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Episode 6: How to Grow and Learn at Work (transcript)

Kayla:                                  It was a little bit scary because it’s a huge risk and you never know what’s going to happen.

Sonia Kang:                       A few years ago, Kayla was facing a tough decision.

Kayla:                                  It could be good. It could be not so good.

Sonia Kang:                       Tough because, either way, the decision could be life changing.

Kayla:                                  Hi, I’m Kayla from Toronto. May I have… Hi, there, I see you waited to speak with me today. Thank you for your… That’s great to hear, how may I help you today?

Sonia Kang:                       You see, Kayla had recently started working in the call center of a big company.

Kayla:                                  [00:00:30] About eight months into working there, I was getting very comfortable in the position that I was in and I really liked what I was doing, but I did want to be challenged. So I thought why not challenge myself and look for something new.

Sonia Kang:                       Something new, but at the same company.

Kayla:                                  I knew that if I didn’t make that decision, that I’m never going to grow.

Sonia Kang:                       It was time for Kayla to learn and develop her skills so she could advance in her career. But how do you do that from the call center?

                                             [00:01:00] Welcome to For The Love of Work, an original podcast about the employee experience, made possible by Rogers. My name is Sonia Kang. I’m a professor of organizational behavior and I study the psychology of people at work. In this episode, we’re exploring the world of workplace learning and development, also known as L and D.

Kayla:                                  I thought that if I were to grow within the company, I would need further [00:01:30] education outside of the employment. So I really wasn’t aware that within that company, that I was able to actually grow, learn something, and apply it to a new position. I had no idea.

Sonia Kang:                       Yes, employee-focused companies are committed to your professional and personal growth, so you can maximize your potential. But with so much to learn and so many directions in which to develop, what’s the right plan for you?

Tsedal Neely:                    [00:02:00] To me, learning is something that has no end to it, especially today. We have to constantly learn and figure out how to apply what we’re learning into our professional work.

Sonia Kang:                       Tsedal Neely is a professor at Harvard Business School, who teaches leadership and organizational [00:02:30] behavior.

Tsedal Neely:                    The world is going through digital transformation. So you’re constantly learning new skills, whether it’s digital tools or how to relate in a remote environment and be effective at it.

Sonia Kang:                       Learning starts at onboarding, and it never ends. With the rate of digital change, some skills, workflows, and best practices are changing every few months. So whether you’re a new employee or at mid-career or in leadership, if you don’t keep [00:03:00] up, you’ll get left behind.

                                             So, how can we keep our heads in the long term learning and development game without getting sidetracked by the day to day realities of our jobs?

Tsedal Neely:                    Development to me is a long term process where you have an extended plan that has a much longer horizon and [00:03:30] requires a much more extended agenda. You’re developing a plan.

Sonia Kang:                       And that plan should include your employer.

Tsedal Neely:                    Individual growth and individual well being and satisfaction has to be one of the performance criterion for team performance that leaders need to look at. Because it increases retention for individuals who are [00:04:00] on teams but it also increases their performance within that team. People do better if they feel like they’re learning in an organization, and that’s one of the ways that you retain people. So learning is a big, big deal.

Sonia Kang:                       It definitely felt like a big deal for Kayla when she discovered that her company was invested in her growth.

Kayla:                                  I was a little bit intimidated thinking, “How am I going to be able to do this? How can I set myself apart from everybody else?”

Sonia Kang:                       The best way to get [00:04:30] ahead in your career is to excel in your current role. Eight months in, Kayla had a handle on that, so learning new skills was the next step. But for many people, not appearing knowledgeable, especially at work, can make them feel vulnerable. At the same time, Kayla could see the payoff.

Kayla:                                  It also excited me to know that this isn’t just a job for me. This can be a career.

Sonia Kang:                       And she was exactly right. Learning and development can be the springboard [00:05:00] from a job to a career. But this kind of learning might not be what you’re used to.

Clark Quinn:                      School, K-12, or higher ed typically doesn’t do a good job of actually teaching us how to learn, despite claims to the contrary.

Sonia Kang:                       Clark Quinn is a learning experience design expert. He also has a PhD in cognitive science.

Clark Quinn:                      Our effective learning strategies, they’re not developed.

Sonia Kang:                       He says, “Before we can do some learning, some of us [00:05:30] might need to do some unlearning.”

