Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Earlier this year, I wrote a white paper exploring The 5 Key Pillars of Next Generation Leadership. In these final days of 2020, as I’m solidifying what I want from next year and how I plan to achieve it, I keep coming back to the third pillar: committing to continual learning.

I often describe myself as a competitive learner and encourage others to be competitive learners as well. What I mean by that is not to compete against others but to think of learning as a sport — to drive yourself for continuous improvement, to seek out mentors and coaches who will help you grow and to embrace the fact that you can always get better. 

Like any sport, competitive learning means pushing yourself for a personal best and competing to be better than your former self. It means training, growing and winning on game day because you did the work to prepare. To do so, you must prioritize your personal development and keep yourself open to new insights and learning opportunities, no matter where they come from. 

Competitive learning is similar to learning agility, which Harvard Business Review defines as the “qualities and attributes that allow an individual to stay flexible, grow from mistakes, and rise to a diverse array of challenges.” Learning agility is being open to change and ready to go where a great idea might lead you. Competitive learning is learning agility plus hustle. It means actively and relentlessly pursuing information, challenges and opportunities for growth.

In this quick-changing market, competitive learning is a leadership imperative. As corporate executives, our business success hinges on our ability to innovate quickly, synthesize information, make strong decisions with limited scope and constantly evolve.

We cannot know which skills will make the critical difference in each day’s success so we must remain vigilant and continually in search of new and stronger ideas. We must constantly refresh our personal skill set to match the pace of the digital marketplace and immediately apply the insights we have learned to activate change and critical thinking. 

As you write your resolutions and action strategies for goal achievement in 2021, I urge you to practice competitive learning. For me, it is the single greatest skill that motivates and governs all other skills. Here are the four key traits that define a competitive learner.

A competitive learner is a like a cup of coffee

You know that moment after you order your coffee, when the person behind the counter asks if you’d like room for cream? That’s the moment I want you to remember when you think about being a competitive learner. A competitive learner has strong opinions and ideas but always leaves room for new information.

Being like a cup of coffee means driving for the change you want but with a good amount of humility and respect for other people’s contributions. IT means being strong-willed but not stubborn, assertive but not aggressive, self-assured and confident but open to new ideas.

A competitive learner insists on efficiency

As a leader, you have no time to waste. Competitive learning should enhance your productivity, not distract from it, so look for ways to integrate learning and moments of growth in every day. For me, that means listening to podcasts while I drive or exercise, watching short videos between meetings and actively seeking one-pagers or printable infographics that I can keep on hand for repeated reference.

I like to balance more traditional learning like professional courses and certifications with microlearning throughout the day. What I know from experience is that I often learn best if I can dig deep into a certain topic, then reinforce new information with interspersed microlearning.

According to G2 Learning Hub, research proves that microlearning leads to deeper comprehension and higher information retention, providing a better return on investment for both your time and money.

A competitive learner shares knowledge freely

Some leaders keep their knowledge close to the chest, believing that the value of their contribution is the depth and breadth of what they know. I would argue that the value of your leadership is your execution and experience instead. Information is the starting point, but execution makes the difference. Think of a recipe from your favorite cookbook; just because you know the ingredients and the steps to follow doesn’t mean you’ll have perfect technique.

To cultivate a greater culture of learning, inclusion and information sharing, share what you are learning, openly and often. Look for ways to pay your learning forward. Doing so will help create trust and communicate an expectation for learning agility and continuous growth within your organization. By sharing what you know, you give everyone a chance to grow and change alongside you.

A competitive learner is an expert in collaboration

Competitive learners dominate a room by being the best facilitator, not the loudest voice. They believe wholeheartedly that “the best idea wins,” and so they look for ways to encourage collaborative thinking. Often, it is high achievers who struggle most with collaboration. They believe in the value of their individual contribution but often cannot lead others to contribute.

Being a competitive learner means actively fostering a culture of teamwork, critical thinking and inclusion. It means making sure the right people are in the room, then listening to and respecting their input. Hire and surround yourself with people who inspire you and challenge you to grow. Those people will be your single greatest resource for new information, ideas and innovation.

By developing our own capacity for competitive learning, we set the tone for a growth-focused culture that expects and rewards continuous improvement. As I have heard from so many of my C-suite colleagues, the key to transforming their business culture was their own example of personal development.

Want my number one recommendation for where to start your competitive learning in 2021? For me, it’s all about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As business leaders, we cannot create a thriving culture where the best idea wins unless we invite a wide range of diverse voices to the table.

Begin by examining your own behavior and language to see how you can nurture inclusion, then work to integrate what you learn into the fabric of your organization. An inclusive language course is a great place to start, or take the promise further and commit to becoming a Certified Diversity Executive.

Happy New Year, friends!

About the Author

With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. As an entrepreneur, Donald has led companies which have attained successful exits with strong returns for shareholders and employees. As a Certified Diversity Executive, Donald champions Diversity and Inclusion, actively raising awareness and commitment.

Donald is currently CEO of Walk West, a digital marketing firm recently recognized by Inc. as the fastest growing agency in North Carolina for 2018, 2019 and 2020, and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a tech-based, data-driven diversity learning firm. He also serves on the governing and advisory boards for several organizations in technology, marketing, sports, healthcare and entertainment. To learn more, follow him on LinkedIn or visit donaldthompson.com.

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