We are a learning organization. Developing people is our key focus. Our employees are lifelong learners.” You hear these or similar statements. Probably you are among those who express them as well.

Yet, things can get tricky when there is a heavy load on your team members, when you must prioritize customers, when you must demonstrate utilization of your people and present their “billable hours.” Suddenly, learning is put aside and becomes a low-priority matter.

Regardless of your employees' dedication to their learning journey, the above-mentioned disruptions can affect even the most established goals. Without strong commitment there is no gain. And it is not only the learner who must be committed; it is you, the leader, who needs commitment as well: The top leadership should demonstrate a commitment and prove that the learning culture is live. This is especially true in tough times, when customer projects seem to be the only priority.

Commitment, motivation & responsibility

Before we delve into what leaders can do, let’s just look at the very definition of commitment. Being committed simply means that a person is obligated or emotionally impelled to do something, that one firmly decides on a particular goal and actively pursues it (definition by Webster and ChatGPT).

Often the two words—commitment and motivation—are used together. They, indeed, are inter-related and reinforce each other. While motivation is a source of commitment, a strong commitment results in sustainable motivation.

Another important sustainer of motivation is progress—experiencing it motivates the learners and strengthens their commitment. If the learners do not see any progress, their commitment fades. That is why the leaders should help their learners to succeed.

Note, there are additional drivers that lead to commitment. One of them is responsibility. Not only are the learners responsible for their own development, they are also responsible to the team, the organization, the customers. And, what we often forget while learning, learners have a responsibility to authors and implementors of learning program—the designers, mentors, and facilitators who worked hard to plan and implement the learning solution.

Motivation & learning

It is important to understand the motivational aspects of learning.

While intrinsic factors such as personal values, curiosity, and perseverance are absolutely under the learner’s control, the extrinsic factors—expectations from others, awards, recognition, financial incentives—are the ones that leaders can employ.

Despite their temporal nature, these external factors boost motivation and consequently contribute to learners’ commitment.

And why do we put so much focus on leaders? They are the ones who accompany individuals (and teams) on the learning journey, sometimes from “zero to hero,” or, more often, to advance to the next level or move horizontally. What is crucial is the connection: Learners have to feel that they are moving together with the leader, their manager.

Who owns the learning?

While it is true that it is the learner who learns and has to be committed and do the job, it’s also true that managers and leaders can contribute a lot to a learner’s success. Consider an analogy: Remember your childhood. If your parents—your leaders—had not cared about your schooling and studying, you would have probably never achieved your education.

I do not mean that parents must study with their children; I mean they have to support, encourage, provide time and a place to learn, even show they are curious, and with that, demonstrate that they value learning. With all these actions, they give purpose to their child’s—the learner’s—efforts.

Now, let’s look at an adult learner in an organization. Their learning always competes with customer work, with projects, with utilization. Yet, an opportunity to learn, develop, and grow is one of the retention mechanisms that employees value most. Therefore, leaders must take an active role and be committed to success of the learners. They must help their employees to learn optimally within the time that is available.

It starts with the learner

Several essential prerequisites for successful learning depend on the learner, who must:

  • Find their inner drive
  • Recognize the value of what they learn and align their efforts to the goals they have set
  • Visualize their expected achievements to get more motivation
  • Take the first step to start moving along the learning journey
  • Set a routine and possibly define some milestones, so that they can track their progress
  • Ask for help; most learning happens on the job, through interaction with coworkers
  • Celebrate small successes, even if it is just a deep satisfaction in achieving a milestone

Leaders’ role

Leaders must stress these essentials, talking about them with employees and encouraging them to apply these guiding principles.

In addition, leaders have to convey two important messages:

  • Ownership: Learners own their learning and their goals. Ideally, they would sign their commitment on paper or verbally acknowledge it with their leader. Taking ownership establishes an autonomy which makes learners independent, responsible—and more committed.
  • Communicating struggles: Leaders should encourage learners to speak up, to ask for help, as soon as they see they are struggling. If they see that they won’t achieve a goal, they should be encouraged to admit their problem and let their leader (and mentor) know. Silence in such cases is the worst enemy of learning success. You can’t fix the problem without knowing it.

Leaders and team members: Together

To be engaged, motivated, and committed as a leader, you have to know your “why” too. As learners must answer for themselves what and why they would learn, so too the leaders should have a clear vision of why and how they will support their learners. It is only once leaders clarify their goals and map them to the success of learners that they can be truly committed—and authentically communicate their enthusiasm to their teams.

