Towards the end of 2020, I worked with one of New Zealand’s highest profile public sector executive teams. In the year that was, the CEO and the organisation had been under the pump and was in the media spotlight for most of the year. They were keen to reflect and review how they’d led during 2020, as well as to think ahead to how they’d need to lead in 2021. 

You know the #1 question they wanted to explore? “What do we need to learn?”

I love that one of the top leadership teams in NZ is asking “What do we need to learn?” Not “what do we need to deliver on?” or “how do we maximise engagement?” or any of those other standard questions a leadership team usually focuses on. “What do we need to learn?” speaks to a philosophy of ever-improving, ever-evolving, never-perfect, never-done. Which is what we need in the 21st century. 

As Alvin Toffler famously said:


We can often think that we’ve got it sorted. When we want to close the gap between our aspirations and our reality, the prevailing approach is “we just need to go harder and faster.” But if you check out most organisations’ people metrics – engagement, wellbeing, retention – I think most of us know that the harder and faster approach leaves us needing something different.

What if we asked instead, “To nail what we want to nail this year, what do I, or we, need to learn?”

Throughout January, I’ve experienced the joy of learning something new. After windsurfing at a fairly proficient level for years, I’ve taken up wing-foiling. It’s kind of like what those America’s Cup boats can do, but on a smaller scale. Flying above the water, foiling on a surfboard using a kite to be powered by the wind. It’s a totally new buzz for me, and an amazing feeling once you’re up and flying.

From the first go, I was hooked. I’ve been throwing myself into it. I’m not scared to ask the dumb questions, I’m curious to experiment, and I don’t mind crashing. I’m loving discovering a new sport. I’m relishing the joy and that sense of delightful progress you get when you’re a total beginner. In fact, I’m amazed how quickly I’m learning, and I think it’s down to my attitude.

I suspect if we took more of a learning approach to our work in 2021, we’d find we’d create similar breakthroughs and progress. Here are four ways to help you do just that:

1. Look for your frustration points

What was something that frustrated you last year that you would love to nail this year? How to influence the power brokers to get behind your brilliant ideas? How to keep your people focused on what really matters? Getting your flexible work set up right? Make a long list of the stuff that frustrated you last year. These are all opportunities for learning a new approach right now.

2. Listen for what excites you

Which of those frustrations holds the most possibility for you? Which ones move you the most? Which ones get you going “yeah, if we could nail that, that would change the game.” You’ll have more sustained energy for the ones that really excite you, not just the ‘should’s’. Highlight the ones on your list that really get your juices going.

3. Set up some experiments

Experiments have always been the engine of change.  When we want to change something or try something new, we run experiments. We try something new to get something new. When you take an experimental approach, you make progress faster because you’re focused on learning and discovery rather than getting it right the first time.

4. Set the tone for learning

People are wired to learn. Yet sometimes we don’t, because the conditions aren’t right. Maybe there’s no sense of purpose: why do we even need to learn something new? Or perhaps you haven’t granted explicit permission: is it OK to try something new? Or maybe there’s no easy way to track progress: how do I know that we’re moving in the right direction? If you can give these three P’s to yourself and to your people, you’ll be in a way better place to capitalise on those experiments. 

Inspired? Here are two resources to help you make it happen:


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