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Leading with Character: Lifelong Learning

Shortly after I retired from the US Coast Guard in 2018, my mother-in-law posed a question that no one had ever asked me before, “Sandy, what motivated you to stay in the Coast Guard for 40 years?” I’d been asked a million times why I joined the Coast Guard, and what inspired me to persevere through the hard times in my career. But I’d never had to ponder what motivated me to stay in so long.

To me, motivation is less tangible than other purposeful words like perseverance, commitment, dedication, and inspiration—and I relied on all of those to achieve my career goals. But I found it harder to get my hands around “motivation.” Even so, it took me just seconds to answer, “I stayed in because I was motivated by lifelong learning.” I flashed back to the times during my career when I was exhausted by the operations tempo of my job. At each juncture, the Coast Guard provided me with a continuing education or training opportunity that renewed me and prepared me for the next steps.

I specifically recall a two-week mentoring course shortly after I’d assumed command of a small icebreaker back in 1990. The Coast Guard selected me for an opportunity that was rare in those days, and that signaled I was valued, and I had what it took to become a mentor. By believing in me, the Coast Guard motivated me to live up to those high expectations and not let them down. That training course was followed at intervals by many other trainings in addition to education programs including the Kellogg Business School, the National War College, and MIT’s Seminar XXI.

A Mandatory Component of Success
Recently, I’ve come to realize that the elements of lifelong learning, such as education, training, reading, listening, reflection, and more are no longer just motivational…they’re mandatory. Just this year, artificial intelligence went from concept to reality for many of us with emerging capabilities like ChatGPT. We’ve got to keep up or we’ll be left behind. And the way to thrive amidst the change we cannot control is to prepare ourselves through lifelong learning.

A Matrix of Responsibility
The example I gave above demonstrated the Coast Guard’s commitment to lifelong learning. But successful lifelong learning, I believe, requires a matrix of responsibility from the national level down to the individual; each entity is responsible and accountable for enabling successful outcomes.

  • Responsibility of the Nation: To fund and support educating the populace from childhood to young adulthood, which is often considered K-12 (kindergarten through high school).
  • Responsibility of the Organization/Employer: To provide employees the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to do their jobs with confidence and to feel like valued members of the team.
  • Responsibility of the Employee: This is the piece over which the individual has the most control; by making an investment in lifelong learning a person will, over time, draw out more benefit than he or she puts in.

Most of us have little day-to-day influence over national policy and law. But as employers and employees, we can all make a significant positive progress toward success through advancing lifelong learning.

Making a Difference
Too often, training and education take a back seat to operations and maintenance. Yet training and education are the areas where investment might benefit employees the most by giving them the tools they need to succeed, and the motivation to stay with the organization.

Advice to Employers and Supervisors
My advice to employers and supervisors is to meet employees where they are; take the time to find out what each individual needs to build his or her skills, and what each one desires to achieve his or her personal and professional goals. In my view, there’s nothing more powerful than periodic, in person, one-on-one conversations to talk about expectations, performance, goals, and the like. A method that worked for me was to help employees visualize where they were at the moment, and where they thought they’d like to be further on in their lives, such as mid-career, retirement, old age. Then, we’d discuss what needed to be done to achieve those goals. In every instance, lifelong learning was a key element in the career journey. Employers are then better equipped to provide the necessary education and/or training, which should ideally be sponsored by the organization.

Another way employers and supervisors can make a difference is to conduct a “hot wash” debrief after major events, such as an important sales brief or product launch. What went well, what could have gone better, and how can the team improve next time? Such a review should be done without laying blame; rather, with an eye toward continual improvement with each member of the team understanding how he or she can do even better next time.

Advice to Employees
My advice to employees is to reach out of their comfort zones to stretch and grow through lifelong learning. Be creative! Lifelong learning can take many forms ranging from the traditional education and training opportunities to reading and listening. There’s a saying, “leaders are readers,” and I subscribe to that! I truly believe my foundational leadership skills were developed from childhood onwards as I delved into classical and contemporary literature. In my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass, Leading in Uncharted Waters, I included an appendix with a reading list, and I encourage everyone to keep a book at hand and make time each day to read and reflect. I’m also a huge fan of multitasking on the treadmill with podcasts and online courses covering a variety of topics. I exit the gym feeling not only physically, but mentally, improved.

Individuals should also “hot wash” events in their daily lives. How could that meeting, personal encounter, or table-top exercise have gone better? How can one improve day by day? That’s also a form of lifelong learning.

Look in the mirror: What can you do to actively search for ways to improve yourself and your team through lifelong learning?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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