Lifelong learning and development is something that Will Mitchell, director of consulting at talent management specialists, A&DC, wholeheartedly believes in.
His love of learning was developed on taking a gap year after graduation, when he went to Australia with the Outward Bound Trust, an educational charity that focuses on learning out-of-doors.
Mitchell loved it and was able to see how this kind of active learning could produce positive results. In particular, he related to the idea, espoused by Outward Bound’s driving force Kurt Hahn, that the best way to learn is through experience.
Mitchell expands: “Experiential learning is about stretching people beyond what they feel is comfortable.”
It was a few years before he actively pursued this approach in career terms, however. Instead, on his return from Australia, he went to work for ICI, which had sponsored his studies. But at only 25 and despite being on a fast-track programme, Mitchell decided to give it all up and became a tutor for the Outward Bound Trust.
It wasn’t the first time that he’d had the courage to ditch the safe, traditional route. A talent for maths had seen him win a scholarship to Oxford University in the early 1980s to study engineering, but he found it “dull as ditch water” and quickly changed to engineering, economics and management, which had a broader, more people-oriented focus.
He then went on to do a Masters at UMIST in organisational psychology, before joining International Survey Research and concentrating on employee engagement surveys and cultural change.
His next step was to move to HR consultancy, Mercer
, before taking up a post at talent management consultancy A&DC seven years ago. “For the last five to 10 years, my area of interest, practice and passion has been helping people be the best they can be,” Mitchell says.
But given the current economic climate of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, he believes that it has become very hard for organisations and leaders to plan effectively.
As a result, a clear need has developed for organisational and individual leadership agility – and “learning agility is linked to the idea of experiential learning”, Mitchell points out.
Experiential learning is based on a cycle. Individuals do something, reflect on how they performed, obtain feedback and help, and then (hopefully) carry out the task more effectively next time.
But Mitchell reckons that such feedback should continue once trainees are out of the classroom and back in the work environment. This work environment, meanwhile, should ideally be based on an open work culture in which employees feel able to give feedback to their leaders to enable them to develop in turn.
To be an effective leader, the ability to learn and adapt quickly is a highly desirable skill. But all too often, organisational structures fail to support such growth, Mitchell believes.
“People talk about customer focus, but the idea of individual roles in a company has been very fixed and tight. But roles tend to overlap and, as you develop, you’re going to move into a more senior role and that doesn’t happen overnight,” he says.
As a result, the best organisations are those that enable staff to gradually take on more of the responsibilities of their next role. “Roles are not building blocks on top of one another, but jelly babies – soft and gooey that overlap. So there’s more integration and blending of roles and that way people can flex,” Mitchell explains.
This blending of talent management, succession planning and agile learning techniques helps to keep staff learning and developing over time. But Mitchell warns: “The challenge is that HR doesn’t like that very much because it makes it difficult for them. HR is seen as wanting to provide systems.”
Another key philosophy of his is based on Martin Seligman’s ideas on positive psychology. Seligman calls on people to concentrate on what they are good at and not dwell on fixing those things that they aren’t.
The key to resilience
Or as Mitchell puts it: if you have the slim build of a runner, you’re never going to become the greatest shot-putter, no matter how many hours of practice you put in. “Yet companies time and time again use performance appraisals to beat people up about what they’re not good at,” he points out.
Effective leaders don’t have to be carbon copies of each other either – they can be quirky. Mitchell notes that Steve Jobs, for example, was not cut from the typical chief executive cloth: he was abrupt, direct, sometimes ruthless, yet he could command incredible loyalty because he was authentic.
“It’s one of the things I’ve noticed about leaders and people – no one likes inauthenticity,” he says.
As a rose-tinted spectacles person (or so his wife tells him), Mitchell wants to see the positive in everything. But consciously changing individuals and organisations from pessimists into optimists – the idea of learned optimism espoused by Seligman – has been shown to have dramatic effects.
Happy people are more motivated, more successful and live longer. This concept links into another key area that Mitchell is interested in: personal resilience, which he describes as the ability to withstand high levels of pressure or uncertainty without crumbling.
The key to resilience is a combination of having a suitable support mechanism in place, self-belief and healthy habits, which act as a buffer to the pressures of modern living.
But the notion goes beyond the individual to encompass organisation-wide resilience too. During the financial troubles of the last few years, it is clear that some firms have been able to bounce back, while others have been weakened by events.
The key to organisational resilience, however, is to ensure a level of transparency and openness about mistakes as well as triumphs. While organisations with a rigid structure can snap under extreme force, those that can bend like trees in the wind are more likely to survive.
For Mitchell, it is adaptability, authenticity and doing what you love that are the secrets to success both in the workplace and at home.
Who do you admire most and why?
Robert Holden, who is described by wikipedia
as “Britain’s foremost expert on happiness”, is a psychologist working in the area of positive psychology and wellbeing.
I heard him speak and he really inspired me. He talks about understanding what really matters to you – it’s not earning lots of money, but finding within you what happiness is for you.
What is your most hated buzzword?
“Driving cultural change”. People are always on about driving change through organisations, but the thing about change is that you can’t force it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Look before you leap – I like to dive in.
How do you relax?
I bought a very expensive racing bike and went and did a competition in the Alps. So that’s my relaxation – getting out on my bike.