April 4, 2021

Minding the Gap: The L3 System as a Lifelong Learning Leadership Strategy

The learning in medical school is overwhelming. I can’t think of a time when I was exposed to more information in less time than in those years of anatomy, physiology, epidemiology, psychology, clinical learning and so much more. Learning something new every day was exciting, and the knowledge became a continual source of awe for me.

Yet, there is one lesson that rises above the others in importance to my career, and it really isn’t about medicine at all.

One of my mentors, Dr. Howard Barrows, told me that my most important job as a physician was to be a lifelong learner. No one can possibly learn everything they need to know from school. But all the knowledge in the world is within reach if you have the ability and willingness to learn, especially if you create a systematic habit of doing so.

You can imagine why Dr. Barrows wanted aspiring physicians to understand this point. If there is a new and safer way to perform a surgery, then by all means, a surgeon should learn it. Medical knowledge is advancing all the time. Learning is a necessary skill, and it can be the difference between life and death.

But lifelong learning is not just for physicians. It’s also crucially important concept for leaders. And in many cases, the stakes are not much lower.

Learning to lead

The idea that leaders are born and not made has fortunately fallen by the wayside. The C-suite is open to extroverts and introverts alike. Data people, relational people, contextual people. Professionals of all types potentially have something to offer.

However, as most people move up the ranks, it is their subject matter expertise and not their leadership chops that initially sets them apart. Promising professionals excel, gain renown and get promoted, landing in their new role with lots of skills, but most have not been systematically taught the skills they will need to lead effectively.

You can see why learning is important.

Many new leaders are flying by the seat of their pants (even if that’s scary to admit). Very few people get to go to “leadership school,” though some very good leadership development programs exist. Instead, learning about leadership is often trial by fire. It is frequently challenging and overwhelming; it can be fun and fulfilling; and it is extremely educational. It can also work well, when leaders know how to leverage what they learn.

That’s where feedback comes in.

Feedback as a tool for leaders

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about feedback on this blog, including this series on the topic. Why so much attention? There is no better way to see where you are, what your strengths are and where you need to go. You can’t possibly see yourself objectively, and so when you hear how others see you, there can be pleasant surprises, difficult realizations and boundless fodder for growth.

However, the common tendency to focus on the negative not only makes feedback painful. It makes feedback less effective. If all you can see are your weaknesses, you’ve cut yourself and your efforts to grow off at the knees. You need a foundation to build on. That foundation is your superpower.

Growth sprints and feeding forward

If you, or someone willing to give you feedback, have identified an area where you need to develop skills, strength or experience, what do you do with that information?

Here’s what I have seen work for myself, and many of the clients I’ve shared it with: Choose one growth area from your list of feedback takeaways. Make this issue your focus for the next 90 days. Using a 90-day time frame is what I like to think of as a “growth sprint.” Determine how you can leverage your superpower to grow, and then get to work. There are several ways you can develop a new skill, including:

  • Pursue specific training or reading about the skill.
  • Interview or talk with mentors or role models who have the skill.
  • Seek a new or “stretch” assignment that forces you to use the skill you are trying to build.
  • Request feed-forward from trusted advisors

When I discuss this list with my clients, many of them are familiar with self-directed learning, seeking training or reading as part of their development process. Many also understand how to work with mentors or find role models who are good at things they want to learn about.

Sometimes, though, people need a bit more context. You might have heard of stretch assignments, but perhaps have not tried one. Here’s an example. Imagine you are someone who needs to learn about budgeting and finance. One tactic for learning would be asking to be placed on the finance committee for a team or part of the upcoming fiscal year budget planning process. You might have to ask for the assignment, but if you do so in the spirit of working to build skills, you are more likely to get a receptive response.

And what, exactly, do I mean by the idea of “feed-forward?” This blog post by Marshall Goldsmith takes a deep dive for those who want one. For our purposes, I suggest that you find one or two trusted advisors whom you do not directly supervise and who do not supervise you. Once you have your development plan outlined, let those trusted advisors know what you are working on – strengths you want to reinforce and gaps you want to fill in your skill set. Ask them to meet with you regularly and provide an honest assessment of the improvements you have made, the growth areas that remain, and how they suggest that you proceed. Do this over your 90-day sprint, then ask how you’ve done and where you need to focus next.

When your 90-day sprint is finished, look back. What did you learn, and what kind of progress did you make? Do you need more time? That’s just fine. Start another 90-day interval. Are you ready to select a new growth area? Celebrate your progress and move onto your next task, but be sure to keep an eye on your first area of focus to watch for backsliding. You may need to revisit it at some point, and that’s OK. It’s a process, and with time it will become a mindset. Your Lifelong Learning Leadership mindset.

Your Lifelong Learning Leadership strategy

The world is always changing, and to be effective, you will have to change with it. This is the nature of life and the nature of leadership. And so, seeking and applying feedback is not just for new leaders, and learning is essential to keep even the most experienced and skilled leaders fresh. But it’s also all too easy to let the urgent crowd out the important, pushing your learning to the back burner. That’s why you need a systematic approach to learning and growth, including seeking and applying the lessons of feedback. I hope that this post, and my approach to becoming a Lifelong Learning Leader is worthy of the lessons Dr. Barrows taught me many years ago.

Your perspective

Do you have a systematic approach to seeking and applying feedback? I’d love to hear about it. There’s more than one way to use feedback to power growth. Series Note: This is the first time we have done an intentional series on a single topic. I’m very interested to hear whether this approach to our content is helpful to you, and what specific feedback you might have about it. I’ve created a very brief (3-question) survey – would you take a moment and click this link to give me your feedback? Thanks for the extra bit of time – we will use your input to shape future content.


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