Why Transformation Needs a Learning Culture and How to Achieve It

Transformation is a word we often hear in corporate environments—in all honesty, we hear it perhaps too often. Many companies recognize the need for change, whether it’s in their employee culture, their go-to-market plans or their management style. Or all of the above. In order to successfully manage change, I always ask: “What does leadership need most in this transformative era to keep pace with where consumers, business, and society, is moving?” To me, the answer is in having a perpetual sense of curiosity, an endless appetite for what’s new and an insatiable desire to anticipate what’s next.

I can use my own experience as an example—managing change has become a way of life for me. Through my university studies to my world travel to my business career, I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures and environments, devouring books about people experiencing exciting adventures in exotic settings, and then experiencing for myself. I was thrilled to get the chance to spend summers studying in places like Indonesia and a year abroad studying in London and Oxford, and would never have imagined then that today, I would regularly conduct business in these locations.

While I was in the process of deciding about graduate school, a series of events led to a meeting with Philip Morris USA, which at the time had its manufacturing operations in Virginia. While interviewing with the company, I told my interviewer, “I’m going to grad school for my PhD.” Through his insightful questions, I realized I didn’t really know what I was doing or what exactly I wanted to do. I decided to regroup, and start my career for a year or so before going back to graduate school. Now, 24 years—and many roles—later, I’m still with Philip Morris International (although it’s no longer part of Philip Morris USA), having faced hundreds of fascinating challenges along the way. What’s sustained my career—and helped me contribute to our company’s success—is an ongoing hunger for learning.

In today’s global environment, there are always new people to meet and new cultures to understand, and we can take that knowledge and use it in ways that make dramatic impact. I try to impart this mindset to my daughters, my colleagues, my employees and customers: If we can always stay curious and interested to see the world through someone else’s viewpoint, it broadens our own horizons.  To bring it back to my personal experience:  I was so enthralled with the roles of increasing responsibility I was given at PM USA / PMI, that plans to go back to graduate school in a couple of years never materialized.  But I decided to get my EMBA at IMD in 2014-15.  The primary driver was to surround myself with perspectives from cohorts in other industries.  Through study in China, India and Silicon Valley, it was an amazing learning journey with a truly diverse cohort.  What’s next?  Maybe I’ll return to graduate school for that Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology one of these days.  The learning journey never ends…

I’m sure at some point we’ve all used the phrase, “We don’t know what we don’t know,” especially in business. It can feel easier at times to revert back to “swim lanes” or to depend on dependable, old ways of doing things. I think there’s a new saying we ought to consider: “What we don’t know is what we need to learn.” Lessons can come from anywhere and anyone, and we need to be open to hearing new information that can help us grow personally and succeed professionally. A learning culture and attitude helps organizations avoid complacency, constantly pushing to new frontiers and challenging old ways of thinking.

By not being afraid to ask, “Can we talk?” I have learned that people are almost always open to share knowledge, and that this phrase can open many doors to new relationships and conversations. I actively seek meetings with start-ups, with businesses in completely different categories, and with people who I know have different skill sets than I do. I always leave these interactions with enhanced perspectives.

We often think of leading through transformation—but we can’t forget that there are employees who are being led through that transformation. People are often innately afraid of risk or change, so things can quickly go in the direction of a “fear-based” fight-or-flight mentality if transformation is not managed effectively. What we want and need during these times are creativity, innovation and a learning culture – one of the best antidotes for fear. Here are some tips on how to achieve one:

  1. Ensure that employees understand that their career growth is viewed as important by management and that they have access to all the support required to grow, develop and thrive throughout times of change. Employees need to feel that they’re included in the vision of the organization and that there is value for them within the future of the business.
  2. Create a culture where differing opinions are not only valued but encouraged, as long as they are shared in the spirit of consumer-centricity and making the workplace environment better. Fostering healthy discussion and welcoming diverse voices will make employees feel like the valued contributors they are.
  3. Support, praise and celebrate risk-taking. Create a culture where taking smart risks is rewarded and where employees are empowered to take chances in their roles, with failures expected and welcomed as a part of the journey to success.
  4. Ensure that information is a two-way flow between management and employees. Conversation can’t be all one way, with management sending emails, memos and organizational announcements to employees. Employees need to feel empowered to make comments, share ideas, opinions and concerns without fear of reprisal from senior leadership. Senior leaders must not only listen but truly hear and act.

Creating a learning culture is not an easy task, but one that is essential to true transformation. Embracing change is the key to opening doors that we didn’t even know existed. Fostering an environment where conversation thrives, curiosity is welcome and diverse opinions create better outcomes will have tangible and intangible rewards. As a leader, the anticipation of what’s next is what wakes me up excited every morning, anxious to see what comes out of the bright minds within my team, knowing that the next big idea could be just around the corner.


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