Harvey Mackay Academy's Blog

How To Turn Your Company Into A Learning Organization

A Marine corporal was driving a benefits specialist from base to base delivering lectures on life insurance, according to a story in “Reader’s Digest.”  After listening to a dozen of these talks, the corporal insisted he knew the spiel by heart.

“Prove it,” the benefits specialist said.  So at the next base, the corporal delivered the speech flawlessly until a Marine asked, “What do I pay for insurance after I leave the Corps?”

The corporal temporarily froze before he had an idea.  “Marine,” he said sternly, as he pointed to the benefits specialist, “that is such a dumb question that I am going to let my driver answer it.”

That corporal demonstrated two important skills:  thinking on his feet and continuous learning. 

When I was building my envelope manufacturing company, I was driving all over the area to get business.  I drove 15,000-20,000 miles a year and would constantly listen to audio tapes in the car, and later CDs to boost my motivation and sharpen my sales skills.  I didn’t want the drive time to be down time.

Knowing the average person spends three and a half years over their lifetime in their car, I had a plan to turn my automobile into a university.  I wanted to pass that opportunity on to our sales force as well.  That’s why for years our company has had a tremendous library of motivational, sales and marketing materials for our employees to use.  Now, like everyone else, we’ve moved on to podcasts.  Why not maximize your time and learn something new?

Whenever we send someone to a seminar or training program, we ask them to come back and teach everyone at our company what they learned to maximize the return from our investment dollars.  This is true for anything that our people learn that might benefit others.  That way the entire group can improve their skills. 

No matter how long you have been building your career, and how much you have learned with experience, there’s always more to absorb.  Getting better at your job goes far beyond just learning the ropes; it’s a forever process that every successful person already knows.  Maybe you can’t learn something new every day, but you can take advantage of every opportunity to learn.

Does your organization know how to learn?  The world is dominated by the ability to process information, and the ability to learn as an organization is crucial.  Here are four ideas to create a learning organization:

1. Encourage self-directed learning for employees.  Don’t tell anyone what to learn, but give permission for people to explore what they think is important. Provide resources and access to information, the internet, time off and tuition reimbursement if possible.

2. Promote inter-department collaboration.  Bring together members of teams from different departments and let them share ideas and strategies.  Encourage staff to share different opinions and points of view, so that meetings produce thoughtful, innovative results.

3. Use open-ended language.  In your meetings and discussions, ask questions that stimulate creative thought and learning without simply focusing on finding “correct” answers.  Show everyone on your team that you consider striving for improvement more important than arriving at a single “right” answer.

4. Treat mistakes as learning opportunities.  Hold honest, straightforward conversations when something doesn’t work as anticipated.  On a regular basis, ask team members what’s working and what isn’t.  Look for lessons that might improve the process next time, as well as ideas for new processes that might result in an innovative product.

A baseball manager made an announcement to his team at the hotel on the morning of the game that there would be two buses leaving for the ballpark.  “The 2 p.m. bus will be for those players who need extra work, and the empty bus will be leaving at 5 p.m.”

We all need extra work if we want to improve. 

Everyone is fascinated with big plays – a “Hail Mary” pass in football, a grand slam in baseball, a hat trick in hockey.  However, quite often it’s the smaller plays, like a base hit, negotiating a new labor contract or finding a way to improve a manufacturing process, that consistently achieve success.  Never downplay the everyday efforts to up your game and keep making progress, no matter what business you are in!

Mackay’s Moral:  You don’t just get better, you make yourself better.

About the Author Harvey Mackay, Founder & CEO

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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