Inspiring lifelong learners.

Originally published on my Linkedin page:

By: Kenneth Gonzalez

It is probably naive to think that every individual on our teams is a lifelong-learner, or that they would want to become one without proper motivation. My personal experience is that lifelong-learners are driven by an inner passion for learning “something that they love ” or are individuals who have that personal motivation to become good at something. As a good friend and mentor would say to me “When you are working on what you love, you receive your salary to do all those things you find tedious.  As for everything else, you love what you do so much, you would do it for free.” So how can we inspire others to learn and love what they do while maintaining the drive to become better every day?

“Lifelong learning is the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated” pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. Therefore, it enhances not only social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, but also self-sustainability, as well as competitiveness and employability.”[1]

 How can we help individuals to invest in themselves? How do we feed the passion and drive to learn and inspire a personal commitment to continual self-improvement? How do we lead them to the realization that in today’s technological world, change is constant, and that our ability to learn, adapt and embrace change goes hand-in-hand with a never ending need to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Why do people learn?

My understanding is that people don’t randomly prioritize learning in their life, especially if there is no perceived benefit to them, so I believe there are four primary drivers for learning:

1. Forcing people to learn:  This is the equivalent of to doing mandatory training, which most times leads to checking the box, superficial learning, and minimal impact to the long-term business. Sometimes individuals need to be jump-started on their education, almost like getting your kids to try new food with the hope they will like it. The issue stems from the fact that unless they are open to the experience, even if the content is relevant to them, there will be a pre-disposition not to like it.

2. Providing rewards for learning: I’ve been part of organizations where there is an incentive to learn (bonus, prize, etc.).  The proverbial carrot instead of the stick can help to motivate people to learn.. The question is, what happens after the prizes run out?  Will they be “hooked” on the learning or once the incentive is gone, does loss of interest follow?

3. Short term self-motivated learners: They recognize the need to learn or master a skill to remain current, and feel that they are adequately prepared to do their job. They may think that the lack of skills will expose them, and that the mastery will help them progress in their careers.  The group recognizes the purpose of learning and finds the motivation from that understanding; therefore someone in this category is more likely to become a life-long learner.

4.   Long-term goal setter: These are the folks that could be considered lifelong learners. They see everything they learn as part of a larger plan. They accept the need to continually enhance their skills (ongoing) and the value it brings . (Voluntary and self-motivated). Individuals in this group may sometimes not like all content of what they need to learn, but their motivation is recognizing that knowledge as a step towards a larger goal. Long-term goals are typically about where the person sees themselves in a few years, This is the category where career development & coaching efforts belong..  Individuals who consider their future, their needs, and recognize the need to learn are essential for any organization. The biggest challenge for them is to create an atmosphere that encourages their behavior, and that provides the tools for success.

Not everybody needs to have the same focus:

Have you ever head the term “one trick pony”?  We have a natural tendency of acquiring knowledge and learning unidirectionally, based on what we feel the most comfortable with.  If we are on a technical team, we push everyone to be technical, on a sales team, it’s all about sales training… The reality is that to be successful, we need an array of knowledge, as each aspect contributes to a better understanding of our customers, their business model, and technology.

The challenge is helping others to get beyond their comfort zone and focus on job aspects that they don’t realize, or that seem less important to them, or overcome resistance derived from the fear of venturing outside the topics they are already good at.  Ultimately, it’s not about transforming a technical person into a business person, It is merely having the technical person consider the business aspects of the solution they are developing. As we become better at considering aspects beyond our core competence, we can achieve a higher level of empathy with our customers, which will help shape our solutions to be much more relevant than they previously have been.

Does everybody in your team need to share the same focus? It’s likely the answer is no. It is our job as coaches to help individuals identify knowledge gaps and help them focus on the type of knowledge needed to round themselves and be better equipped for success. This knowledge gap may not be obvious for them, so a key step is to help the individual understand and agree to targeted training objectives. One approach is to focus them on career progression goals and to guide them, if possible, to reach these conclusions on their own.

Common challenges for a life-long learner:

Learning is a conscious decision, and is not without pains. One vital component of a life-long learner is the ability to navigate their environment, and transform it into one where learning is possible and encouraged.

The following are common obstacles individuals find when it comes to learning:

·  It requires time & dedication: With a set number of hours per day, life-long learners need to achieve a balance between their workload, personal time, and learning. Taken to the extreme, an individual could burnout and eventually create issues that will ultimately affect both work and private realms. As leaders, it is crucial that we encourage learning, as well as providing an environment that supports continuous improvement.  One of the most basic and essential components that we can affect is to allow time for them to learn.

·  Education is not cheap: As individuals pursue complex education (certifications, masters degrees, leadership, business acumen), cost quickly becomes an issue. From the corporate perspective, spending money on training (outside the typical tuition assistance programs) often requires travel or additional expense that makes it challenging to allow for unregulated spend on educational activities.

