How To Be a Learning Company
Updated: Sep 7, 2022
WHY DOES LEARNING AT A STARTUP MATTER?
Startups are, by nature, learning organizations. Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the lean startup approach, entrepreneurs of all types form hypotheses, try, fail, and iterate in order to launch successful products and services.
Innovation, by definition, is a learning process. Startups require agility and adaptability in order to scale effectively. Learning, therefore, must be one of your company’s core competencies and values if you want to succeed.
This means, as founders, you need to invest in learning from day one at the individual, team, and company-wide level. Your team can pick whatever synonym for learning you wish, but it’s important to name it and communicate it so that it will help you attract “growth mindset” talent. You want people at your startup who can thrive without having all of the answers…yet. Your leadership team needs to hardwire psychological safety into everything you do to ensure that your team isn’t scared to make mistakes and feel comfortable sharing ideas to help your company continually improve.
Company values aren’t just words; they are actions. They define how you behave. Values need to be reinforced with actions like benefits, policies, and behavioral norms.
SO, HOW DO YOU INFUSE LEARNING INTO YOUR COMPANY?
There are so many ways to ensure that your company is a learning organization. A huge piece of it happens at the micro level - about the words you choose on a daily basis, how you structure a meeting, and frame your goals.
“Micro learning” at your company:
Owning up to a mistake you made
Admitting when you don’t know something
Encouraging others to ask for help
Celebrating failures that enable iteration and improvement
Fostering new ideas from everyone
Training managers to deploy coaching frameworks with direct reports
Being mindful in meetings to support different types of learners
These are things you can teach people directly in a class or in training. You also need to have your leaders model these behaviors. Micro learning moments are enormously valuable signals that regularly demonstrate how much you value learning on your team.
Learning at an individual level
Having great managers is the most scalable way to ensure every individual continues to learn and grow at your startup. A big piece of every manager’s job is to help each person be their best self at work today. This means investing in supporting employees learning on the job to improve near-term performance. It also means understanding longer-term career aspirations so that you can help build new skills and align today’s work with career ambitions.
It’s a healthy practice for managers, bi-annually, to design individual learning plans with each of their employees that balance near-term and long-term goals. January (Q1) and July (Q3) are great times to do this, in alignment with your quarterly goal setting system.
Near-term individual learning examples:
Taking a class to learn a new tool that will help you do more with data
Getting trained in agile methodology to bring back to your team
Attending an OKR workshop to improve your team’s goal setting process
Getting deep feedback on a slide deck to improve your communication skills
Providing a stipend for buying books or a subscription to a publication
Attending a conference
Training leaders on how to run effective meetings
Longer-term individual learning examples:
Shadowing someone senior within the company
Introducing your direct report to your network to learn about career pathways
Attending a class on business modeling or sales as a scientist
Attending a workshop or training to expose you to new skills or concepts
Supporting an employee as they work towards a certification or degree
Training your managers
One of the best investments you can make is in training every manager so that you ensure that there is a consistent and equitable approach across the company. You want your managers to be using the same guiding principles and best practices even if their individual approaches vary. This will ensure that your values are diffused throughout the company and that there aren’t only a few lucky people with a great boss.
While it’s important to train all new managers as quickly as you can upon their arrival on your team, it can’t be a “once and done” approach. Management is a craft that requires continuous learning and reflecting to iterate and improve. Ongoing training and support for managers helps you mitigate against bad practices which can lead to unwanted turnover of talent and liability for your company.
Initial training for all new managers within the first month of their start date
Peer groups for new managers
Training managers of managers how to provide coaching and feedback
Providing access to an individual coach for high impact individuals
Group learning can be really valuable because it can serve multiple purposes. Not only do individuals learn, but it can provide multiple people at the same time with a common language and framework. Group learning can serve as a team building experience if done with a great facilitator to infuse reflecting and sharing throughout.
Examples of group learning:
Peer groups on a specific topics - i.e DIEB practices, new managers, technical communication
Manager training and “managers of managers” training
Goal setting at a team level
Introduction to [fill in the blank topic] for all of your summer interns
How to interrupt bias at a company-wide level
Project management techniques
Technical communication course for your scientists
Hiring best practices for all hiring managers
BUDGETING FOR LEARNING
Learning should not be considered an extra perk alongside your company’s transportation or wellness benefits. It is too important to be optional; everyone needs to be learning.
Your company will be far more flexible and has a much higher likelihood of maturing successfully when individuals and groups are continually learning and flexibility adapting to the challenges of a building a startup.
There is endless research out there that shows that investing in skilling up your current talent is far less expensive and disruptive than firing and hiring new people all of the time. Sure, there are times when people can’t learn and grow fast enough or aren’t a good fit. But if the gap is reasonable and if the individual is contributing meaningfully, it’s a smart business decision to invest in learning.
One way to think about a learning budget is to think about it as flexible formula that is transparent to everyone in the company that balances the following criteria:
An individual’s level of experience (more senior people get more resources)
Years at the company (the longer you stay, the more funding you get)
Near-term learning (priority)
Longer-term learning (small amount that you acquire over time so you can save up for a course or more expensive learning experience)
You may also want to have a separate budget for group learning so that each manager has some funds they should use each quarter for bringing learning to their team - as well as some company-wide learning opportunities as well.
WHO SHOULD DO YOUR TRAININGS?
While it’s always great to have internal talent lead workshops where there are skills and competencies to share - it’s a great way to showcase talent and build respect within your team. Having internal people host and run your learning can be a distraction from reaching company goals. If you pull a top performer away from their work to create a workshop for other people that means they are no longer doing their core work. Sometimes it’s worth it to do this, however, it’s a real trade-off you have to make.
It’s great, then, to have a bunch of pre-screened and approved coaches, workshops, consultants, and resources listed to help your managers when they are making decisions. It’s helpful to do this so that you can screen for quality, so that the people get to know your company and can customize their content for your specific needs, and so that you aren’t constantly reinventing the wheel. Of course you can try out new people and resources at any point, but once you know someone is great or a class gets top reviews from someone on your team who attended, it’s wise to keep track of that so that you can send more people to it in the future.
LEARNING IS ESSENTIAL FOR FOUNDER-LED BIO
Great hiring managers always hire for potential. That is to say that you recognize that talented individuals are capable of being wildly successful even if they haven’t done that specific job before. When you do this, however, it means that there is a learning gap that needs to be filled and it’s not solely up to the individual to figure out how to quickly acquire these new skills and competencies. It’s also your job, as a company, to help them succeed by providing them with the opportunities to learn.
The Founder-led Biotech Movement is based on this premise - that even if you’ve never been the CEO of a company, you are capable of figuring it out. Instead of leaving learning to luck, it’s important to have a real strategy and budget for supporting your team as they crush their current work - and preparing them for future work so that your company can fluidly adapt and thrive.