By Dave Kahle

The Ultimate Business Survival Skill



We’re living in incredibly turbulent times.  Despite newspaper headlines proclaiming growing employment and an expanding economy, many business people admit to a pervasive feeling of uncertainty and confusion about their businesses.

The well-spring of this uncertainty lies in one of the unique characteristics of the times in which we live – rapid change.

The pace of change in our economy, in our culture, in our institutions and in our industries and businesses is unprecedented in human history.  There has never been a time in which the world around us has changed as rapidly as it does today.  Business people are in the middle of this tidal way of turbulence and are daily being buffeted by this increasingly rapid rate of change.

Driving this unprecedented pace of change is the expansion in the amount of information we create. Consider this.  In 1900, the total amount of knowledge available to mankind was doubling about every 500 years. That meant that in our great grandparents’ lifetime, things changed slowly.  Our great grandparents lived in the same type of houses, worked in the same kind of jobs, and interacted with the same kind of social structures as their parents.  In the year 2000, that same measurement — the quantity of information — was doubling about every two years.  Today, according to some, the rate of change is doubling every 30 days!

As information grows, it seeps into every aspect of our industries, our companies, our society and our lives, and it causes change.

Imagine the implications of that kind of increase in the rate of change!  It means new products, new regulations, new market configurations, new customers, and new technology in almost every industry.  It’s no wonder that we’re confused and uncertain about what to do.

And the growth of that knowledge continues at an expanding rate.  One futurist predicts that today’s high school students will have to absorb more information in their senior year alone than their grandparents did in their entire lifetime.

That incredibly rapid pace of new knowledge is driving the forces of change at an unprecedented rate.  That rate of change is continuing to accelerate.  The effect of that snowballing rate of change on our businesses and our jobs can be cataclysmic.  It’s almost as if a malevolent spirit were stalking our economy, rendering all the wisdom of the past useless, and casting a spell of confusion and uncertainty over the land.

The indications are that this rapid state of change will not be a temporary phenomena we all must live through.  Rather, it will be the permanent condition we must accept for the foreseeable future.  Rapid change is not a phase we’re passing through; it’s a phenomenon that characterizes our times.

That means it is likely that the conclusions, paradigms and core beliefs upon which we based our decisions just two or three years ago are likely to be obsolete today.  Even more sobering, the conclusions and strategies which we develop today will be obsolete in a couple of years.  We can count on this continuing obsolescence of our best ideas and strategies to be the constant state of affairs.

One of my clients recently told his employees, “The only thing you can count on is that you won’t be doing this job in three years.”  His point was that the job will change in that period of time to such a degree that it’ll be a different job.  The technology used will likely change, as will the customers, the systems and the focus of the job.

The insightful person will accept that rapid change is now a defining characteristic of our economy and plan to deal with it effectively on an on-going basis. Our ability to change ourselves and our organizations at least as rapidly as the world is changing around us will be single greatest challenge of our professional careers.

Instead of thinking we should just persevere until it’s behind us, we should prepare for rapid change to be a way of life.

What’s the best way to go forward in the light of this rapid change?  What mindsets can we adopt that will equip us to survive and prosper in turbulent times?  What disciplines do we need to develop to enable us to cope?  What skills do we need to survive and prosper in the information age?

The solution

I believe there is one core skill which will define the most successful individuals and organizations.  It’s the ability and propensity to engage in purposeful, self-directed learning.  The only sustainable effective response to a rapidly changing world is cultivating the ability to positively transform ourselves and our organizations.  That’s the function of purposeful, self-directed learning.

In the face of a world that is different one week to the next, our most powerful positive response is to cultivate the ability to learn.  By “learning,” I don’t mean just the acquisition of new information, although that is a prerequisite.  Rather, I mean the kind of “learning” that requires one to change behavior on the basis of an ever-changing understanding of the world.  Learning without behavior change is impotent.

