The Importance of Life-Long Learning: 5 Strategies for the Time Starved Executive

 -Digital retail

As busy executives, we rarely, if ever, take the time to thoughtfully consider how fortunate we are to be living right in the formative years of the digital revolution, a business environment that is at the lower left side of the bell curve in terms of discovery, invention, and development. This digitally driven environment that simultaneously stresses and energizes us is happening at warp speed when compared to the 60+ years of the industrial revolution.  In our everyday world of continual digital disruption, even the best executive can quickly feel overwhelmed and behind. A simple Google search will produce thousands of articles in digital categories spanning topics from technology to platforms to customer experience. How can a leader lead their teams well when it’s nearly impossible to stay current on the latest best practices?  How can you hire correctly if you don’t even know the meaning of the latest buzzwords?  How do we carve out time for professional development? We of course instinctively know that if we are continually developing and evolving, those we are leading and the businesses we run will reap the benefits. Just as our industries keep transforming themselves, we must also continually re-tool ourselves to remain relevant.

Thankfully, there are several simple practices we can put in place to address the challenge. One of the tactics I’ve long used in facing large and overwhelming projects is to break them down into smaller bites and then develop a practical strategy to reach the milestones in a steady and ongoing method. Your personal development is not a ‘big bang event’, as was achieving your college degree, but rather, it should be continually adding to your knowledge base.  Below are 5 actionable strategies that can serve as your roadmap:

  • Read, read, read

Locate at least 2 industry authoritative online content generators that you like their writing style. Subscribe to them.  I let them pile up in my inbox, then read many at once, filing articles that apply and skipping over the others. Since we can receive almost all of this content digitally, I use time during travel and waiting in lines to accomplish this one.

  • Join a local group such as an executive’s forum or a professional association.

I know, it can be extremely difficult to drag yourself to a meeting on a Thursday after work when you are dead-dog tired, but the benefits will pay off twofold. Simply hanging out with these people can go a long way toward stretching your mind. And, you will be networking with others like yourself while hearing about issues and solutions those similar to you are experiencing.

  • Go to one good conference a year and feed your brain.

I have been going to retail trade shows and conferences since the first year I was an assistant buyer in my mid-20’s.  Of course, you could easily fill your calendar with these events. The key is to make yourself go to just one, one that has speakers that are very similar to your space, the ones disrupting your industry. For instance, if you are in retail, be sure the keynote speakers are primarily in retail, not banking or services and are known in your field for driving change.  I guarantee you will feel you’ve learned something and feel re-energized.

  • Take an Executive Education course.

Many universities and reputable organizations are now offering 1-2 day courses and certificates that are designed to give a higher level executive a fast immersion on current best practices. Inquire if your company will cover all or part of the course fees in support of your initiative to keep your skills fresh for the benefit of the company. Many human resource departments have severely reduced or altogether eliminated formal training programs, particularly at the executive level. Investing a few days annually to expand your knowledge and bring it back to the organization is invaluable.

  • Intentionally seek out a peer or aspirational mentor.

This should be someone at a similar or higher job position in your field whom you feel does an excellent job remaining current and up to date with your industry’s evolution. At the beginning of every year, agree on specific lunch or dinner meetings once a month for the entire year and do your very best to keep the meetings. You will find this time invaluable, as mentors at this level often find the relationship mutually beneficial.

We all are given 8,760 hours in a year. If we sleep 8 hours a day, that leaves 5,840 hours annually you can choose where to invest. If you were to embark on each of the five initiatives above, the total annual hours needed would be approximately 120, or roughly 2% of your available hours. Your choice to proactively keep current and be a life-long learner who embraces change will undoubtedly result in keeping you a relevant, confident leader.

Guest blog by Linda Mihalick, Senior Director Global Digital Retailing Research Center, Digital Retailing Lecturer & Program Coordinator, NRFSA Faculty Advisor, Department of Merchandising & Digital Retailing, University of North Texas

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