Back to school: You and your IT team should always be learning

Use the annual return to school to reflect on and revise continuous learning for you and your staff.

Adults in a classroom

Image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

One of the interesting aspects of having children is being reconnected to the school calendar. For my first two decades of consciousness, school ruled the annual cycle of vacation planning, yearning for summer break and the weeks of excitement and perhaps a bit of dread before starting a new school year. A few years after entering the workforce, I largely forgot about the rhythms of the school calendar, save for occasionally noticing the presence or absence of bright yellow school buses plying the roads during my commute. Now that I have children, we're once again subject to the school calendar and attuned to its nuances.

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One aspect I've grown to appreciate is sharing my children's anticipation for starting a new year, and that combination of emotions causing me to reflect on my education, development and evolution. I don't necessarily get the delights of a new book bag or back-to-school sneakers, but this reflective exercise is a benefit I've learned to embrace.

Educating your teams

As leaders, we should constantly be thinking through our teams' development in terms of skills and reconfigurations required at the group or organizational level and in terms of individuals. Our core responsibility as leaders is to create an environment where each individual can perform at his or her best. We facilitate that process by helping people identify and build on their strengths and apply those talents to their work.

Too often, we outsource this job to HR or an internal learning team, or purchase a subscription to a library of online training. This is the developmental equivalent of giving a child a library card and wishing them well in educating themselves. In the history of humanity, we've never had more access to information about nearly everything, making content far less of a problem than a process to identify the needs of an individual and customize a learning program for them.

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Just as universities have a series of majors and a set of required and optional curriculum for each, so too should you have structured curriculums tailored to a specific area of responsibility, while providing optionality that allows the individual to guide their learning as well. Technology companies have long done a good job laying out programs of study to become experts in their particular software, hardware or cloud platform. However, being an effective worker requires more than just being a technical expert. Even if you provide access to the best vendors' certification programs, you should augment that training with programs that range from effective time management to creating compelling presentations, all with a similarly rigorous structure and sequence to what your vendors provide.

School thyself

There's no better way to understand the impact and value of continuing education than to engage in it yourself. No matter how high your title or pay band, if we're going to remain at the top of our game as leaders, then education and development are a lifetime requirement. I've used everything from professional coaches to trusted colleagues, friends and family members to identify areas that I want to develop further and created my own curriculum to build my skills in those areas. These have ranged from infinitely practical efforts to improve my use of graphic design software to more mercurial programs on storytelling and spirituality.

Rather than making learning one more straw on the proverbial camel's back, make it a key focus area and drop some other low-value time commitment. Canceling that weekly status call that's turned into a social hour or trading in one night each week of the latest "must see" Netflix series for some focused development time can not only add to your effectiveness as a leader but can reenergize and reinvigorate your work.

Whether you routinely evaluate your teams' and your personal development, or it has been years, use the appearance of the school buses or your kids' return to school as an annual marker to revise and reengage with education. You can even reward your efforts with a new pencil case and pair of sneakers!

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...