“I’ve never worked in a place like this,” said one of my direct reports during our daily stand-up meeting.
And with that statement, my mind raced to the most important thing about lawyering that I’ve learned from decades of watching lawyers lawyer on TV: don’t ask a question you don’t know the answer to.
But I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to learn more. The thought developed in my mind. The words formed in my mouth. And the vocalization occurred: “A place like this?”
“I’ve never worked where people are so honest and transparent about things.”
Designing a learning-centered culture
Before we started Center Centre, Jared Spool and I discussed both the larger goals and the smaller details of this new UX design school. We talked about things like user experience, curriculum, and structure.
We discussed the pattern we saw in our research. Hiring managers told us time and again that great designers have excellent technical and interpersonal skills. But, more importantly, the best designers are lifelong learners—they are willing and able to learn how to do new things. Learning this led us to ask a critical question: how would we intentionally design a learning-centered experience?
To craft the experience we were aiming for, we knew we had to create a learning-centered culture for our students and our employees. We knew that our staff would need to model the behaviors our students needed to learn. We knew the best way to shape the culture was to work with our direct reports—our directs—to develop the behaviors we wanted them to exemplify.
To craft the experience we were aiming for, we knew we had to create a learning-centered culture for our students and our employees. We knew that our staff would need to model the behaviors our students needed to learn.
Building a learning team
Our learning-centered culture starts with our staff. We believe in transparency. Transparency builds trust. Effective organizations have effective teams who trust each other as individuals.
One huge way we build that trust and provide opportunities for transparency is in our meetings. (I know, I know—meetings! Yuck!) But seriously, running and participating in effective meetings is a great opportunity to build a learning-centered culture.
Meetings—when done well—allow individuals time to come together, to share, and to listen. These behaviors, executed on a consistent and regular basis, build honest and trusting relationships.
An effective meeting is one that achieves the desired outcomes of that meeting. While different meetings aim for different results, at Center Centre all meetings have a secondary goal: meet for learning.
A framework for learning-centered meetings
We’ve developed a framework for our meetings. We use it for all our meetings, which means attendees know what to expect. It also saves us from reinventing the wheel in each meeting.
These basic steps help our meetings focus on the valuable face-to-face interaction we’re having, and help us truly begin to learn from one another.
Use effective meeting basics
- Prepare for the meeting before the meeting.
- If you’re running the meeting, prepare a typed agenda and share it before the meeting. Agendas have start times for each item.
- Start the meeting on time. Don’t wait for stragglers.
- Define ground rules. Get input from attendees. Recurring meetings don’t have to do this every time.
- Keep to the meeting agenda. Put off-topic questions and ideas in a parking lot, a visual document that everyone can see, so you can address the questions and ideas later.
- Finish on time. And if you’ve reached the meeting’s goals, finish early.
Focus to learn
- Have tech-free meetings: no laptops, no phones, no things with notifications.
- Bring a notebook and a pen.
- Take notes by hand. You’re not taking minutes, you’re writing to learn.
Come with a learning mindset
- Ask: what are our goals for this meeting? (Hopefully answered by the meeting agenda.)
- Ask: what can I learn overall?
- Ask: what can I learn from each of my colleagues?
- Ask: what can I share that will help the team learn overall?
- Ask: what can I share that will help each of my colleagues learn?
Investing in regularly scheduled learning-centered meetings
At Center Centre, we have two types of recurring all-staff meetings: daily stand-ups and weekly staff meetings. (We are a small organization, so it makes sense to meet as an entire group.)
Yes, that means we spend thirty minutes each day in stand-up, for a total of two and a half hours of stand-up meeting time each week. And, yes, we also have a weekly ninety-minute sit-down staff meeting on top of that. This investment in time is an investment in learning.
We use these meetings to build our transparency, and, therefore, our trust. The regularity of these meetings helps us maintain ongoing, open sharing about our responsibilities, our successes, and our learning.
For instance, we answer five questions in our stand-up:
- What did I get done since the last stand-up (I reported at)?
- What is my goal to accomplish before the next stand-up?
- What’s preventing me from getting these things done, if anything?
