One of the great things about the Australian Regular Army, my first regular job, was its relentless focus on learning. In my case I did four years at the Royal Military College, six months learning to be an Engineer Officer, and rounds of qualifying courses for promotion.
This was not static learning. The Army was quick to learn the necessary lessons from current or recent operations. These were shortly applied formally, but first from the presence, throughout the structure, of people just back from Borneo and then just back from Vietnam. Unconsciously, they became organisational mentors and change agents. Recent oral history and personal behaviour were powerful influences.
Mind you, some lessons had to be relearned. In my day, while the fighting arms were pretty current, the logistics side struggled initially from lack of recent real-time experience. The logistics deployment into Vietnam was initially a mess. But it very quickly improved. And worked well from there.
Now SMEs are much smaller than the Australian Army and consequently much, much more nimble. But the same needs apply. You must learn quickly, or fail.
If you don’t, a changing environment and poor internal performance will get you.
Which brings us to the role of the CEO (who usually has the most to lose from failure, as well).
The CEO has to combine those functions the Army has of instruction, coaching and mentoring. In small organisations, the differences between these blur. But consider:
Instruction – the need to teach your organisation how to learn. This is best done by example and doing – not through abstractions and certainly not from business book written for managers in billion dollar US business units;
Coaching – helping the company team (including the wider team) focus on what needs to be learned;
Mentoring – helping the company team successfully apply and then review the lessons learned.
To do this requires a strategic view of the world. What do you need to improve now; what changes can you anticipate and prepare for?
This is one of the biggest challenges facing the CEO.