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Continuous Learning: Chain of Learning


Continuous Learning: Chain of Learning featuring Katie Anderson
Continuous Learning: Chain of Learning featuring Katie Anderson

“Setbacks and challenges are inevitable, but with the ability to learn, get up, and persist, you will eventually succeed. Resilience and fortitude in learning pave the way for success, even in the face of setbacks. Learning is the willingness to step into something new, acknowledging imperfection initially, and continuously striving to improve through the process.” Katie Anderson

Leadership consultant Katie Anderson, host of the podcast Chain of Learning, believes fostering a continuous learning culture within a leadership framework can lead to better outcomes and engagement. Katie suggests that companies with a command-and-control structure, where leaders believe they have all the answers, should shift towards fostering a culture of learning. A culture of learning involves reconnecting with a sense of purpose, asking more open-ended questions, and creating a psychologically safe environment where mistakes are learning opportunities.


Stephen Matini: A couple of words hold significant importance for you: learning and leadership. How do these two elements, learning and leadership, intersect in your experience?


Katie Anderson: My book is titled Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, and these two words are crucial to me. When we consider various entities, whether they are organizations, schools, families, or networks of people, there is always a leader or someone who leads the way. By nurturing a culture of learning for others, we not only help them achieve more, but we also foster our own continuous growth.


This philosophy is reflected in my new podcast, Chain of Learning, where the tagline emphasizes the connection between leadership and learning. Leading with a learning mindset is essential, and it involves first learning how to lead. If we can lead in a manner that facilitates others' learning, we propel our organization forward with innovation and encourage individuals to contribute their ideas daily. This approach leads to better outcomes in our pursuits.


SM: Unfortunately, many organizations only turn to learning when a problem has already reached a crisis point. If an organization lacks a central learning component in its culture, what would be the initial step to move in the right direction?


KA: Companies without a learning culture typically lean towards a more command-and-control approach. Leaders in these organizations often feel the need, or rather express the belief, that they have all the answers and dictate what everyone should do. This tendency may stem from a fear of losing control and the uncertainty of the consequences.


To guide people toward a sense of purpose, I utilize a drawing exercise I learned from my friend Karyn Ross, which I incorporate into all my leadership development efforts. This exercise encourages individuals to draw their personal purpose, focusing on what is essential to them. While this isn't necessarily about their leadership purpose, common themes emerge, such as a connection with people, whether in the community, family, or work, and a desire to contribute to improvement.


Many people have a fundamental drive for growth and achievement. By reconnecting with how they show up at work in alignment with these personal values, it can be a significant initial step. 


Another approach involves asking more questions and experimenting with withholding immediate answers. By gradually creating a space for this approach, change can take root. 


However, it's crucial to foster an environment of psychological safety. In workplaces with a punitive culture where mistakes are met with blame and shame, it's challenging to cultivate a learning environment. Addressing these underlying issues is also necessary.


SM: One common comment I hear frequently from C-Suite members is that they expected to have more control and be actively involved in strategy development by the time they reached their current positions. 


When the organizational culture they are part of becomes overwhelming and restrictive, it leaves little room for maneuvering. Is it still possible for these individuals to make a positive impact and bring about change in such a stifling cultural context?


KA: In terms of my genuine growth mindset, I believe it's always possible to make progress. You can personally adopt a growth or learning mindset, but in an environment that rewards expertise and perfect answers, presenting an imperfect idea can be met with resistance.


Yes, changes can be made, but it must begin at the top. Leadership at the highest level significantly influences the entire organizational culture. While I work with C-suite executives, I also collaborate with managers, directors, and VPs who are working towards cultural change from their positions. 


In some cases, the top executives may not fully embrace the mindset shift yet. I advise these individuals that they have the power to influence those within their sphere. Even if there's frustration from higher-ups, they can foster a different culture within their team by modeling a new way of leadership, rather than perpetuating command and control. 


It's crucial to recognize the constraints within the system, but impactful change is still possible. This realization can be empowering for individuals navigating the challenges of influencing change from within. Feeling the squeeze as an intermediary, experiencing a different approach from above or the sides, is inevitable. However, the key is to build a new culture within your team. 


I had a client in a large biotech company who transitioned from a punitive environment to a more collaborative one. He embraced a leadership approach inspired by my teachings, emphasizing setting direction, providing support, and personal development. He collaborated with his team to define the company's major goals and objectives for the year, encouraging them to contribute ideas. 


