By Ashley Schwedt
As a Leadership Trainer at LifeLabs Learning, I spend my days at Silicon Valley’s most innovative and fast-paced companies. I’m fortunate enough to work with 50+ different companies each year, and no matter the size, funding round, or industry, I hear the same question from People Ops People: how do you create and sustain a real learning culture as you grow?
While this may seem like a complex undertaking, the good news is that there are a few simple steps you can take that make a big impact at scale:
Acknowledge positive performance
Positive feedback doesn’t just mean giving people compliments. It means explicitly pointing out what people do well, when they do it. Saying “great job” isn’t specific and it isn’t replicable. Instead, try: “It was really helpful when you sent that goat video to client X because it showed them that you listen to their interests and value the relationship. Actions like that are what lead to increased client retention!” This shifts giving recognition into expressing value. At LifeLabs, we call specific, positive feedback diamonds – the rare gem that is extremely valuable!
- Implement systems and software that make it easy for employees to share diamonds with each other. This could be a #gratitude channel, blank thank you cards, or a performance management platform.
- Provide rewards and perks to those who meet goals or milestones. Things like swag, an additional vacation day, an assigned phone booth for a week, or a coffee break with the CEO go a long way.
Use “yet” language
The word “yet” implies that learning is never complete, and that we all have the power to grow. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck talks about the power of mindset – people’s (often implicit) beliefs about the malleability of ability – to influence achievement and our responses to failures.
One way to shift toward a growth mindset is to change the way we talk about our failures. Instead of saying “we aren’t very good at predicting inbound leads try, “we haven’t figured out how to predict our inbound leads yet.” This means that there is always room for opportunity and development, rather than assuming failures are fixed.
- Model a growth mindset. When sharing challenges with others in public forums, use the word “yet.” For example, “We haven’t figured out how to optimize our meetings yet.”
- Train your executives to do the same! Culture trickles down from the top, and if leadership frames challenges as “yet to be solved,” it highlights the possibilities and excitement of innovation. Pro-tip: to influence leadership messaging, pre-write announcements for them.
Help employees & managers co-own development
At LifeLabs, we interact with hundreds of companies and thousands of employees every year. We get to learn what works and what prevents success. When it comes to growth and development, we’ve seen one major theme.
For individual contributors, one of the biggest barriers to growth and development is not knowing what opportunities are available to them and how to access those opportunities. On the other side, managers complain that employees don’t know what they want and don’t proactively seek out opportunities. By co-owning development, both of these barriers can be broken down.
- Include ‘people development’ in your manager standards: ensure managers are responsible for giving consistent feedback, having monthly or quarterly development conversations, and discussing development opportunities during 1-1s. Bonus: Add ‘career development’ skills to all employee competencies. And provide training in both skill sets!
- Set expectations that setting and reaching development milestones is just as critical as reaching productivity goals. Without this nudge, employees tend to prioritize work tasks vs personal growth. Help make development goals more tangible by providing an Individual Development Plan template like this one.
Celebrate failures as learning opportunities
In learning cultures, failures are seen as opportunities. When something goes wrong, instead of assigning blame, extract the learning. The shift from “who allowed this to happen?” to “what could have caused this to happen (and what can we learn from it)?” means that the experience is valued as much as the end result – truly putting employee development at the center of company success.
- After a project, task, initiative, launch, or goal fails, ask these three questions:
- What went well that we can repeat in the future?
- What might we do differently next time?
- What was the benefit of this failure?
Bonus: Share a retro template with your teams.
- Celebrate failures through ritual. Develop a project graveyard for failed initiatives, formally appreciate employees who try new things and fail, or allow teams who fail to ring a gong!
Create ongoing learning opportunities
At LifeLabs, one of our values is “always be learning.” But we recognize that the value itself isn’t enough. We live it by providing ongoing learning opportunities so that learning becomes what we do every day vs just every once in a while.
For example, we offer weekly training, 1-1 coaching, peer observations, peer-to-peer learning channels, cross-functional task forces, a research depot, paid learning days, a lending library, and a Learning FUNd. The goal is to allow employees to feel ongoing growth and make increasingly more impactful contributions.
One of our Learning FUNd stipulations is that employees bring back what they’ve learned and teach it to the whole team. Here are some examples from this past year:
- A Leadership Trainer took a series of improv classes, then taught the rest of the team improv activities.
- A Program Consultant worked with a leadership coach and shared out the biggest learnings in a one-pager.
- A Client Administrator took an InDesign bootcamp and created a presentation to show tips and tricks to the rest of the team.
- And for me personally, I’m going to Lesbians Who Tech this year to network with other queer folks in the tech space and learn more about the intersections of identity and industry. I’ll be leading a skill-up about my biggest takeaways.
- Audit your current growth and development resources. What opportunities exist for sharing learning internally? How are people accessing external opportunities? In what ways do learning and growth connect to your company values? Not sure where to start? Share this Growth Opportunities Audit with your employees.
- Archive learnings from conferences, webinars, and workshops employees attend. Teaching is a great way to solidify learning, while you also succession plan by sharing knowledge with the entire team. Make sure the learnings are easily accessible (think keyword optimization).
A strong learning culture will serve as the foundation for so many other organizational systems and goals. When people learn well and learn often, communication speeds up, performance keeps improving, change is easier to tackle, and people are excited to stick around longer. Before you can become a high-performing org, you must become a rapid learning org.