Being committed means you jointly set the learning goals and perhaps even formalize them. This shared commitment fosters a sense of partnership, making learners feel they are not on the journey alone.

Keeping up the momentum

As an employee progresses on their learning path, it is important for the leader to monitor their advancement. This should ideally be done in collaboration with the learner and, at times, with those overseeing the program.

It is important to ensure that your involvement does not come across as micromanaging. Instead, the learner should perceive it as genuine concern. They must feel your presence, empathy, care, and support, yet you also must be bold. Learning is not an easy thing, especially not an intensive or long learning program. So sometimes, leaders must go beyond simple encouragement.

As a leader, you also have to encourage team learning, since it adds a bit of “peer-pressure” to learners. It also shows learners that they can always turn for help to their colleagues.

And do not forget to give the learners any possible opportunity to connect their learning experiences with the real world. Bring your learners into various projects as soon as possible so that they apply their new knowledge.

Finally, when your learners achieve a certain milestone, celebrate with them. It does not need to be a great party, just a simple “thumbs-up,” which can often mean more than a grand celebration.

An example …

In our organization we ran a “Capture the Flag” competition in cybersecurity to help people learn in a safe environment. From the day that we decided to do it, managers played an active role—promoting the event and encouraging people to join. During the event, which lasted 24 hours, managers took care of providing food and drinks, even competing between themselves who would order better pizza and drinks, or who would establish a more competitive spirit, promising champagne for the winners, etc. However, the best thing that they did was visit the teams (some in person, some virtually) throughout the event, even in late evening hours.

The impact of the leaders’ presence was astounding. The teams competed fiercely, not a single team gave up, and even the participants with low previous knowledge stayed and learned, some just by observing their colleagues. The leaders’ commitment gave value and importance to the event.

The top leadership sets the tone

Numbers can’t be made and customers can’t be won without competent people, without learning. And it is the top leaders’ job to make sure some time is set aside for learning—as well as for giving support to learners and promoting the culture of learning.

Looking at some leadership principles, such as communicating clearly, showing energy and passion, and providing opportunities for growth to employees, we see they are the very same principles any learning is based upon. These principles help establish trust, which is the foundation of commitment.

Furthermore, encouragement and recognition from the top leadership can bring about miracles. That includes recognition not only of learners but of learning and development people as well (remember the famous “seat at the table”). This is the true learning culture.

When learners see that leaders appreciate the efforts of learning professionals, they are committed more.

In messages from top leaders, employees need to see the value and usefulness of what they learn. When talking about the need for continuous learning and sharing knowledge at work, ensure the activities are aligned with the company's goals, and always remember the end result: satisfied customers. This kind of communication helps employees see the purpose and makes them more committed to learning.

One of the key drivers of commitment is the top leadership presence. Their appearance at various learning events—at kick-offs of important learning programs, or at final project presentations—gives a special tone to learning efforts. Their promotion of learning, through announcements in various channels, gives value to learning.

And, if you, as a top leader, are simply there, they see you as a learner, too. They see you as someone who is curious about what is going on with their growth, they see you as someone they can relate to.

Yet it is not the presence itself that counts, it is much more—the presence of the leadership team is the best way of recognizing the learner’s efforts. Adding personal congratulations, such as when the CEO meets a person in a hallway, shows interest, knows what is going on and says a word or two to recognize an individual, is astounding. Try to show recognition more often, no matter which level of leadership you are on. True, it requires you stay informed—but, aren’t you a curious leader?

Commitment on all levels

No matter what you do as a leader, it is learners who must complete their job and succeed on their learning journey. They must motivate themselves and commit to their goals. As a leader, you can help the learners significantly, sometimes just by communicating to them and encouraging them.

On a direct manager level, you can establish a collaborative environment where people help one another, share knowledge, and learn. But first you must find strong reasons why a certain learning program is needed. Only relevant programs truly lead to commitment. And do not forget to celebrate successes of your learners.

On the top leadership levels, you must contribute to building the learning culture, clearly communicate the value, and express recognition for the learners’ efforts.

Irrespective of your leadership position, it is you who must “firmly decide on a particular goal and actively pursue it.” That is commitment in its very definition. The learning efforts in your organization will then certainly pay off. 

Explore leadership issues with your peers

Shifting learning culture or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb; learning leaders do not need to undertake this challenge alone. Share what works, and explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers.

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