Straight A’s doesn’t mean you are learned

Saturday October 13, 2012

By ROSHAN THIRAN roshan.thiran@leaderonomics.com

What do Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Simon Cowell have in common? Other than being incredibly rich and successful, they are also drop-outs. Apple Inc founder, Jobs, did one semester in college before taking his chances on the real world. So did Dell, who started Dell Inc (then PC’s Limited) with just US$1,000 and a short-lived college career. Gates is still “on leave” from Harvard to run his billion-dollar company, Microsoft Corp. Branson didn’t finish high school but did manage to make Virgin one of the most valuable and bankable brands in the world. Before he was making Idol wannabes miserable, Cowell was just a humble mailroom boy.

<b>They didn't complete their education but made it through the school of Hard Knocks </b> They didn’t complete their education but made it through the school of Hard Knocks

Evidently, somebody forgot to tell these guys that they need to score straight As first and then make a success of themselves! Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the value of a good education as much as the next person. I thoroughly enjoyed all my years at the University of Bridgeport in the United States and later even went to work at GE’s corporate university Crotonville for a number of years. So, I would be the last person to condemn having a great education as both my university experiences added immensely to my personal, social and professional development.

But, I am also a firm believer that getting your hands dirty on the job is perhaps far more important than a good report card. Work experience always triumphs over the classroom because people learn better while they are doing something. The common myth is that our growth and learning is mainly attributable to course work or formal training. Most people believe that 70% of what we learn comes from training and classroom sessions. Networking, role modelling and mentorship (about 20% of our learning) comes next and finally job experience (10% of what we learn). There is an over-emphasis on classroom learning because of the belief that training is the way to enhance knowledge. Most corporations structure their organisations and training teams based on this belief that more classroom training means better, more learned employees.

However, based on research conducted by a number of multinationals, including GE, and later validated by research firms, classroom-style training, in fact, accounted for a mere 10% of real learning and growth. In reversal, it is on-the-job experience that develops business acumen and long-term career growth. The harder the role, the tougher the environment, the more challenging the assignments, the more you learn and grow.

For the perennial proof in the pudding, consider various management trainee programmes. I was part of a leadership development entry-level programme when I first started working in the United States. When I returned to Malaysia I helped set up and manage numerous such entry-level programmes across Asia. I recall that we hired some brilliant recruits but many were also average students in whom we saw drive, potential, and a desire to make a difference in the world. This was evident in their non-academic experiences even if their report cards were decidedly ordinary. I remember we picked these passionate average students over some super straight-As students, even turning away a seemingly brilliant Ivy League student. Today, many of these graduates are holding senior positions around the world – regardless of their grades when they joined these programmes.

How did they become great leaders? I believe a major part of our success in churning out global leaders lies on the intent of these programmes, which pushes each trainee into new job rotations throughout their trainee stint. This is where real learning and growth happens – at the job and on the job. There is an importance to classroom training especially in functional and technical matters but the learning that comes from the field is invaluable as it changes based on context and situation. Each new instance is a new learning experience and a new growth opportunity.

As we look back on the Bransons, Gates, and Jobs of this world, it’s not surprising why they succeeded. They learnt their trade in the field facing new situations and learning and growing through experiences. And the more experiences they accumulated, the greater their learning and growth.

Classrooms learning will always have its place and relevance. In fact, part of what the team at Leaderonomics is now working on is to ensure classroom training is action-learning based (which literally means training that is experiential-based) in all our modules. This will be the future of training – experiential based learning.

I have had nine jobs, and a number of roles in the 13 years I was with GE. In that time, I’ve been exposed to different industries from oil and gas to TV/Media to financial services to aviation and healthcare. My job functions ranged from finance to HR to operations to various leadership roles. Each experience helped build my personal learning and each experience contributed to my personal growth. So, although classroom training has its benefits, my advice is if you really want to be a leader, go out there and get some experience – even if it means working in a dingy start-up or a company that is struggling. Those experiences will mould and teach you much more than you would ever gain from attending a lecture from a professor.

The myth of how we learn

Most people believe that learning happens in the classroom. In fact, our entire education system is structured on the premise that learning is best in a classroom setting. New research has shed light on this myth. In fact, it is completely the opposite.

Real learning only happens when you practise or experience it. Classroom learning is usually content-driven. Experiential learning is context-based and provides deeper and more sustainable learning. So, if you have been spending too much time in the classroom, take some time off to get an internship, visit a company or just start practising what you learnt. Your learning curve will immediately grow exponentially.

Source: The Star

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