that we know where gaps remain in our offerings and how we plan to fill them. It also shows we’re listening and taking real action in response to feedback we’ve gotten through our engagement surveys, performance reviews, and freely shared input.

Prizes, Rewards, and Incentives That Actually Mean Something

Stirring the competitive pot is a great way to retain learners and keep them active in your programs. But the rewards have to be genuinely rewarding. You know what they say: money talks. Small tokens are always a treat, but you can better convey just how important learning is by going big on how you celebrate learners and their achievements.

I’ve described some of the prizes Udemy gives away when employees hit certain milestones—spending the most time learning on our platform, meeting a personal learning goal, participating in DEAL Hours and learning fairs, and the like. We give away generous gift cards and other high-value goodies, and we also give smaller prizes on a quarterly basis, but we pull out all the stops for our annual awards. First place in our “I’m Kind of a Big DEAL” annual raffle is a $2,500 travel voucher.

I’ll point to Darren again because he has inspired such a rich learning culture and brand for himself and his business unit starting when they were still only a team of 10. It started as a joke, moving around a bottle of hot sauce to people’s desks at random, then putting it on the desk of someone who had done something great, until that bottle came to embody the team values.

At some point, the bottle went missing. Darren created an official Sizzle & Spice Award but left it to members of the team to decide who gets it. “Our learning culture is also a recognition culture, and there is tremendous value in peers recognizing peers,” Darren says.

I love how Darren’s team has its own lore and inside jokes and embraces its quirkiness.

But at the organization level, when you’re talking about driving a full-blown culture of continuous learning, cheap trinkets can have the opposite effect. Employees may interpret it as a signal the company doesn’t take learning as seriously as claimed. You don’t need a massive budget, but you do need to be thoughtful about how you can make the biggest impact and send the strongest signal with the resources you do have. One idea I’ve seen work, especially where funds are limited, is to let the people decide: put the question to your workforce and let them crowdsource the prize or design it themselves (Figure 8.1).

FIGURE 8.1 The Udemy for Business team prefers quirky, homemade awards to traditional trophies.

Creating a Recognition and Reward Culture

Many companies recognize achievement with employee awards, but not all of them host a ceremony to announce them. I know the Dundies, the employee awards ceremony at the fictional company Dunder Mifflin, were played for laughs on the TV show The Office, but I am 100 percent not joking when I tell you, Udemy employees get really, really, really into our annual Demmy’s award show. We put real budget behind it and, even more critical, we have a team that takes the production seriously.

Preparations start far in advance to ensure that our audience is highly entertained without disconnecting from the night’s theme of celebrating learning agility. We make a Very Big Deal over who’s taken the most Udemy courses, who’s been growing into new skill areas, who’s shown the most improvement, and so on. You can tell a lot of love and effort go into producing the Demmy’s, and employees appreciate it. In the midst of the fun, there’s never any question that the awards are entirely serious about the winners and their accomplishments.

Perhaps the incentive that gets job candidates most excited about Udemy is our ULearn program. Udemy is a marketplace with tens of thousands of online courses, but we would never claim it contains every learning resource a person could ever need. So, we make a monetary investment in every employee in the form of a $1,500 ULearn stipend. We are quite liberal about how this money can be spent. Our employees have attended conferences and workshops, purchased books, and learned new software. The key, again, is helping people make 159the best use of their learning funds and ensuring managers and coaches encourage their direct reports to take time out to use their stipends.

Reaching Reluctant Learners

I won’t pretend that every employee is going to jump on board and become a lifelong learner just because your organization has prioritized it and you’ve poured your heart and soul into developing fun programs and rewarding those who reach learning goals. Nothing’s that simple. But, we should never give up on anyone who is lagging behind in his or her learning activity, and we definitely don’t want to penalize an employee who hasn’t embraced the learning mindset.

It is, however, totally appropriate for a manager to have a conversation with a direct report who seems unwilling or unable to spend time on learning and figure out what’s going on. At PCL, according to Mike Olsson, “When this happens, it is almost always because they are putting the work first; they are totally results focused.” Of course, that’s not a bad thing either, but Mike cautions that it can be self-limiting.

“Typically, the disengaged learner is someone who’s become very successful in their current role. In fact, they do it really, really well,” he says. “The issue is that they do not grow beyond this or maybe stall out one level higher.” High-achieving workers don’t want to hear they’re doing something that could stand in the way of their advancement. (To be fair, Mike says it’s rare that anyone at PCL doesn’t fully embrace the learning culture, given how strong, pervasive, and long-established it is. Few come on board without realizing continuous learning is part of the job.)

Like most culture initiatives, authenticity and transparency from management are needed to build trust and drive companywide adoption of continuous learning. We want everyone—at all levels—talking about what they’re learning, where they’re struggling, and what they would do differently next time, but the example needs to be set by those at the top and communicated regularly and consistently to the rest of the workforce.

In your culture, learning should be like the air itself—it’s just there, all around. Sometimes you’ll deliberately call attention to it, but other times the organization may be sending signals without even realizing it. Stay close to your leadership team to make certain its members send positive messages about learning agility and support their workforce through tangible recognition and rewards that demonstrate their promise to hold learning a permanent priority.