Why extraordinary executives care about learning for professional development

“To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are, what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.” Koffi A. Annan

In his piece 5 visionary CEOs and their key traits that every leader should master which was published by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2015, Chuck Cohn, the CEO and founder of Varsity Tutors, writes that it is not the intelligence, luck or the monopoly of creativity that set great executives apart from the rest. Instead, he attributed the extraordinary success these executives had on skills that can be developed over time. Cohn was referring to such captains of industry as Ellon Musk (CEO of Space X and Tesla Motors), Nick Woodman (CEO of GoPro), Allan Mulalli (Former President and CEO of Ford Motor Company), Shantanu Narayen (CEO of Adobe Systems) and Philip Krim (CEO of Casper). The notable skills that set them apart over the years included innovation, focus, resilience, adaptability and the power to re-imagine. It is worth noting that all of them are high achievers in their academic careers as well. They put a premium on learning and applying new knowledge to revolutionize the industries that they were in. Learning is therefore important because it sharpens skills, aids one's chances to land a promotion, prepares one to take on greater responsibilities and enables one to have great impact on organizational growth and success.

Learning to stay on top

In entrepreneurship, government, non- profit and religious organizations alike, it is necessary to always be up to date with industry information and most importantly to have the skills needed to manage change in today’s fast- evolving world. It is also necessary to have the skills required to navigate through the intricacies of strategizing and managing high performing teams. Sadly, those who do not continually invest in personal development do not stand a great chance of success in the modern workplace. To illustrate this further, the example of the clever bowerbird comes to mind. This is a bird, found in the forests of New Guinea and Australia, which has one of the strangest courtship behaviors ever witnessed in the animal kingdom. The legendary male bowerbird first starts by building an ordinary nest out of sticks. But for a male of his species, building an ordinary nest is just not good enough. To attract mates to his “living quarters,” he has to put in more work by collecting all manner of bright and colorful objects and bringing them back to his nest to add a decorative touch. This calls for high degrees of creativity and in many occasions redecorating to compete with the rival male bowerbirds. For this bird, success is hinged on how much work effort is deployed in coming up with an outstanding display. A parallel can be drawn with the modern workplace, where the ability to stand out in an increasingly competitive market requires a great deal of ingenuity, reimagining things and application of new knowledge.

Learning by rote vs meaningful learning

Learning can be a fun activity, especially if you get to pick and choose the topics that interest you the most and then pursue them to acquire deep knowledge. Many people grow up with a negative attitude towards learning because in primary and secondary level we are told to go to school and sit for hours on end learning through rote while covering subjects we might not necessarily have an interest in. However, rote learning is not the only way to learn. We can engage in learning exciting topics while deploying meaningful learning instead of cramming. Meaningful learning is where you actually learn through deep understanding rather than memorization. Meaningful learning can take a long time to achieve but the outcomes are worth the effort. Fred Ende in his book Professional Development That Sticks: How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators? writes that "professional development for learning will have a more lasting impression if it remains in the minds of the target audience and causes them to take action."

Learning through executive training

One of the most effective ways to acquire the industry skills needed to become a top executive in any organization is through committing to the ideals of life- long learning for professional development. Executive training provides such an avenue for upgrading one’s skill to excel in a position of influence or to launch into entirely new careers. Executive training courses offer short- term but highly effective means for executives to go through refresher training and get exposure into expert level knowledge in specialized fields. It is no wonder that many professional associations maintain their relevance through offering training opportunities from which their members can benefit in terms of upgrading their skills. In Kenya’s health sector for instance, Continuous Medical Education (CME) is now part of performance contracting for all medical staff in health facilities and every department is required to ensure that these are held on a regular basis. Professionals in the East African Region have numerous opportunities to benefit from training opportunities by enrolling in week- long courses through accredited institutions. It is however wise to ensure that there is value in the training that you receive and therefore the need to perform due diligence in choosing which training institution to enroll in. International Development Institute- Africa (IDIA) is one such institution that believes in the tenets of offering values- based teaching in order to bring about societal transformation. The ultimate goal of IDIA’s approach is to foster transformative leadership and sustainable development.

Learning to build confidence in leadership

Above all else, it is important to continually build confidence in our leadership abilities because people will willing follow someone who has a clear sense of where they are headed. Several years of research have proven that once you can demonstrate authority in the field you specialize in, it is easier for others to trust you and therefore follow you. It means showing consistency in making informed decisions, offering valuable insights and offering leadership through action. To further reinforce the last point, it is very difficult for a leader to inspire team members to take actions which they themselves do not have the competence or gut to undertake.

Finally, for people to trust a leader, he/ she should also demonstrate integrity. This is one of the areas where many of the leaders in today’s world struggle; and where they fail the test of integrity, organizations slide into anarchy, autocracy, confusion and in the worst-case scenario disintegration. Integrity in this case refers to the ability of a leader to espouse high moral standards and ensuring they do not deviate from them despite the circumstances.

We will be glad to hear from you concerning your thoughts on this topic. Share in the comments below.


Attenborough, D. (Director). (2015). The Bowerbird's Grand Performance! [Motion Picture].

Cohn, C. (2015, February 24). 5 Visionary CEOs and Their Key Traits That Every Leader Should Master. Entrepreneur Magazine.

Oxford Learning. (2017, March 23). The Difference Between Rote Learning and Meaningful Learning. Retrieved March 30, 2018, from Oxford Learning Website: https://www.oxfordlearning.com/difference-rote-learning-meaningful-learning/

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 International Development Institute - Africa

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