Rather than dictating a plan, he asked questions and gave them the autonomy to make decisions. While the outcomes didn't always align with his preferred metrics, the team learned significantly more. 


Over the quarter, their ideas flourished, attracting attention from other departments. Colleagues noticed the increased engagement and improvement, prompting inquiries about the transformation. His response? It's simple—providing clarity and empowering the team to contribute. Thus, influencing others begins by demonstrating these principles within your own sphere of influence.


SM: Basically, they become “islands of happiness” within the organization.


KA: Absolutely. Ideally, certain pockets foster happiness, and the goal is to establish connections between these islands. Everyone desires happiness; it's a universal human need. If we can cultivate and expand it, creating a sense of curiosity like, "What's happening there? I want that experience," it can generate a natural attraction.


SM: When working with different organizations and encountering negativity or challenges, how do you maintain your energy and positivity?


KA: Dealing with negativity can be tough. I was fortunate to have a mother who is a therapist, and she shared numerous tips and tricks with me from an early age. One crucial lesson she consistently emphasized is that often, the negativity isn't about you. Another person's experience is not a reflection of you.


If we can detach ourselves from taking it personally—though there are instances where our actions may contribute—it allows us to understand that the negativity may not be directed at us personally. Instead, it's about grasping what the other person is going through. This understanding provides the space to approach the situation with empathy and respond in a more supportive manner. 


By not internalizing the negativity, we can inquire, "What's happening for this person? How can I show empathy and recognize that they might be carrying past experiences or personal issues affecting their current state?" Stepping away from our own hurt feelings or concerns about someone's negativity enables us to offer assistance in a more compassionate way.


There are times when our actions do cause pain or a negative experience for someone. In those cases, it's crucial to take ownership, express empathy, and, if necessary, apologize. Acknowledging that something we did has hurt someone and expressing regret opens the door for a constructive conversation about the issue.


Addressing negativity requires navigating these complexities. Personally, as a people pleaser, I want others to have positive experiences. Even if there's overwhelmingly positive feedback, a single negative comment can be disheartening. An old mentor once advised me that there will always be a few individuals who don't have a positive experience, regardless of your efforts. Accepting that reality is important and not letting it sway your overall perspective.


In the grand scheme, it's essential to consider the entire spectrum of feedback, recognizing that a few outliers shouldn't overshadow the positive impact you're making.


SM: You describe yourself as a high achiever and also have experience as a consultant. Then you mention it's crucial not to be the one with all the answers and to let go. Making that shift isn't easy, how did that happen for you?


KA: Being a high achiever who had to work hard to change my approach makes me a better coach for other leaders with similar experiences. On the Clifton StrengthsFinder, my top two attributes are learner and achiever, with positivity as well. These qualities have influenced everything I've done. 


However, my high achievement hindered me as I transitioned from an independent contributor role, which dominated my early career. During my early career, I operated in roles where having the right answer was expected and rewarded. As a student and later as a research associate leading independent research projects, I thrived on results and knowledge. 


However, transitioning into roles focused on people development, process improvement, organizational development coaching, and managing teams required a gradual shift. It wasn't a sudden realization but a series of aha moments over several years. Having a coach who pointed out that my behind-the-scenes approach wasn't effective in achieving the impact I desired played a crucial role. I used to immerse myself in the work, presenting great answers to people or dictating what needed to be done.


One significant aha moment occurred when I keynoted at a large conference. I discovered I had a telling habit, akin to a lion taking over a scene in a National Geographic show. Even with good intentions, if I dominated conversations, interrupted, and provided all the answers, it had a negative impact on people.


Recognizing this led to dramatic shifts, and over the past 12 years, I've worked daily to break the telling habit. It's challenging, but with intention, progress is possible. Making the shift as a leader and, similarly, as parents is humbling. We need to set the direction, but if we provide all the answers, we shoulder too much responsibility and hinder the development of others.


Leadership involves knowing what you need to achieve personally and taking ownership while also recognizing the team's goals. Setting the direction and allowing the team the space to reach those goals is crucial.


SM: You speak about curiosity and emphasize the importance of prioritizing the process over results. What you just described appears to center around focusing on the process and, in doing so, allowing people to unveil their potential.


