As leaders struggle to navigate today’s complex and rapidly changing world, many of them are finding that the tactics and behaviors that served them well in the past are less effective when dealing with the challenges of the present.
“Unlearning is a process of letting go or reframing and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past, but now limit your success. It’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding knowledge or experience; it’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively engaging and taking in new information to inform your decision making,” O’Reilly explains.
He recognizes it is a big ask.
In his executive coaching work, O’Reilly often gets a blank stare when he tells senior leaders they need to unlearn what they already know. Some get downright offended.
“A lot of their feedback mechanisms are telling them they’re doing the right things. They’ve been promoted to the upper echelons of these organizations, their businesses are growing, all their reports and valuations are going where they want. The question is, Why change? What am I doing? Why would I need to unlearn?” he says, adding that his first job is to help these leaders see the disconnects. “It’s reteaching them to recognize when their existing mindset or behavior is actually limiting their success and how they can adapt to changing circumstances, relearn, and get the breakthroughs they’re looking for.”
To break through this initial resistance, O’Reilly asks leaders to recall a time earlier in their careers when they recognized they needed to change the way they worked.
He says most executives recognize that there was a time when they had to switch from actually doing the work to helping others do the work. If they had kept trying to do the work themselves, that would have limited their success as leaders; helping their team members do their work successfully was now the primary benchmark of their own success.
O’Reilly calls this an “unlearning moment.”
Other unlearning moments can be triggered by external changes – changes like the emergence of new technologies, new competitors, or even a global pandemic.
“There’s continuous challenges we have to face, and you’re not going to have all the skills you need all the time. Some of it requires letting go of things that made you successful in the past and some of it is making space for new skills to come in that can make you successful as you relearn,” he explains.
Once leaders recognize the need for relearning, O’Reilly asks them a series of questions, such as:
“Ask yourself those questions, jot down a few answers, then find someone who you know – someone you trust, maybe someone in your team or a collaborator, someone who works with you – and pick one of those challenges and ask them, on a scale of 1 to 10, how well do they think you’re doing with that challenge? Maybe they know you, and trust you, and they give you a 3. You’re going to say, Thanks! You’re going to ask them how you can get just half a point better in the next week. What kind of behaviors could you try just to get half a point better? They’re going to give you, hopefully, a couple of ideas. I’d encourage you to pick the one that feels a bit uncomfortable – a bit unnatural – and just try it for a week,” he advises, adding that the next step is do go back to that person and ask them to rate you again.
“Maybe they’ll be like, ‘Actually, you’re a 6 now.’ Brilliant! ‘How can I get half a point better next week?’ I guarantee if you can get into that type of pattern – whether it’s with your teams, whether it's with your peers, whether it’s with people at home – you’ll be amazed by the power of the compounding effects. Change won’t seem so scary because you’ll be in the habit of changing. You’ll be comfortable with change. You’ll actually be seeking ways to improve for challenges that you’ve got. That’s a super powerful skill to have for the future.”
This is how individual leaders can start to evolve and learn the new skills, behaviors, and tactics they need to succeed in today’s volatile and uncertain operating environment. In my next column, I’ll share O’Reilly’s advice for using the same approach to drive organizational change.