- What’s the highest risk or most unknown thing right now about what I’m trying to get done?
- What is the most important thing I learned since the last time we met and how will what I learned change the way I approach things in the future?
Each person writes out their answers to these questions before the meeting. Each person brings their answers printed on paper to the meeting. And each person brings a pen to jot down notes.
During the stand-up, each person shares their answers to the five questions. To sustain a learning-centered culture, the fifth question is the most important question to answer. It allows individual reflection focused on learning. Sometimes this isn’t an easy question to answer. It makes us stretch. It makes us think.
By sharing our individual answers to the fifth question, we open ourselves up to the group. When we honestly share what we’ve learned, we openly admit that we didn’t know something. Sharing like this would be scary (and even risky) if we didn’t have a learning-centered culture.
We often share the actual process of how we learned something. By listening, each of us is invited to learn more about the topic at hand, consider what more there is to learn about that topic, and even gain insights into other methods of learning—which can be applied to other topics.
Sharing the answers to the fifth question also allows opportunities for further conversations. We often take what someone has individually learned and find ways to apply it for our entire team in support of our organization. We are, after all, learning together.
Building individual learners
We strive to grow together as a team at Center Centre, but we don’t lose sight of the importance of the individuals who form our team. As individuals, we bring our goals, dreams, abilities, and prior knowledge to the team.
To build learning teams, we must build individual learners. A team made up of lifelong learners, who share their learning and learn from each other, is a team that will continually produce better results.
As a manager, I need to meet each direct where they are with their current abilities and knowledge. Then, I can help them take their skills and knowledge base to the next levels. This process requires each individual direct to engage in professional development.
We believe effective managers help their directs engage in behaviors that support growth and development. Effective managers encourage and support learning.
Our weekly one-on-ones
One way we encourage learning is through weekly one-on-ones. Each of my directs meets with me, individually, for thirty minutes each week. The meeting is their meeting. It is not my meeting.
My direct sets the agenda. They talk about what they want to talk about. They can talk about work. They can talk about things outside of work. They can talk about their health, their kids, and even their cat. Whatever is important to them is important to me. I listen. I take notes.
Although the direct sets the specific agenda, the meeting has three main parts. Approximately ten minutes for them (the direct), ten minutes for me (the manager), and ten minutes for us to talk about their future within—and beyond—our organization.
Coaching for future performance
The final third of our one-on-one is when I coach my directs. Coaching looks to the direct’s future performance. It focuses on developing the direct’s skills.
Coaching isn’t hard. It doesn’t take much time. For me, it usually takes less than five minutes a week during a one-on-one.
The first time I coach one of my directs, I ask them to brainstorm about the skills they want to improve. They usually already have an idea about this. It’s often something they’ve wanted to work on for some time, but didn’t think they had the time or the knowhow to improve.
If a direct doesn’t know what they want to improve, we discuss their job responsibilities—specifically the aspects of the job that concern them.
Coaching provides an opportunity for me to ask, “In your job, what are the required skills that you feel like you don’t have (or know well enough, or perform effectively, or use with ease)?”
Sometimes I have to remind a direct that it’s okay not to know how to do something (even if it’s a required part of their job). After all, our organization is a learning organization. In a learning organization, no one knows everything but everyone is willing to learn anything.
After we review the job responsibilities together, I ask my direct what skill they’d like to work to improve. Whatever they choose, we focus on that skill for coaching—I’ve found my directs work better when they’re internally motivated.
Sometimes the first time I talk with a direct about coaching, they get a bit anxious. If this happens, I share a personal story about my professional learning journey. I say something like:
I didn’t know how to make a school before we started to make Center Centre.
I didn’t know how to manage an entire team of people—day in and day out—until I started managing a team of people every day.
When I realized that I was the boss—and that the success of the school would hinge, at least in part, on my skills as a manager—I was a bit terrified. I was missing an important skill set that I needed to know (and I needed to know well).
When I first understood this, I felt bad—like I should have already known how to be a great manager. But then I realized, I’d never faced this situation. I’d never needed to know how to use this skill set in this way.
