By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
Most of us have been through or facilitated some version of a values clarification exercise where we identify our core values, what we want to be known for, or how we define success.
My core values are  learn to  add value to others … both matter to me and to business and HR leaders who want to improve (even if these are not their primary core values).
Using figure 1, you can ask people to select the best and worst cell to be in along the two dimensions: doing the right or wrong thing and doing it well or poorly.
Of course, we all want to be in cell 1: doing the right thing well. But which is the most dangerous cell to be in? Most will say cell 4 (doing the wrong thing poorly); but in fact, the place of greatest peril in a changing world is cell 2—doing the wrong thing and doing it well. Why? Because it is a trap of misguided excellence where the right things we are doing can become the wrong things when context and conditions change. Learning matters because it enables us to stay in cell 1 doing the right things well instead of slipping into cell 2.
Adding value to others matters.
One way to know if we are doing the right things is if they are delivering value to others. You can try to enact the mantra, “value is defined by the receiver more than the giver. When you give a gift to a loved one, present a workshop, write an article, or coach, the value is not what you offer but what the receiver gets. Another example of this is how the best predictor of your long-term well-being, health, and happiness is the quality of your relationships and how much value you create for others.
Let me suggest three simple tips for learning that create value for others and help business and HR leaders be more effective.
1. Put current events in context of the past.
Most topics in human capability (talent, leadership, organization, and HR) have a legacy of exploration. Learning means building on the past to create a better future. Seeing the evolution of an idea allows leaders to not spend time rediscovering or repackaging what was but shaping what can be. My commitment to learning and my guidance to aspiring learners is to see a present idea in terms of waves of evolution, building on the past. Figure 2 visualizes four waves, and table 1 offers examples of evolving waves on various topics.
I have done similar waves of evolution about digital business strategy, digital HR agenda, level of country economic maturation, teaching/pedagogy, role of HR business partner, strategic focus, career stages, phases of the COVID crisis, and others.
Without putting current topics into a historical context, excessive time is often spent repackaging or rediscovering the past, which distracts from creating the future. To make progress, business and HR leaders learn what has been done before and build on it. For example, some in the HR space continue to argue that HR professionals should be part of the business and get “invited to the table” (wave A) when the evolving issues are to build trust (wave B), offer human capability insights (wave C), and deliver value to all stakeholders (wave D).
2. Discover patterns beyond events.
Events trigger responses. Too often responses to events focus on symptoms and not underlying problems. Symptoms (what is happening) might include regrettable loss of key employees, slow cycle time for product innovation, falling customer satisfaction scores, quality problems, and so forth. Learning means looking for patterns (why something is happening) behind events and trying to craft a framework or systemic approach to respond to the underlying problem. The underlying reasons for key employees leaving might be poor career opportunities, lack of company vision, poor leadership, or something else. Knowing the cause focuses attention on the right solution.
One way I do this is when I coach or consult, I often draw a vertical line 2/3 across my paper (yes, I just dated myself with paper!). In the 2/3 space, I listen intently to the presenting challenges clients discuss. In the 1/3 space, I try to visualize patterns and underlying causes (see example page in figure 3). By simultaneously listening (2/3) and framing (1/3), I hope to discover interventions that create more fundamental value to the receiver.
By seeing patterns that focus on underlying problems, individuals and organizations can learn to make systemic changes that are more likely sustainable.
3. See challenges as opportunities to learn.
If a leader or organization is not facing new challenges, they are not likely stretching themselves to learn. To turn challenges into opportunities to learn, let me suggest ten simple behavioral maxims to follow:
- Be curious.
- Take risks.
- Experiment frequently.
- Be open to and seek feedback.
- Admit vulnerabilities.
- Run into mistakes (take blame).
- Replicate success (share credit).
- Look forward.
- Keep moving.
- Be resilient.
- _________ (Add your own.)
I often ask those I coach to pick two to four of these behaviors to work on to sustain their desired change.
At a personal level, consider a four-step reflection exercise of how to create a growth mindset by turning challenges into learning opportunities:
- Think of a time when you faced a personal crisis? Write it down.
- How did you feel at the time? Likely despondent, inadequate, lost, confused, etc.?
- Think now about what you learned from that experience? For example, “I can be resilient, capable, take risks and win, live my values, etc.”
- How have those lessons learned helped you respond to other challenges?
The same four steps could readily be adapted to an interpersonal, team, or organizational challenge. And even more, if we turn what we learned into helping others learn, we become both a learner and teacher and create a value ripple effect.
In a world of unprecedented uncertainty and change, when the right thing to do today may not be the right thing to do tomorrow, learn and create value for others to keep progressing.