Image: iStockphoto/yuelan

Bright yellow school buses and what my kids refer to as “zombie teenagers” (i.e., teens who have their faces buried in their phones) are now invading the streets each weekday morning. It’s easy to blissfully ignore this ritual if you don’t have school-age children, or get caught up in the logistics of parenting and lose focus on the key outcome of this annual ritual: Educating children for long-term success. Just as our youth are shepherded through a carefully designed and thoughtful program to build their skills, so, too, should leaders.

“Professional” and student are not mutually exclusive

It’s easy to think that once you’re handed a diploma, your educational endeavors are over. This can be especially acute for leaders and their employees who achieve a certain level of competence at their jobs and then can spend decades leveraging that same skill set.

While it’s impossible to predict the specific skills and technologies that will become relevant in the future, it is a safe bet to assume that the world will continue to change at a rapid pace. The best insurance against being disrupted by this change is cultivating your ability to become what the HR folks term a “lifelong learner.”

SEE: How to build a successful CIO career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Perhaps the most effective skill for any leader to develop is an ongoing ability to learn new skills quickly. This might seem like an innate talent, but ask anyone who has returned to a learning environment after a long absence about their experience, and you’ll likely hear it was a far more difficult transition than they imagined.

Don’t think of learning as an activity that you do once every year or two–instead, integrate learning into your weekly activities. This doesn’t need to be as dramatic as pursuing a new degree or a complex certification program–it could be a self-study of a topic ranging from emerging technologies to learning another language.

Plan your learning goals

Many companies ask employees to state their learning objectives perhaps during an annual evaluation or when creating formal learning plans. This can feel like yet another administrative task, but let it be a reminder to invest time in creating a thoughtful learning plan, even if it exists outside the purview of your HR process.

Create a simple two-column list. Start with longer-term skills that will help you develop as a leader or accelerate your career. This column might include things like developing staff into effective managers, stronger time management, understanding new technology trends, storytelling in your communications, or new toolkits you want to add to your personal talent stack.

In the second column, identify two or three near-term learning objectives that build toward your longer-term goals. If you want to better understand new technology trends, for example, a one-day DevOps workshop might be a great option. When you complete each near-term objective, take 30 minutes and reflect on what you learned and how it impacts your longer-term plan, and also plan two or three ways to apply what you learned. Continuing our DevOps example, a simple way to apply what you learned might be to teach some of the techniques to one of your development teams and have them apply those techniques to a non-critical project.

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Apply what you learn

When you learn new information, you’ll search for new techniques and apply them to your work. This creates a virtuous cycle through which your skills continue to evolve, making your value as a leader or employee grow as you progress in your career.

We all gain applied experience as we progress in our careers, but those who often excel couple that experience with wide-ranging knowledge that includes everything from understanding a new system to using a new management technique.

If a significant change occurs in your career, such as your company being acquired, having a well-cultivated ability to learn can allow you to adapt and prosper while others sit in shock as the world changes around them.

Go to the head of the class

It’s rare I find an effective leader at the top of his or her game who is not also a lifelong learner. The sooner you realize that our role as students continues throughout our careers and lives, and start to develop your own plan to “go back to school,” the better a leader you’ll become.