Clark Quinn:                      What we’re doing when we learn is strengthening connections between neurons.

Sonia Kang:                       Neurons send signals to different areas of your brain.

Clark Quinn:                      The way you strengthen those is we activate patterns. You don’t have a neuron for dog, you have a pattern of activation for dog that’s similar to the pattern of activation for cat and much less similar for fish or bacteria. The way we activate [00:06:00] that is with words and images. We strengthen those neurons between those patterns by activating them in conjunction.

Sonia Kang:                       Once you develop a pattern, your brain stores that information in a chunk, thus freeing up space to learn other patterns. But activating patterns doesn’t happen overnight.

Clark Quinn:                      This notion of the event-based model of learning, where you go in and you have a bunch of stuff in one day and you go away, most of that’s gone by the next day. And by two or three days later, [00:06:30] if you haven’t reactivated, it’s really gone. And so you need to activate them together, they strengthen a little bit. Then the next day you activate them again and they strengthen a little bit more. The neurons that fire together wire together.

Tsedal Neely:                    Activating patterns requires a level of consistency until you’ve got it. But the challenge is, “Hey, I’m busy doing my actual job, I don’t have time to learn something new right now.”

Gina Jeneroux:                 We’ve been on a journey for the last couple of years to move out of that formal [00:07:00] learning place into all the ways that we can help employees.

Kayla:                                  Gina Jeneroux is the chief learning officer at BMO. She’s talking about the massive proliferation of learning modalities offered by employee-focused companies.

Gina Jeneroux:                 We don’t just do formal courses, whether that be face to face or electronically. We actually have embraced bite-sized support, informal learning, communication to set good context, storytelling, [00:07:30] infographics, ebooks, animated shorts, videos, and so on that are all put together into a series of learning pathways and experiences that can help people build their skills and then apply their skills.

Sonia Kang:                       Microlearning or nanolearning classes can be as short as five to 10 minutes. Mobile lessons can sometimes be counted in seconds. And employers are helping employees learn where they already spend their time, so places like social media and YouTube and some companies [00:08:00] are posting their own content there too. What constitutes a lesson has expanded. In fact, L and D designers now consider any work-related interaction, even a casual conversation with a supervisor, as a potential for learning and Kayla, the customer service consultant, discovered all of this when she logged on to her company’s learning portal.

Kayla:                                  Yeah, so you sign in. It brings you to a homepage. You can do a self questionnaire, and then it’ll give you categories. So just as an example, [00:08:30] marketing, publishing, human resources. You would click through there. It would give you modules. There’ll be videos on the side. There would be an area where you can do online testing, questionnaires. You could hear about other people’s experiences. And then I also picked some things that I really wasn’t sure about but I wanted to learn about.

Sonia Kang:                       In the employee experience, learning of any kind is encouraged and supported. Here’s Gina again.

Gina Jeneroux:                 I focused on archeology, forensics, [00:09:00] space and other things that have nothing to do with my day job, because I actually find those are the things that are often most valuable in helping me get unstuck if I’m trying to figure out problems related to my job.

Sonia Kang:                       The idea is if you’re developing yourself and growing in any positive way, it’ll end up benefiting your work too. This investment in a holistic approach to learning is pretty incredible. It aligns with our increasingly digital lives, and it takes into account our busy schedules. But [00:09:30] remember what Clark Quinn said about how our brains learn, about consistently strengthening neural patterns.

Clark Quinn:                      Cognition is created in the moment. It’s a mix of what we’re experiencing from the outside and what’s coming from our memory. But every time you see the same thing, it’s not the same, because the context has changed. You’ve changed to develop the ability to retain it over time or requires a lot of practice and across different contexts means you’ll transfer it to all the appropriate situations.

Sonia Kang:                       Bite- [00:10:00] sized learning is easily digested and helpful. But if you don’t revisit it in tandem with other content and apply it practically, your brain may not retain the learning. Okay, we’re going to come back to learning in a bit. But first, let’s look at the development part of L and D, how do you take all of these learning choices and incorporate them into your development?

                                             Development is the longer term plan. Remember, at the beginning of the show, Tsedal Neely said it’s a process, and it starts with, where [00:10:30] do you want your professional journey to take you?

Avery Francis:                   It’s important for you to take a step back and think about what you want.

Sonia Kang:                       Avery Francis is the CEO of Bloom, a recruitment firm that works with startups.