The individuals who become disciplined, systematic and purposeful self-directed learners will be the success stories of the new economy.  Likewise, those organizations which become learning organizations will have the best chance of surviving and prospering.

Read what other have said about it:

“…the key thing as we go forward is the ability to learn.  You can not arrest the pace of development in the marketplace, in the world, socially and technologically.  It is coming at an increasing rate.  You’ve got to be able to learn and adapt…” Beale.

Because of the forces surging through our economy, it’s safe to say that tomorrow will be significantly different from today.  It will be more complex and somehow significantly changed.  That will be true of all the tomorrows in the foreseeable future.

The most skilled entrepreneurs, executives, and employees, therefore, will be the ones who can continually access the changing facts and growing complexity of their jobs, and then change appropriately.

“We understand that the only competitive advantage the company of the future will have is its managers’ ability to learn faster than their competitors.”  Arie P. DeGeus

In a world that is rapidly changing, today’s hot new product is tomorrow’s obsolete dinosaur.  More important than any one product is the ability to continually create new products.  Today’s strongest employee could very well be tomorrow’s employment problem.  More important than any one employee is the ability to find and maintain employees who are constantly growing.  Today’s closest customers could be out of business tomorrow.  More important than any one customer is the ability to attract and retain customers.

All of these are applications of the ultimate competitive advantage — the ability to learn faster than your competitors.

“In fact, I would argue that the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage.”  Ray Stata

As the economy becomes more and more global, competition will increase.  Few businesses will enjoy a secure market position.  The quality of competition will also improve as competitors strive to out-do one another in providing customer service and value-added products and services.  In this new economy, those who survive and prosper will be those who know how to learn, and who do so faster and more systematically than their competitors.

Those organizations which become learning organizations will be those who fill themselves with people who regularly engage in purposeful, self-directed learning.

How, then, do you instill this “purposeful, self-directed learning” in your organization? First, let’s define our terms.


  1. Learning

        This is not the kind of thing we did in school, where the dissemination of knowledge was a higher goal than changing behavior. Today’s learning, at least for business people on the job, always involves changed behavior.  In other words, for you to learn something, you must do something differently.  I often tell people in my seminars that “You don’t get paid for what you know, you get paid for what you do.”

Knowledge, at this level, if it is isolated and unapplied, is virtually useless.  That is different from the kind of knowledge which drives a change in behavior.  The key indicator is behavioral change.

I’ll often have people approach me at the end of seminar and say words to the effect of “I’ve learned so much.”  While I don’t often say this because it would be rude, I will always think, “You don’t know if you have learned anything.  Show me what you are doing differently over the next few weeks, and then we can determine if you have learned anything.”

  1. Purposeful

        This learning has an end in mind.  We’re not in college anymore, where we must take courses just because the college curriculum demands it.  Purposeful learning begins with the end – the purpose – as the starting point.

On the job, purposeful learning focuses on improving your skills so that you can do your job more effectively or, broadening your skills so that you qualify for another position.

So, for example, a sales person who takes an online course in selling, is improving his/her job skills. That same sales person who enrolls in a course in sales management, is investing in acquiring skills and competencies that will qualify him for a promotion.


        In both examples, above, the individual initiated the learning experience.  That’s what makes them self-directed.  The learning was initiated by the individual in an attempt to better himself/herself.

Not all purposeful learning is self-directed.  From my experience, those executives, professionals and workers who take the initiative to improve themselves and gain additional skills are in the minority.  I’ve often observed that, in my world of salespeople, only one of 20 salespeople has invested $25 of his money on his own improvement in the past 12 months.  Those who create their own learning experiences are more likely to rise to the top of their professions and gain the positions of influence in an organization.

But just because someone is not ‘self-directed’ does not mean that purposeful learning is not for them.  As a veteran sales trainer, very few of the salespeople we train would have taken the course on their own, yet they can gain new competencies and skills and become more effective for their employers and more richly compensated themselves.