I worked through my anxiety about feeling inadequate. I decided I’d better learn how to be an effective manager because the school needed me to be one. You needed me to be one.
Every day, I work to improve my management skills. You’ve probably noticed that some days I’m better at it than others. I try not to beat myself up about this, although it’s hard—I’d like to be perfect at it. But I’m not.
I know that if I make a conscious, daily effort to learn how to be a better manager, I’ll continue to improve. So that’s what I do.
Every day I learn. I learn by doing. I learn how to be better than I was the day before. That’s what I ask of you.
Once we determine the skill the direct wants to learn, we figure out how they can go about learning it. I ask: “How could you learn this skill?”
We brainstorm for two or three minutes about this. We write down every idea that comes to mind, and we write it so both of us can easily see the options (both whiteboards and sticky notes on the wall work well for this exercise).
Read a book. Research online. Watch a virtual seminar. Listen to a podcast. Talk to a mentor. Reach out to an expert. Attend a conference. Shadow someone else while they do the skill. Join a professional organization.
The goal is to get the direct on a path of self-development. I’m coaching their development, but I’m not the main way my direct will learn this new skill.
I ask my direct which path seems like the best place to start. I let them choose whatever option they want (as long as it works with our budget). They are more likely to follow through if they are in control of this process.
Next, we work to break down the selected path into tasks. We only plan one week’s worth of tasks. The tasks are small, and the deadlines are short. My direct reports when each task is completed.
At our next one-on-one, I ask my direct about their experience learning this new skill.
That’s it. I spend five minutes a week talking with each direct about their individual learning. They develop their professional skills, and together we’re creating a learning-centered culture.
Asking questions I don’t know the answer to
When my direct said, “I’ve never worked where people are so honest and transparent about things,” it led me to believe that all this is working. We are building a learning-centered culture.
This week I was reminded that creating a learning-centered culture starts not just with the staff, but with me. When I challenge myself to learn and then share what I’m currently learning, my directs want to learn more about what I’m learning about.
For example, I decided I needed to improve my writing skills. A few weeks ago, I realized that I was sorely out of practice and I felt like I had lost my voice. So I started to write. I put words on paper. I felt overwhelmed. I felt like I didn’t know how to write anymore (at least not well or effectively).
I bought some books on writing (mostly Peter Elbow’s books like Writing with Power, Writing Without Teachers, and Vernacular Eloquence), and I read them. I read them all. Reading these books was part of my personal coaching. I used the same steps to coach myself as I use with my directs when I coach them.
In stand-ups, I started sharing what I accomplished (like I completed one of the books) and what I learned by doing—specific things, like engaging in freewriting and an open-ended writing process.
This week, I went to lunch with one of my directs. She said, “You’ve been talking about freewriting a lot. You’re really excited about it. Freewriting seems like it’s helping your writing process. Would you tell me more about it?”
So I shared the details with her. I shared the reasons why I think freewriting is helping. I’m not focused on perfection. Instead, each day I’m focused on spending ten, uninterrupted minutes writing down whatever comes to my mind. It’s opening my writing mind. It’s allowing my words to flow more freely. And it’s helping me feel less self-conscious about my writing.
She said, “Leslie, when you say you’re self-conscious about your writing, I laugh. Not because it’s funny. But because when I read what you write, I think, ‘What is there to improve?’ I think you’re a great writer. It’s interesting to know that you think you can be a better writer. I like learning about your learning process. I think I could do freewriting. I’m going to give it a try.”
There’s something magical about all of this. I’m not even sure I can eloquently put it into words. I just know that our working environment is something very different. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Somehow, by sharing that I don’t know everything and that I’m always working to learn more, I invite my directs to be really open about what they don’t know. And they see it’s possible always to learn and grow.
I’m glad I ignore all the lawyering I’ve learned from watching TV. I’m glad I ask the questions I don’t know the answers to. And I’m glad my directs do the same. When we meet for learning, we accelerate and amplify the learning process—building individual learners and learning teams. Embracing the unknown and working toward understanding is what makes our culture a learning-centered culture.
Photos by Summer Kohlhorst.