How lifelong learning is becoming a new version of the MBA

When higher education looks back on 2020 in decades to come, the year of the pandemic could be viewed as a turning point for MBAs and other advanced degrees.

COVID-19 forced a nationwide experiment in online learning, and one lesson stemming from that experiment may be that furthering your education doesn’t necessarily need to mean paying high tuition to earn a formal post-graduate degree.

We all need to be lifelong learners if we hope to achieve our goals and lead a fulfilling life. But that can mean many things, and because of the pandemic I think it’s become even more clear that the ways we approach educating ourselves don’t need to be stuck in the notions from the past of how learning takes place.

Harvard’s and Columbia’s business schools are already adding certificates and lifelong learning to their programs. Instead of immersing themselves into a degree program for a compact period of time, students have the option to stretch their learning out over years, latching on to what meets their current needs.

That kind of approach fits well with the goals and lifestyles of many business leaders. For those who want to keep adding to their knowledge base throughout their careers, whether that’s done through a certificate program, a one-time online class, coaching sessions, or a more formal degree, here is some advice:

Think deeply about yourself and your goals. Allow yourself the time and space to reflect and get off autopilot so you can be deliberate and intentional as you move forward. We tend to be all about drive and action. Reflecting about ourselves is something that often gets overlooked. In some cases, people don’t have the tools to do it effectively.

Strive to be a learner, not a knower. Some people are “knowers” and others are “learners.” Knowers feel compelled to know the answer, a sign of an insecure ego. In today’s world, of course, it’s impossible for any one person, or any one leader, to know it all. Knowers operate more out of control than out of curiosity. They do not really lead so much as they manage. Lifelong learners, on the other hand, have a predisposition to be curious. They have a healthy ego, so they have no problem saying, “I don’t know the answer, but let’s figure it out.”

Recognize that your joy for learning can impact others. When business leaders are learners, this creates more of a partnership approach with employees, who feel empowered as a result. The focus is on working together. It all stems from that natural curiosity. By asking “what” and “how,” leaders encourage more conversation and more learning by everyone.

Understand that self-improvement doesn’t always involve major change. I have worked with many executives who made adjustments in their careers, but those adjustments need not be dramatic. Often, people have been deliberate about their career choice and love their field, they have just gotten caught up in a part of it that they don’t like. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting back to their roots and remembering what they love about their job and allowing themselves to focus far more on that. You don’t necessarily have to make the big right turn and completely change what you’re doing. You’re not necessarily on the wrong path; you may just have hit a rough stretch or don’t know exactly where you are.

Great coaches are always still learning too. I’m constantly looking for new opportunities to learn and grow, and I get to learn from every person I coach — we learn together.

Kimberly Roush is founder of All-Star Executive Coaching and co-author of Who Are You … When You Are Big?

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