Six Disciplines for the Purposeful, Self-Directed Learner

  1. Set aside dedicated time for learning

Understand that your future is dependent on your ability to learn and grow at least as rapidly as the world is changing around you.  That isn’t going to happen haphazardly.  There was a time when you could count on that, but that was in slower, less stressful environment.  Today, you must learn better than ever.

In today’s environment, nothing worthwhile is learned without intentionality, purpose and dedication.  If, for example, you decided to be a golf professional, you’d sign up for lessons with the best coach you could afford, and spend hours everyday practicing and studying the game.

So too with any competency.  If you’re are going to improve yourself and perhaps your organization, you must dedicate time to the task.  I recommend a one-hour block of time every week, dedicated specifically and exclusively to learning, as a starting point.

  1. Expose yourself to differing ideas.

One of the surest ways to plateau is to limit your input to only those ideas you agree with, and the people who agree with you.  Stretch outside of the box and encounter those ideas and people who have a different point of view.

It is amazing what a bit of exposure to the other guy’s point of view will do to broaden your horizons and impact your attitude. If your attitudes and ideas are solid and well-supported they will withstand the assault of opposing ideas. And your exposure to differing ideas will provide you with wisdom, empathy and a self-confidence that will serve you well in the long run.

One of my clients has the habit of having lunch with “a good thinker outside of the industry” once a month. That is purely to expose himself to ideas from sources outside the norm.

On the other hand, one of the surest indicators of a weak position occurs when the advocates of a certain position seek to prevent their followers from being exposed to other points of view.  Cult leaders often seal their followers off from the outside world and limit their exposure to other ideas.  Think of Jim Jones and David Karesh.  Religious systems have been known to do the same thing.

I was raised in the Catholic tradition for example, and we were taught that to visit another church was sinful.  Modern extreme Islamist as so afraid of other perspectives that someone who questions their beliefs will be subject to death threats.

  1. Ask Questions.

A well-phrased question is one of mankind’s greatest thinking tools. I often teach sales people that a good question is their single most powerful sales tool.  When we ask a question, the other person thinks of the answers. That means that we can influence, shape and stimulate thought processes in the other person.

And that is just as true for ourselves.  When we ask ourselves a good question, it stimulates our thinking.  I suspect that a good question was the stimulus for much of the world’s progress.  Edison, for example, probably began by asking, “Can electricity be transformed into light?”

If you want to find better ways of doing things, if you want to improve your competency and skills, continually ask yourself questions.  Write them down, and seek the answers, and write them down as well.  This simple little process can energize your learning and growth.  I’ve often thought that the simplest way to great thinking was to articulate good questions and write down the answers.  The question stimulates the thinking and writing down the answer forces precision and commitment.

  1. Take a risk – a project that is outside of your comfort zones.

One of the surest ways to learn and grow is to put yourself in a situation where you must stretch yourself and gain new competencies and skills in order to succeed – or just survive.

I began my speaking practice, for example, decades ago, with one specific objective – to get enough money to pay the mortgage and buy groceries for the month.  I had found myself in the position of being overqualified and too expensive for every position for which I interviewed and had no choice but to find “a lot of little jobs instead of one big one.”  That lead to a consulting practice, and that lead to speaking as a way to feed the consulting practice. A few years later, I was traveling the country speaking as often as three times a week. The speaking portion of my business had expanded to the point where it was the engine that created an entire business.  I would have never developed that competency had I not been in a position where I had no other option.

  1. Reflect, consolidate and commit.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  We’ve all heard that bit of sound-bite wisdom. It is only partially true. For some difficult circumstance to make us stronger requires us to learn from it.  Not everyone does.

My wife is a crises counselor.  You would think that a crisis would be a one-off event.  Once resolved, the person in the crises would rise up stronger and more capable than before.  Alas, not true.  The same people find themselves in one crisis after another.  They resolved the crises but never learned – they never changed their behavior and continued to do the same things that brought on the crises in the first place.

