An extraordinary commitment to learning yields extraordinary results

Pamay Bassey discovered the secret to learning in 365 days – and unlocked business value that will last a lifetime

Challenging times bring many things to an end – projects, jobs, even organizations. But they also offer the opportunity for new beginnings. A crisis can be the perfect moment to activate a catalyst for change. There is no more powerful a catalyst for change or tool for transformation than a commitment to lifelong learning which inspires you, commits you to learn, and guides you in applying your learning to your life and work.
 
I’ve experienced the transformative power of learning through two very different year-long projects, inspired by very different circumstances, personal and professional. These two transformative projects yielded tangible takeaways that can help any leader activate their ‘learning superpower’ – and could help ignite a transformation for you.

A global interfaith journey

My first year-long learning experience was my ‘52 Weeks of Worship’. It was inspired by grief, and a desire to figure out how to make sense of several challenging personal tragedies that occurred within the span of one year. In April 2009, my maternal grandmother died unexpectedly. That August, my father died after a battle with cancer. Finally, as the year ended, I experienced a betrayal from a loved one. After a year full of loss, I started wondering how I would heal.

Searching for answers, I made a personal commitment to visit a different place of worship every week for a year, whether that place reflected my own religious beliefs or not. (While I had been raised in a specific worship tradition, my adherence to its practices was not as strong as it could have been.) I visited churches and mosques, synagogues and temples, living rooms and basements. I navigated countless sacred spaces, from the South Side of Chicago to South Africa, from Brazil to Brooklyn.

You might ask: why spend countless hours in unfamiliar situations, with people I didn’t know, experiencing traditions and rituals that I knew nothing about, while sharing my pain and grief with strangers? The answer is that I simply wanted to believe that goodness still existed in the world. I looked for it everywhere: in the eyes of every person I met, not just at my home church or only in familiar places. My grandmother used to say, “If you are really looking for something, you should look everywhere” – so that’s what I did.

Clear, transformative lessons emerged from those experiences. I repeatedly experienced the kindness of strangers. I experienced the power of stepping out of my comfort zone, stepping into someone else’s shoes and being humble enough to simply shut up and listen. It became evident to me that taking the time to become crystal clear about my beliefs could help me to show up strongly as the person I am called to be. And I acquired the tools needed for inclusive leadership practice, learning to truly respect others who might hold completely different beliefs and have very different lived experiences.

A daily learning practice

Fast-forward to 2018, when I found myself beginning an exciting new position as chief learning officer of the Kraft Heinz Company. In many ways, it was (and is) a dream job. Having been in learning and development for over 20 years, I was to be responsible for creating a culture of continuous learning, bold creativity and intellectual curiosity – for driving training and learning at one of the largest food companies in the world. It was a great challenge.

When you are called to take on a new challenge, it is wise to gather the lessons learned from prior experience and see how they can be applied. I was inspired to embark on a second year-long learning experience: one that also started with a personal decision, but which was focused on delivering professional impact. I launched my ‘365 Days of Learning’ on a snowy day in Canada, during a ride from a leadership retreat to Toronto airport, heading home to Chicago. This time, instead of a weekly commitment, the stakes were raised. It would be a daily commitment. I made a promise: every day for a year, I would learn something new, and would share it with the organization through our internal social media channel, the KetchApp.

Through this commitment I was able to model how leaders can make a personal commitment to their learning: to #MakeTimeForLearning. This was a ‘must’ for a learning leader of a large, global enterprise – to show others the benefits of a learning practice and encourage them. Sometimes my daily learning moment was just a few minutes long; occasionally, it was a few hours. I consumed articles, e-learning courses, podcasts and books. I attended conferences and learning events. I spent time every day writing, reflecting on what I had learned and sharing it with others. Most excitingly, I watched my new colleagues do the same, committing to a learning practice of their own and creating a culture of generosity – because by learning, reflecting and sharing, they were empowering others as well as themselves. My 365 Days of Learning became the foundation of a learning transformation for a company going through significant change.