Avery Francis:                   No one will care about your career as much as you do, and that starts long before you even get the job. So really identifying what you want and what growth looks like to you, and then having those conversations both through the interview process but once you’re working with an organization and continuing to have those conversations, is super important.

Sonia Kang:                       You start with [00:11:00] you, and then you build your career development team.

Avery Francis:                   It’s about pulling people in that you know that can champion that growth for you and advocate for you and help to support you on that path and to set out what a plan looks like for you. And then to start to work towards that, continuing to identify what the growth looks like, and then kind of continuing that cycle. So you can continue to grow within your organization.

Sonia Kang:                       As we heard in a previous episode, the one about standing out at work, the key to standing out is to play to your strengths and passions every day. [00:11:30] But when it comes to professional development, some people think they need to improve on their weaknesses. That’s not really a path to success. It’s actually better to continue building on your strengths so that you become even stronger at what you love to do. So to recap Avery, know what kind of growth you want, get a sponsor, and make a plan.

Avery Francis:                   But if there is no opportunity at that organization, and you’ve done the work, then that’s where you can actually look outwards and that’s when you can start navigating what that next step looks like [00:12:00] for you, maybe at a new company.

Sonia Kang:                       If learning is a priority for you, make sure the company you’re at or the company you’re applying to has the same priorities.

Gina Jeneroux:                 Career and the opportunity to grow is the number one reason why people join a company. And it’s also the number one reason they leave a company if they’re not getting opportunities.

Sonia Kang:                       Gina Jeneroux and Clark Quinn agree with Avery and say companies have to do more to help employees discover their full potential if they want [00:12:30] to keep them around.

Clark Quinn:                      There’s a shift in mentality that says managers’ role is not to crack the whip on people, it is to develop people. We need to start finding out ways to tap into the power of people. If we’re individually supporting them in their directions and improvement, we are investing in the people, but also in the organization’s learning.

Kayla:                                  To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure, but I knew that reporting to my direct [00:13:00] manager and just seeing everything that that person did on a day-to-day basis, it really had me interested, and it was something that I wanted to try to at least see if that was something that was for me.

Sonia Kang:                       After deciding it was time to grow, Kayla took a step back and thought about what she might want to do. Becoming a team supervisor at the call center looked good. So she then went to her manager.

Kayla:                                  He was really excited. He was really eager to help me and was really glad that I came to him and that started that [00:13:30] development journey.

Sonia Kang:                       And they came up with a plan together.

Kayla:                                  I wrote out what are some of the things that I’m really good at and what are some things that maybe I need to work on and just thinking about what have I done during my lifetime? Is there any skills or anything extra I’ve done that will help me get towards that goal? And then I thought about what would it take for me to get there?

Sonia Kang:                       We’ll find out more about Kayla’s plan in a second. [00:14:00] But before we do, let’s look at where you might want to focus your learning in the future.

Jeanne Meister:               We have to focus on developing more uniquely human skills, ones that robots can’t do.

Kayla:                                  Jeanne Meister is managing partner at Future Workplace, an HR consultancy.

Jeanne Meister:               Everything is going to be done with the focus on how do we create a more human experience at work,

Sonia Kang:                       Change management, creative thinking, collaboration, [00:14:30] resilience, things that are referred to as soft skills, but that in practice are actually quite hard. This is what Kayla, the customer service consultant, decided to work on. While her field was becoming more and more digital, speaking to customers and, hopefully, one day overseeing a customer service team, would require human skills.

Kayla:                                  Yeah. Specifically different areas of communication. So for me, you know, just making sure that the message that you’re saying is very clear, you [00:15:00] know, you’re getting the right point across. So, watching videos on different techniques and know that when you are saying it, how it’s sounding, if that makes any sense.

Jeanne Meister:               I think learning teams will focus a lot more on being coaches with business leaders rather than spending time and money. Developing custom content

Sonia Kang:                       Coaching within organizations is becoming more and more important, especially if it enhances [00:15:30] that human experience. And that has become even more important since COVID-19 disrupted our traditional office lives.

