Early in our careers we typically seek formal training and request feedback openly and frequently. Yet, later in our career, it seems we tend to cease these practices or at least, hide them.

Learning in SecretEarly in our careers we typically seek formal training and request feedback openly and frequently. Yet, later in our career, it seems we tend to cease these practices or at least, hide them. By hiding, I mean we’re not as outwardly open about it. I recognized this challenge in myself recently, as I pushed direct reports to give me a list of their desired training for the upcoming years, received few results and discovered my own lack of training. Worse, as I pondered it, I realized I had not proactively sought feedback, outside our formal 360 process, in months.

Instead of going to training classes, we attend conferences. Rather than request feedback on our performance from peers, superiors and others, we privately discern what they’re doing right. It seems we’re afraid that asking for training or feedback could be perceived as weakness or worse, we think we don’t need these continuous development items. However, by no longer proactively seeking these opportunities to grow as individuals and as leaders, the secret learner hurts themselves and the organization they serve.

Hurting the Leader

1. Slowed Growth: Studying other leaders, attending conferences and other secretive means of learning still help the individual grow, but they take longer to pick up new skills. When one is learning through observation vs. direct, dedicated and bi-directional educational settings, there is a greater time investment to absorb the lessons.

2.Missed Opportunities: We don’t always know what we don’t know. Without continuous development, you could miss out on opportunities you never realized existed.

3. Hypocrisy: If you want your team to continuously grow, you must practice the same. Instead, the lack of a pursuit of regular feedback and / or formal education while asking direct reports to do so may present the perception of hypocrisy to your team and damage your character.

Hurting the Organization

By not openly revealing our desire to learn and develop, I think we also hurt our organizations in the following ways:

1. Air of Superiority: The team may perceive leaders learning in secret as individuals that do no believe they need further training. This can impact the team’s opinion of that person and ultimately decrease the leader’s influence.

2. Discourages Development: As teams discern how leaders act, seeking to replicate the successful, they may determine training and development to be a reflection of weakness or otherwise undervalued. As a result, the growth and development of the organization suffers.

Go Public

Here’s a couple ways I can think of and plan to pursue myself, to break the cycle of secretive learning:

1. Seek Regular Feedback: Beyond your standard performance feedback channels and cycles, ask others for their input on your performance. To achieve the most candid feedback, I like to question how “they think others might perceive me”. This frees them up a bit to say it may not be what they think, but how they believe others may perceive you.

2. Training Plans: Before asking your team to provide you their requested training, have your own training scheduled (ideally) or at least planned and share those plans with your team. This changes the conversation from a “tell me what you think you need to improve” to a “We all need to continuously improve. Here’s what I am doing about it, what are you going to do and how can I help?” I’m still working on this one myself.

I’m still a ways away from getting this one right, but I think I’m on the right path. I hope you’ll join me by asking yourself, “am I learning in secret?” If the answer is yes, try going public. I think it will help you and your organization.

Question: Are you learning in secret? If not, what does your training plan look like?


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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