Korn Ferry

Be a Learn-It-All

It wasn’t so long ago, a mere seven years in fact, when the unemployment rate was about 10%, and even people with great skills and experience found it tough to land any job. It’s a different story now: full employment, with take-home pay rising 3% in 2018. Getting a good job—the job you really want—may be easier than it was seven years ago, but it’s still hard.

One of the challenges is that, even in a 4% unemployment market, you can’t forget the number one determinant of your earnings for life: learning.

In a recent television interview about the current employment market, I made the point that employees definitely have the advantage right now. But as my hosts and I discussed, that doesn’t negate the importance of skills that people bring to the job.

No matter what the employment picture looks like or how in-demand your skills are, you must constantly upgrade your knowledge to stay relevant. First there was the “Peter Principle,” which states that people eventually get promoted beyond their capability. Then there was the “Paul Principle,” employees do not need to get promoted to become incompetent; that can happen in their current jobs unless they learn new competencies and behaviors.

The more you learn, the more you’ll earn—and you’ll have greater job security.

Early on in my career I was told “be known for something” and be indispensable to someone. This advice changed my attitude toward learning and my career trajectory. In every job, I sought to learn all I could and challenged myself to know something that no one else (or few others) knew. My objective was not to be a know-it-all, but rather a learn-it-all.

As much as people talk about being “lifelong learners,” few really make the effort. It’s one of those little fibs they tell themselves or say during job interviews to sound good.

The truth is, in your current job or the one you’re seeking, it really isn’t about the money or the title—although, let’s face it, that’s what most people concentrate on, especially in a robust labor market. If you have two opportunities to pursue, you might easily focus on the money and the title. The real danger is being blinded by the bling and ignoring who your boss is going to be, what the culture is like (and how well you’d fit in) and, most important of all, whether you are going to learn—and how.

People learn from experiences, on the job and elsewhere in life. Those experiences account for the 70% of the 70-20-10 formula of how learning occurs. What happens to them and what they encounter, both positive and negative, are the biggest and best sources of “teaching moments” and “lessons learned.” Intuitively, that makes sense. But most people, I’ve found, assume that in the work environment formal learning and training programs account for far more of how their skills and knowledge expand. In reality, though, formal learning is only 10% of the formula.

The other 20% is learning from others, especially a mentor or a boss. That’s another reason why you need to consider who your boss is and how well you’ll work together. Beyond the 20%, your boss plays a huge role in the 70% by giving you those challenging assignments that lead to invaluable learning experiences.

With the 70-20-10 in mind, you need to ask yourself: What will I be learning every day? Will you be given stretch assignments periodically and with some regularity, or will you be exercising the same muscle every day?

And speaking of learning, don’t negate the importance of failure. You need to confront situations in which you are going to be stretched and that will result in some failure. You need to fail fast and learn faster. But if your new boss is intolerant of failure or the company culture discourages experimentation, then beware. It’s not a learning environment.

No matter what the employment marketplace looks like, the workplace is changing rapidly. Complacency is a killer. Learning leads to security over time. If you are playing your career, this is a long game.


A version of this article ran on Forbes.com.


  • Gary Burnison

    Chief Executive Officer

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