KA: While results are certainly important and we desire positive outcomes, whether in profit or other areas, those are the end results. By concentrating on cultivating a robust process and involving people in thoughtful process-oriented thinking, we increase the likelihood of achieving better results.


In our uncertain world, the answer we have might not be the right one. Often, we may not know how to achieve something precisely, but we do have a general direction. Therefore, placing more emphasis on people and the process, rather than solely fixating on the outcome for its own sake, will ultimately contribute to our improvement and greater success in the long run.


SM: It seems that you've become a high achiever who believes in the flow.


KA: As a high achiever, I strongly believe in the power of learning and the flow to reach the goals you aspire to achieve.


SM: I'm really curious to know how Japan has contributed to everything you're sharing with me.


Katie Anderson: In 2015 and 2016, I moved to Japan with my family, and it was an incredible experience. Having lived globally before, this resonated with my soul, especially after almost 10 years in the US. 


I was thrilled to be overseas again. Japan, being the birthplace of Toyota and the Toyota production system, significantly influenced my work in continuous improvement and assisting organizations with lean process improvement.


Unfortunately, the Western interpretation of lean often focuses on tools and cost reductions, missing the true essence of the Toyota experience. Through living in Japan and leading executive learning programs there, I've learned deeply that, while tools and technical aspects are crucial, the foundation of Toyota's success lies in their attitude towards learning.


The quote I open my book with encapsulates this: "The only secret to Toyota is its attitude towards learning." Their ability to create better flow and reduce costs stems from a relentless commitment to learning. Their challenge was to produce more with less, and they learned their way to that goal. The crucial point is not the output or result, but the strong attitude towards learning each day, which has propelled them to innovate, stay relevant, and advance.


While they don't always win, their positive attitude towards learning sets them apart. This valuable lesson from living in Japan and collaborating with companies like Toyota has enriched my understanding and influenced my work with organizations striving to incorporate this concept into their operations.


SM: Learning seems to be the magical ingredient to find balance between the results component and the people component.


KA: Learning happens through people, and the outcome is what we need to achieve. People and learning are the means to reach our goals. We apply the necessary tools to aid in learning and achieving, supporting the overall process.


SM: What is your definition of learning today?


KA: I see learning as the willingness to take a step forward and try something unfamiliar, continuously pushing forward. Learning is about acquiring new knowledge, trying new things, experimenting, and reflecting on the outcomes.


There are two forms of learning—knowledge acquisition through reading and understanding documented information, and learning through application, the hands-on experience of doing. This is closely tied to the growth mindset, the willingness to embrace imperfection and not having the right answer immediately. 


Trying something new is likely to be awkward, involve struggle, and not yield the right answer initially. Being okay with that, understanding it's part of the process, and persistently getting back up and moving forward is crucial. 


I often connect learning to daruma dolls from Japan. I have a large collection on my website www.kbjanderson.com. These dolls represent the Japanese proverb "fall down seven times, get up eight." They are weighted at the bottom, symbolizing the struggles, setbacks, and challenges in the process. When you have a goal, you fill in the left eye, and upon achieving the goal, you fill in the right eye.


Setbacks and challenges are inevitable, but with the ability to learn, get up, and persist, you will eventually succeed. Resilience and fortitude in learning pave the way for success, even in the face of setbacks. Learning is the willingness to step into something new, acknowledging imperfection initially, and continuously striving to improve through the process.


SM: I wish we could go back in time and meet you when I was 20 and hear what you just said.


KA: Me too. That would've been great, the wisdom we could have for ourselves. But that's the learning journey, right? We can pass on that knowledge, share our experiences, and help other people. Still, we have to go through our own experiences and have that learning by doing. But that's the chain of learning that I talk about, and this is why I've named my podcast "Chain of Learning." 


We can share knowledge and experiences to offer others a different perspective or knowledge as they step into their own experiences. We can support each other through the doing and the learning that needs to happen. I think we forget that what we see people achieving, be it in sports, on the field, or musicians playing, they have been practicing and failing behind the scenes.


A friend of mine, Eduardo Senio, whom I'm actually interviewing later today about his book, "The Performance Paradox," speaks about how there's a time for the performance zone when we need to be more perfect and a time for the learning zone where we need to give ourselves space to experiment and fail.


So, when are the high stakes there that we need to bring our A-game and really perform? And when is it that we have more space for learning and experimentation, not always feeling like we have to be performing? That's where exhaustion and burnout happen. Where can we have more space for the learning zone and be clear when is the time to perform and be at our best?


