I have five practical ways to learn something new in business, based on having interviewed and advised over a thousand business leaders. Some of those leaders went from being dirt poor to becoming self-made billionaires.
How do they do it?
Is it just that they are so much smarter, or harder working than the rest of us? Or maybe it was just good luck? No.
I think many super successful leaders get there by learning better than the rest of us.
I’ve observed some best practices over the years, and I’ve also personally used each of these tactics to learn something new. I founded ghSMART in my graduate school dorm room in 1995, knowing nothing about anything. I was passionate about building a special kind of leadership consulting firm—to create a new version of a Bain or McKinsey, but which advised leaders on “who” not “what” matters, and which offered exceptionally talented people a career platform based on freedom and flexibility. When I earned my Ph.D. and became “Dr. Smart” at age 25, I felt like an impostor—a Doogie Howser-looking child man. It would be many years before client prospects would stop asking me how old I was in every first meeting. I knew I had a lot to learn!
Today, our firm serves as leadership advisors to hundreds of leaders around the world, with nearly a hundred Smarties located in offices in a dozen cities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
How is that possible? Starting out as a young and clueless founder, I practiced these five learning techniques throughout the years on topics as diverse as industrial psychology, strategy, general management, private equity finance, government, predictive analytics, and digital marketing. And without too much cost, and without suffering too much hassle, I enjoyed adding confidence and expertise in a few new areas, which have proven useful in navigating our growth as a firm.
Here are five practical ways to learn something new in business.
READ 10 BOOKS.
It’s easy. Go to amazon. Type in the topic you want to master, and read the top-selling 10 books. Pay attention to the words and concepts that seem to matter the most. Total cost = $200.
GO TO THE BEST WORKSHOP ON THE TOPIC.
When I was learning about the topic of predictive analytics, I bought the book Predictive Analytics by Eric Seigel. I learned that the author hosted a huge conference on this topic, with the fitting name “Predictive Analytics,” so I went to it. When I wanted to learn more about structuring private equity transactions, I went to a workshop at Harvard Business School called “Structuring Private Equity Transactions.” Total cost for workshops = $1,000-$15,000.
INTERVIEW 10-100 EXPERTS FOR ADVICE.
A year ago, I decided I wanted to learn more about digital marketing. Many of our clients were struggling with the increasing digitization of demand creation. And I wondered how this trend might impact our own business in the future. Rather than interview 10 experts, I made a target list and used referrals to interview over 100 experts on this topic. People are happy to have a 30-minute discussion about their favorite subject, to help you learn and get oriented. I talked with venture investors who own digital marketing companies, coders at MIT’s Media Lab, a “Chief Digital Officer” (I didn’t know those existed), etc. You know you are getting your hands around a topic when you start to hear the same buzzwords and pieces of advice. Total out of pocket cost = $0 if you do it by phone, just the cost of your time.
HIRE SOMEONE AS MENTOR OR PARTNER.
You probably know a topic that an expert in another field would love to learn. Consider doing a “mentor swap” or “mentor barter” where you agree exchange advice and pick each other’s brain a couple times a year. I helped a tech entrepreneur on her first key hires in exchange for learning about digital product development, A/B testing, and crowd-sourced AI-driven predictive models. I learned a lot about government by advising three governors on their hiring practices. The only thing better than having an expert mentor is to hire an expert full time. That way an expertise gap can be filled by a rock star and you can also learn from them. For example, Randy Street was (and is) way better than I am at converting vision and strategy into a scalable organization that lives its values and achieves goals in client satisfaction and team retention. As Managing Partner of ghSMART for 9 years, Randy has not only done a great job, but he has taught our team a lot about his areas of expertise. Total cost = $0 for mentor bartering, lots more to hire an expert full time.
LEAD A PROJECT.
You have heard the expression “The best way to learn something is to teach it.” I’ve witnessed many clients and colleagues volunteer to run a project in an area of interest. In many cases, they were an expert when they started the project, but immersing themselves in the topic and working towards delivering results in that area boosted their expertise significantly. A year ago, my EA Jessica expressed an interest in social media and event management. To her surprise, and I hope delight, I gave her the sole responsibility of marketing and managing a public workshop event I’m doing this fall.
I have witnessed many leaders stall out in their careers. Most of the time it’s because they get set in their ways and they stop learning. If you want to keep thriving and adapting and innovating in your career, for the good of your career success and the success of your organization, please consider following these five tactics for learning something new. And if you think these tactics are useful, please download our other free leadership tools at SMARTtools for Leaders™.