Seven steps to unleash the power of learning

If you are trying to transform yourself or your employees into lifelong learners, what are the steps to take? How can you create a powerful and functional learning culture, and embrace your role as catalyst? I have identified seven steps for unleashing the transformational power of learning.

1 Embrace the value proposition

Be clear about what you intend to gain from your learning journey. Know that as you learn things in different contexts, different benefits will come to you: in how you live your life and execute in your current role; accelerating your learning curve, helping you grow a great career, and enabling you to live a more purposeful life. In my 365 Days of Learning, lesson #2 was that this always requires you to ‘start before you are ready’. You need to believe that learning is good and useful – and that there is no time like the present to get started.

2 Commit to #LearnLikeAnOwner Commitment is everything.

Seek out high-impact learning experiences and commit to your learning practice, even if it is just a few minutes a day. But take note of #4 of the 365 things I learned: it’s ok to make a quiet commitment. Both of my year-long learning experiences are public now, but neither of them began that way. There is power in taking the plunge first, then bringing others along for the journey when you have some momentum.

3 Determine your searching and learning style

How? Use your life. The things that are happening in your life should be your motivation for the topics, skills and capabilities on which you focus your learning time. My 52 Weeks of Worship was inspired by a deep philosophical need to determine what my future could be after enormous grief. Having decided that sacred spaces would be a good place to find answers, I used search engines and a variety of other sources to find the places I would visit. Being open to experimenting, acknowledging that answers to my questions could be found in many different places, was key.

4 Identify your trusted sources of learning

In my year of learning, I confirmed that I’d much rather read a book than listen to someone talk to me about a book. But that’s me. I have people on my team who would rather listen to a Blinkist summary or a podcast, and they light up when they tell me about the latest one they’ve discovered. Ask yourself: how do I like to take on board information? What are my trusted sources of learning? You can develop a list of trusted ‘go to’ sources – but keep experimenting with other sources to thoughtfully expand the list over time.

5 Reflect on and share what you are learning

Reflection helps you apply your learning in different contexts. The time you take to pause, think about what you learned and how it can be applied in the context of your unique challenges is almost as valuable as the time spent learning itself.

6 Determine what to practice and what to keep

A quote from Jerry Seinfeld which I came across during my year of learning rings true: “You can learn a lot from someone who masters their craft through diligence, practice, and maintaining high standards – even and especially when they start with raw talent.” I agree. It is through practice that we move from simply being aware of something, to being able to apply it. Practice makes permanent. Over time, you will see what works for you, and what doesn’t: keep what works and discard the rest.

7 Apply your learning habit to something specific

Learning something in a regular cadence is important. Figuring out your unique way to move from curious to competent can help you to grow a great career, and to embed the lessons from your learning journey into how you live and the way that you lead.

Let’s learn our way through this

Whether you are fortunate enough to be part of a community or organization which provides you with diverse, effective and relevant learning experiences, or you have to seek out those experiences yourself, there is a huge amount to be gained by taking charge of your learning and development. For leaders everywhere today, the challenge is to be a proactive learner: a continuous learner, and an infinite learner. Learning is a privilege, not a punishment, and a commitment to learning can both help you be great in your current role, as a leader of self, team, or organization, and help you grow a great career.

Starting or recommitting to a learning practice is one of the best ways of responding when you discover a gap between what you know and what you need to know. Learning is your superpower, and the best way to tackle a challenge or a new beginning is to learn your way through it, or out of it. In challenging times, more than ever, leaders need to unleash their superpower. Use it to help yourself and help those who depend on you. Maintain a laser-like focus on who you want to be in the midst of the storm, and use that goal to direct your learning practice.

In both personal and professional situations, the transformative superpower of learning can help you. Whatever ‘it’ is: let’s learn our way through it, shall we?

Pamay Bassey is chief learning and diversity officer for The Kraft Heinz Company and author of My 52 Weeks of Worship: Lessons from a Global, Spiritual, Interfaith Journey