For some adverse experience to make us longer, we must be active participants in the learning process.  That means pausing and reflecting on the experience – asking ourselves “What did we do to contribute to this?”  And then writing down the answers.  Once we have clearly identified our behavior, we then commit to changing that behavior so that we can learn from the experience and become stronger.

“What doesn’t kills us makes us stronger – if we learn and grow from it.”

  1. Include your employees, your family, and those you influence.

If you find yourself in a position of influence – an influential professional, an entrepreneur, or executive, then there are those around you who look to you for leadership.  One of the greatest leadership strategies in today’s rapidly changing environment is to initiate purposeful learning among those you influence.

There is a large body of content available on ‘creating a learning organization.”  Peter Senge’s classic book, The Fifth Discipline, provides the foundation for corporate strategic initiatives around the idea of learning organization.

If you find yourself in this position, here are three tactics to begin the process.


To instill Purposeful, Self-Directed Learning in your people

  1. Wipe the Slate Clean.

Imagine that you have written the history of your company or your career on a blackboard.  You have every decision, every strategy, every success and every failure noted in detail.  The sum of this experience provides the rationale for why and how you do everything that you now do.

Now, take a wet towel, and wipe the board clean.  Erase the past.  As you do so, you eliminate the unspoken acceptance of the way things are and replace it with the new understanding that things may not be the way they should be.  Just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be.  The reason you started doing something may no longer exist.  Remember, with a world turning over more or less completely every two to three years, any decision or procedure which had its roots in a situation which is three or more years old may not be justified today.

This little exercise provides a mental image for a change in thinking that needs to take place if you’re going to become a learning organization.  You must begin to think about things that you do, not on the basis of the past (three or more years ago), but rather on the basis of the present and the future.

It’s a way of eliminating one of the biggest barriers to learning and changing.  That barrier is the mental obstacles that we put in our own way.  Here’s an example.  One of my clients was frustrated with his continuing inability to motivate his sales force.  He spent much of his mental energy and financial resources attempting to get his force of largely independent agents to spend more time with his product.  Yet he never thought about going to market in ways other than through his traditional methods.  When we broke down that barrier of relying on the past and wiped the slate clean, we discovered a marketing method which holds tremendous potential for his business.  However, it took a change in thinking, a thought process that wasn’t tied to his past to look at the situation on the basis of the present and the future rather than the past.

That principle can be applied in every area of your business, from something so fundamental and important as your method of reaching your customers, to something as mundane as the way you answer the phone or fill out a receiving document

  1. Give Purposeful Learning a Strategic Emphasis.

Build in the need to become a learning organization in the most fundamental building blocks of your business.

Write it into your mission statement.  Get the board to pass a resolution advocating it.  Display your commitment to it predominantly in your personnel manual.

Talk about it at your employee meetings.  Make it an agenda item for your executive meetings.  Articulate it as an initiative in your strategic planning sessions.

And, begin to model learning behavior yourself.

  1. Make purposeful, self-directed learning a part of everyone’s job description.

Begin to create learning expectations for yourself and all your employees.  Talk about their need to learn and grow.  Include it as an item on every job description.

Then encourage, develop and support learning opportunities throughout your organization.  Here’s what some things other organizations have done:

  1. Require every employee to attend a certain number of outside seminars, internet-based courses or other learning events per year.
  2. Reward the effective application of learning.  In other words, when someone finds an effective way to change things, reward them.  One of my clients holds a monthly employee meeting, where the employee who has made the biggest positive change in the way things are done is rewarded with $150.00 cash bonus.

Begin to implement these strategies, and you’ll take the first steps to transforming your organization into a learning organization.

You’ll begin the process of mastering the ultimate success skill for the new economy.

How effective are you at the most important competency of our age?

Click here to download a free copy of the Purposeful Learning Self-Assessment.

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