Jeanne Meister:               We’re going to get used to doing all our learning online. And it’s going to be really strange to go back to face to face

Sonia Kang:                       Along with all of my colleagues and professors and teachers around the world, I’ve had to figure out this transformation too. Funny side note, no one teaches professors how to teach. We’re just supposed [00:16:00] to kind of figure it out as we go. So now that all of my classes have moved online, it’s been a lot of work and transform is a great word for it, because it really has been a complete and dramatic change. And we’ve not only had to transform. We’ve also had to accelerate our adoption of tech based modalities and companies are doing this too for training their employees,

Jeanne Meister:               Walmart and Verizon are using virtual reality headsets to deliver training [00:16:30] in as engaging a way as possible, meaning you’re immersed in a scenario.

Sonia Kang:                       And this lends itself well to remote working as VR becomes more accessible on laptops.

Jeanne Meister:               Companies are using artificial intelligence platforms to deliver on a learning. It’s called adaptive learning, which means that you and I may be going through the same learning program, but the program is going to adapt to the knowledge we [00:17:00] have. So if I already have or if you already have a base of knowledge and a context, then we’re going to shortcut that for you and you’re going to be taken down a different path than I might, if I don’t have as much knowledge in a particular topic, as you might.

Sonia Kang:                       So as Jean stresses, it’s human skills training, but the learning itself is happening on more and more technologically advanced equipment.

Gina Jeneroux:                 So as we think about some [00:17:30] of these cutting edge skills that help people develop for the future, particularly the technical skills, there are thousands of open roles.

Sonia Kang:                       Gina says the ongoing spread of technology means tons of opportunities in growth industries.

Gina Jeneroux:                 I think as people really jump in with both feet and are empowered to drive their own learning, they are making themselves more competitive, really setting themselves apart to be able to jump into the roles that are available. [00:18:00] So as I look out to the future, the next three, five, 10 years, one of the biggest shifts will be human machine partnerships.

Sonia Kang:                       As artificial intelligence grows, the way we work will change dramatically at every level. What we need to know will also change

Gina Jeneroux:                 Those human machine partnerships are actually getting us into a place where that knowledge matters less.

Sonia Kang:                       And what we will need to learn will change

Gina Jeneroux:                 Your ability to actually solve [00:18:30] problems is more important than your ability to have lots of knowledge in your head,

Sonia Kang:                       Because if you have knowledge in your head, but you’re not able to put the pieces together to solve problems across different contexts, you haven’t technically learned anything. In fact, in psychology, we define learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior as a result of our experiences. So if the knowledge stays stuck in your head and you’re not able to act on it and use it to solve problems, you may as [00:19:00] well have saved yourself. The trouble of getting that stuff into your head in the first place. What Gina is saying is that AI has widened that gap between knowledge and experience or action even further. These days, we can outsource a lot of the concrete knowledge stuff to computers. Most of us don’t have to memorize facts or definitions or formulas or functions in the way that we used to anymore, but we absolutely do need to be able to figure out how that knowledge can help us solve problems in our day to day lives. [00:19:30] How to turn that knowledge into action,

Clark Quinn:                      Just reciting stuff and reading knowledge and answering questions about it doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to use it in the real world. In cognitive science, we call that inner knowledge. The important thing is practice with feedback and that feedback has to be the right practice for you at this right time. It has to be deliberate. It has to be the thing that advances you. It can’t be just doing the same thing and it can’t be doing stuff that’s too difficult or too simple.

Sonia Kang:                       Clark Quinn says the best practice or best learning [00:20:00] is something called mentored live performance. A coach watches you doing a job or task, whether it’s in real life or a video simulation, and gives you feedback in real time. Now, mentored live performance might not be available for everyone, but some kind of on the job or experiential learning, doing the actual job while getting feedback is very effective.

                                             My absolute favorite class to teach as a professor is negotiations. I give students a case [00:20:30] to read the week before and ask them to prepare, to play a specific role and negotiate as if they’re really that person. So, for example, in one case, students are put into groups of four with one pair playing the role of producers of a new TV show and the other pair playing the role of network reps and people get super into it. After they’ve negotiated, we go around the room to hear what parts of the deal were easy to negotiate. What parts ended up being super contentious. I use the students’ own experiences to weave [00:21:00] together a lesson plan around the points that I want to teach them that week. And because I’m talking about something they just lived through, a concrete lived experience that is no longer just an abstract concept, the information sticks. In terms of real learning, the old adage that practice makes perfect, definitely rings true.

                                             After a bunch of video based microlearning through her company’s portal, Kayla signed up for some of her own practice based learning.

