Working at Jelmar for the past 20 years has given me more invaluable career experience than I can ever quantify. OK, that’s probably not a huge surprise.
Here’s the more surprising part: many of the experiences I’ve had outside of Jelmar have been equally valuable to my career and the company.
Let me explain what I mean. A few years after I started at Jelmar, I decided to go to grad school. I had my doubts about the decision at first, in part because I wasn’t sure if more formal education would be the best use of my time when I had the opportunity to be getting practical, on-the-job experience.
But I decided to take that chance, and let’s just say it really paid off. As I’d hoped, I gained access to new knowledge that I never would’ve been exposed to otherwise—knowledge I could use to become more effective in my career.
But what I didn’t expect was what I’d learn about my company: we weren’t perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of things we were doing right—things we exceled at, even. But the fact is that a decades-old business will stagnate if its employees don’t regularly take steps to introduce new ideas and knowledge, and by definition those things need to come from outside your internal team. Going to grad school not only helped me understand how to be a better leader, but it also gave me a wealth of ideas about what the business needed to do in order to continue growing and thriving.
In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Of course, that’s the truth whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a small family business. It’s just that when you’re in the latter category, you might have to try a little harder to gain exposure to new best practices and new thinking.
Even though I used grad school as an example, that new thinking doesn’t need to come from traditional channels. In fact, I regularly derive huge amounts of inspiration and motivation from the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), a peer advisory group for women leaders of successful companies. This group of amazing women regularly engages in discussions on a variety of topics and issues, some directly related to business and some not.
For example, we’re currently discussing the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The book argues that anyone can lead a happier, more meaningful existence if we make certain agreements with ourselves—“be impeccable with your word” and “don’t take anything personally,” for example. It certainly isn’t a business book by any means, and yet, I have no doubt it will make me a better leader.
The point is that valuable knowledge can—and should—come from a range of both expected and unexpected sources. You have time to acquire new knowledge, even if you don’t think you do. It’s as simple as participating in a peer advisory group over email, watching an interesting TED talk, or reading a blog on a relevant topic. There are so many learning opportunities around us that you don’t even need to leave your office to take advantage of them.
If you’re a business leader, it’s a great idea to encourage your employees to seek out a variety of learning opportunities as well. You can plan training seminars and other learning events, allocate funds for employee education, and make online courses available. It’s also important to talk with your team about the importance of ongoing education, for the good of the company and their individual careers.
And don’t forget to set an example by taking advantage of learning opportunities yourself—and letting your team know. Admitting to your employees that you don’t know everything might feel a little uncomfortable, but I know from experience that it’s one of the best ways to foster a culture of learning. And believe me, the benefits of that can’t be understated.