I often get the question about my achievements, being a high achiever with goals, but there's a lot of hard work behind the scenes, and failures happen too. For instance, I talk about how I had to rerecord my audiobook a second time due to mistakes. It's a long story. Listen to Mark Graban's "My Favorite Mistake," and I learned a lot as an individual and a leader about what it means. 


It's okay to have failures, and we can either beat ourselves up over it or do something different with that information. But don't self-define yourself as a failure. That's a fixed mindset. Saying "I am a failure" versus "We failed this time" or "We don't know how to do it yet." That's a totally different mindset.


If we can foster, instead of self-defining ourselves through the outcome – either I'm a success or a failure – saying "I succeeded that time" or "That was a success," but "I failed that time, and I'm not a failure. How can I learn and do better next time?" That's the power of the learning, the growth mindset, and what learning is all about. Achievement mainly comes through growth.


SM: When you're going through a tough time, facing difficulties for any reason, is there anything specific you do to pivot?


KA: Tough times occur frequently. For me, the key is to be proactive rather than reactive. While we may initially react in the moment, it's crucial to move out of that reactive state, create some space, and then intentionally think about how we want to respond. 


Reacting in the heat of the moment often leads to actions driven by negative emotions, which may not be the most beneficial. It doesn't mean we shouldn't feel negative emotions—pain and sadness are valid emotions that need acknowledgment and processing.


My dad is a significant role model for me. He faced various physical challenges, having been disabled in an automobile crash at 22 and later diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Throughout his life, he had this great saying: "Today's a great day." It embodies a mindset of positivity. While acknowledging and processing negative emotions, can we anchor ourselves in a positive mindset and proactively choose a different path forward?


His focus was on the good, appreciating simple things like the sun shining today. Using positivity as an anchor point to pull oneself up. So, when I'm in a tough spot and need to pivot, I revert to being more proactive, avoiding reactive responses to the moment. I strive to embody the positive side of an experience, emphasizing that today is a great day.


SM: Well, it seems like you have a great DNA running through you.


K KA: I'm very fortunate for my parents and what they have taught me. Our legacy is defined by what we pass on, and if I can continue my parents' legacy, that's a real honor.


SM: If you had to point out a key takeaway that you think would be really important for listeners to focus on based on anything we talked about, what would that be?


KA: I would go back to this concept of mine that centers around intention and how we fulfill it. The word "intention" has been important to me for a long time, and I developed a greater appreciation for it when I moved to Japan. 


A little backstory: I had just started my business a year before and didn't have any business cards. In Japan, they give out business cards all the time for every introduction. So I had some business cards made, but I didn't have a business logo. I asked the business card company to put the word for "intention" on my card because being intentional and purposeful is crucial. The symbols that represent the word they chose, "shiko," are very profound in the Japanese language.


I learned something more nuanced about intention, and this has really shaped how I talk about leadership and living. The first symbol means kokoro-saeshi" (心払い)," which comes from two symbols, meaning a samurai's strength and another symbol meaning heart or soul, but really heart. So it is strength of the heart, considering your purpose and heart plus direction. The second symbol means compass. Heart plus direction is about understanding your purpose and the impact you want to have. It's not just cerebral; it's about the actions you need to take to fulfill that purpose.


If we can connect a sense of purpose with actions aligned with that, we will lead an intentional life and embody the chain of learning and impact we want to have. Understanding our purpose and impact, the actions aligned with them, and being humble enough to realize when our actions aren't aligned—like showing up in a command-and-control way or giving everyone all the answers—requires shifts to truly have the impact we want. This happens through a learning and growth mindset, intention, heart plus direction, and learning our way forward to fulfill our intention and purpose.


SM: I have learned a ton in this hour with you. Thank you so much for the time you gave me.


KA: Thank you, Stephen. It's been such a pleasure talking with you. Your energy is kind and wonderful, and you ask very good questions. I look forward to staying connected. For your listeners, please connect with me. I'm Katie Anderson, you can find me on LinkedIn and www.kbjanderson.com. Also, listen to my podcast called Chain of Learning at www.chainoflearning.com.


SM: Thank you. Thank you Katie.


KA: Thank you Stephen.


🎧 Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Podbean, or your favorite podcast platform.


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