Kayla:                                  [00:21:30] It was really good in the role that I was in. And so what had happened is hiring new people into the company, I was able to volunteer my time to help them to be able to develop their skills and sort of devote my own time so that I was learning, I was teaching someone, and so that was something I was able to check off my development plan.

Sonia Kang:                       By onboarding new colleagues, Kayla started learning what it meant to lead. After a while, another opportunity for practice came up when her manager went on vacation.

Kayla:                                  [00:22:00] That actually went really well. I learned a lot and it helped me get noticed. Next time an opportunity came up, I was someone who was thought about. I was recommended and I was able to do that.

Sonia Kang:                       So this is great, for Kayla at least. She works at a progressive company that prioritizes learning. But what if you don’t work at an employee focused company or you work in the gig economy or what if you’re just entering the workforce and you know, learning is important, but don’t know what to look for.

Gina Jeneroux:                 [00:22:30] It’s good to ask the question about how the company prioritizes learning, what they invest in learning, what the opportunities are to engage in it, what is the process? Is it something that you’re able to do on your own? Is it something where the company will put you through formal programs? Will you have opportunities to learn what matters to you and will you be supported to learn what you need for your job and your career? And I think if they can’t answer the question, that’s a challenge [00:23:00] or if they indicate that it’s not something that they invest in, that’s probably a challenge too.

Sonia Kang:                       If the company is really small or they’re a new startup, they might not have the same learning infrastructure. The key is to become an advocate for your own learning and development. Start by asking your manager or someone in HR. They might have a tuition reimbursement budget or a subscription to an online learning platform. And hearing that this is something employees are looking for might be the nudge they need to get [00:23:30] their act together on the L and D front. But there’s also a lot of learning. You can access on your own.

Gina Jeneroux:                 So many universities now and large companies are offering access to their learning for free. There are so many learning communities, mentorship circles, and informal groups that you’re able to connect in with who actually have an amazing interest in helping everyone around them. And so it’s really important [00:24:00] to be able to just think differently about what development means for you. And some places you’ll go deep, some places you’ll go light, but it’s about stoking that curiosity and feeling empowered to learn what matters most

Sonia Kang:                       Back at the call center, Kayla was diligently continuing her development with feedback from her manager.

Kayla:                                  The whole period where I was going through my journey, he [00:24:30] was always there, just asking how I’m doing and do you need any coaching, do you want to go over anything or go through some scenarios as to difficult situations you’ve gone through.

Sonia Kang:                       Finally, after all of the different kinds of classes and on the job learning, today, Kayla is a team manager.

Kayla:                                  I’ve worked at places before where I’ve maybe not been happy about having to get up and go to work, because thinking about it’s just a job, nothing’s going to come of it, but I’m excited now. I get to [00:25:00] see people. I get to do work that I really enjoy doing and I feel rewarded. The company has done so much for me.

Sonia Kang:                       At the same time, the learning continues for Kayla and her development plan keeps getting updated.

Kayla:                                  And even until this day, it’s something I do on a yearly basis.

Sonia Kang:                       Within the employee experience, learning and development is a central part of the employer, employee relationship.

Gina Jeneroux:                 It’s funny, there’s the old quote [00:25:30] that says what if we invest in our people and they leave and the counter argument is what if we don’t and they stay. And so I think it really is an investment, but I also try to think about it from a virtuous circle perspective. I think it’s so important for us to invest in our employees from the day they joined for as long as they are with the company, and we hope that’s for a long time. But I think the world of work right now is just changing so much that people will stay for the length of [00:26:00] time that makes sense for them. And we often find that we have people who boomerang, so they will leave the company for a period of time to engage in some other kinds of work and many people come back, because they actually value the culture. They value the investment that we make in them.

Sonia Kang:                       So your company needs to be all in and you need to be all in on understanding and pursuing learning and development as a lifelong need. Decide what you want your growth to look like, try to get a sponsor in your corner, and create a development plan. [00:26:30] Understand how your brain learns and assess if the modality you’re using supports that. Wherever possible, get access to on the job or experiential learning. Learn about other things you’re passionate about outside of what you do for work too. You never know where that may take you. Thanks for listening to, For The Love of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. Find us at for the love of work dot c-a. I’m Sonia Kang. [00:27:00] Talk soon.