·  Learning requires personal dedication:  here is where the proverbial “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” applies. To be successful, an individual must have an internal motivation to learn.  The challenge is to have a inspire authentic motivation, by illustrating and realizing the value of the education undertaken.

·  Life happens: We all go through times in our lives where it becomes more difficult to study, and then seek ways to make learning possible again. As we go through our lives we must be cognizant and sensitive to those who are going experiencing difficult times.  Can you imagine a parent working on a master’s degree while having a new born? Recognizing life’s cycles and complex situations are part of what we, as management, must achieve to help our teams to thrive.

How can we as leaders help individuals overcome some of these challenges?  The time challenge can be solved by compromise. If somebody is willing to invest personal time, it should be agreeable to having some leniency on allowing some time during work hours for education, as long as some fundamentals are agreed upon:

·  The learning is beneficial to the development plan of the individual.

·  There are some benefits that can directly or indirectly impact the business, in the short or long term.

·  Business priorities can never be superseded or jeopardized by study or educational efforts..

Organizational challenges: Most, if not all organizations have limited resources to spend on training.  As such, we should ask ourselves: how do you determine where and when to apply funds for learning? (travel, class, or certification costs). How is the value to the business calculated? Here are some thoughts:

·  Receiving funds for training: The ROI of training must include a direct impact on others, such as disseminating learned materials to the peer organization, an increase in the quality of work, etc.

·  Reward those who make good use of training:  Recognize an individual who has demonstrated proper use of resources, and ROI on training over those who have not.

·  Execute the plan: Work with individuals to include training goals in their personal development plan. Prioritize spending on the execution of that plan as opposed to randomly selecting and spending on training.  Establish a training plan and be consistent in its enforcement: Give all an equal opportunity for training, and to show the results and the impact of education that they receive. Reward those who make the best use of training resources and use them to exemplify the established training goals.

In regard to the challenge of motivation, my take is to help the individual create a short and a long-term career plan. What do I need now? What are my career goals? In this way, we can help them to understand that learning is a significant component of executing on that plan.

The Benefits:

To the person:  Ultimately, it is the person learning that will receive the most significant gains.  They gain perspective, become more marketable, and it is the individual who receives the diploma/certificate/knowledge, not the company. In addition to this fact, when the training is sponsored by the company, the individual tends to feel valued and appreciated by the company.

The company: Continuous learning offers many benefits:

–      Better quality of work: A well-educated team is a true asset to any enterprise. Nothing is better than having a team of people adequately prepared to execute on their job functions in an efficient manner rather than figuring things out by trial-and-error.

–      Lifelong-learners are a beacon of light.  They are likely to inspire others and enhance the atmosphere around them. This atmosphere is often contagious, and ultimately beneficial to all.

–      Over the years, I have witnessed many individuals are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to succeed. In my experience, these individuals often inspire others around them, “if they can do it, so can I !

A team of lifelong-learners

A great way to ensure that we have a team of learners is to identify them during the hiring process. With the understanding that this is not always possible, recognizing and encouraging life-long learners within the team is critical. To maintain individuals with the desire to learn and adapt, It is necessary to create a culture where learning is encouraged, appreciated, and rewarded. Equally important is that those who have a desire to improve are given the opportunity and the tools to do so. Proper coaching from a trusted advisor and mentor is also a fundamental component. This reinforces self-motivation over forced learning requirements.

How do you help somebody get there?

The most significant incentive to learn should not be a one-time price or goal, it’s a behavior driven by the inner passion for learning.  The question becomes, how do you help drive a passion for learning?

The following are questions that could help trigger individuals to think about their approach to learning:

–      What are your aspirations, what are your goals?

–      What interests you most?

–      How will this training make you better?

–      Is this a step towards a bigger target, or is it the end game?

–      What is your most significant knowledge gap?

–      Where do you desire to be? How are you going to get there? What is your first step?

–      How are you helping yourself?

–      What would you like the company to do for you?

The next part is to become an advocate for your folks. Look for every opportunity to reward those who learn and apply the knowledge, help your people to secure the training and education that they need to be successful.


As we all are unique individuals, we all have different motivations. Life-long learning is often driven by finding the passion and desire to learn, which is also aided by a plan or goal. To help individuals on our teams become life-long learners, we must work with each one of them to find the right targets for their success. We must become their mentors, coaches, and cheerleaders along the way. We also must help them overcome the challenges they may be facing and understand each individual’s specific circumstances, keeping in mind that “life happens”.

Is it easy? No, it’s not, however, the benefits of being a life-learner spread like a wildfire and help the individual, their team, our organization and our company to become better every day.  Each individual must decide if they are to embrace the role of a “lifelong learner.”, Our job, as leaders is not to demand this of them, however, to inspire them to what they could be.



Special thanks to John Hyer for help as an editor.

[1] Definition taken from Wikipedia.