Cultivating a culture of learning

Cultivating a culture of learning: Resources and Ideas
Winter 2018 by Sara Lawson

Cultivating a culture of learning

Some of the most effective leaders I know make learning a priority: for themselves, for their teams, and for their organizations. Skillful leaders tend to be naturally curious about new ideas and different perspectives. They have vision and opinions, for sure, but they also know that they don’t need to have all the answers. And sometimes the solution to a problem comes from a divergent thought, an unexpected inspiration, or a new connection between seemingly unrelated ideas.

That may sound great, but among the day-to-day pressures that you and your team face, how do you make time for learning and reflection? In Part 1, I’ll share a handful of approaches, from very-brief meeting openings to more substantive retreats and learning series. And in Part 2, I’ll offer some books and resources as food for thought.

Part One: Cultivating a culture of learning

Here are a range of practices to consider, to weave learning and reflection into the ongoing work of your team. Of course, adapt or combine them to suit your style and the needs of your team.

  • Open meetings with a thought-provoking statement or question, and allow time for reflection. We often go through meetings on autopilot. We might hear plenty of yup’s and see lots of nodding, but are people actually engaged, and bringing their resourcefulness to the table? If you think that might be happening with your team, try something different. Open an upcoming meeting by sharing a quote, an open-ended question, or an unconventional view related to the subject of the meeting, and make time for 1-2 minutes of silent reflection and/or jotting of notes and ideas. Then give folks three minutes to share a couple thoughts with someone sitting near them, as a foundation for the rest of the agenda. While this can be a challenge to the typical ways your team interacts, it gives everyone time to connect with their own perspectives and with one other person before hearing from the more extroverted members of the team. (By the way, don’t make this the new default approach to meetings unless you do it thoughtfully. Otherwise, the eye-rolling will overwhelm the benefits.)
  • Add a section to your performance review process that focuses on learning, with questions like:
    • What have you learned during the past year?
    • What are you focused on learning in the coming year (knowledge, skills, etc.)?
    • How will you go about that, and in what ways can we support your learning?
    • In what ways can you support the learning of your colleagues and/or the team as a whole?
  • Have a team retreat for reading and sharing ideas. When I was the executive director of an arts agency, once or twice a year we would gather all the arts management journals, articles, and books we’d been wanting to read and get someone to cover the office. Our small team would gather in my living room for an afternoon of reading and snacks. We’d sprawl out for a couple of hours, skimming resources and making notes. Then we’d take the last hour to share the ideas that jumped out at us: maybe a program that we wanted to pilot, an idea that was inspiring, or a practice that raised bigger questions about our work. We’d never get through all of the resources that interested us, but spending time learning together expanded our thinking and energized the team.
  • Create a learning series. Make a list of key topics that you and your team are interested in learning more about. Pick three priority topics for the year, and invite/assign pairs of colleagues to lead the team through some kind of exercise, outing, or discussion about their selected topic. Maybe one group will facilitate a three-part book club during a series of lunches, another group will moderate a panel discussion featuring a handful of local experts, or someone will organize a field trip to a relevant destination across town. Naturally, different approaches require varying amounts of time, preparation, and associated costs, but each organization can tailor an approach that works for their resources and priorities.

Part Two: Food for Thought

You and your colleagues are probably already familiar with some of the key books and resources that are specific to your field, and that’s a great place to start. Here are some additional resources that span different genres of work. I have organized them around three themes, reflecting a handful of topics that have been coming up in a range of organizations in recent months. I am including books, video, and workshops, because we learn in lots of different ways. And while any list of recommendations is inherently subjective, the resources on this list have–in my view–most or all of the following qualities:

  • The ideas presented shifted how I thought about something, in some substantive way.
  • The authors/facilitators wrapped language around ideas and experiences that we humans often wrestle with.
  • Each one addresses some leadership topic or facet of history in a thought-provoking and engaging way.


Lots of people are wondering about where we go from here. And who is ‘we’, anyway? How do we do our work and create thriving communities and families in the context of increased political polarization, growing mistrust in democratic institutions, divisiveness that stokes fear and anger, and the anxiety-provoking effects of a 24-hour news cycle? My last article drew heavily on two books, and I keep going back to both of these books for the compelling stories and simple, yet challenging, ideas and practices:

Both authors describe a key paradox. We need to engage with others AND assert our individual interests and views. If we only focus on common ground, we minimize real differences and capitulate to the will of others. When this happens, we gloss over real issues that need to be addressed. On the other hand, if we only assert our own interests, we disregard our interdependence and impose our will on others.


It seems that every organization is somehow examining—or studiously avoiding—some of the key issues of the day: racism, sexism, and various other forms of systemic oppression. This isn’t easy stuff, and organizations are dealing with these issues with varying degrees of intentionality, skill, and clarity. Even where the effort is intentional and skillful, there’s often anxiety about uncorking something that might do yet more harm or be otherwise counter-productive. At the same time, there’s a growing recognition that we have a responsibility to address how these issues play out in our organizations. Here are some resources that I’ve found useful as I have worked to deepen my understanding of these issues, and build my capacity to engage in this work:

  • Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment, by Leticia Nieto. Here’s the thing: I love this book AND I haven’t finished it yet. It’s engaging and dense, and I keep taking breaks to sit with the ideas and see how they show up in my work and life. Nieto offers useful frameworks for identifying and understanding various systems of oppression, as well as how to respond strategically. Her approach is thought-provoking AND practical; compassionate AND courageous. There are really powerful, transformative ideas here, so this is the year I’m going to finish this book. I might even organize a reading group, so let me know if you’re interested!
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Strategies for Facilitating Conversations on Race, by Caprice Hollins and Ilsa Govan. This is a very helpful nuts-and-bolts guide about how to prepare for and facilitate conversations, and how to navigate challenges and tensions as they come up. This is a great resource from the co-founders of Cultures Connecting (a Seattle-based source of excellent workshops and train-the-trainer sessions; their workshops are a great way to build skills while experiencing skillful facilitation in action).

One of the things that I have been learning over and over is that my education did not provide the tools and information to really understand the history of this country (from long ago to more recent chapters). I’ve been working to catch up so that I have a better understanding of the roots of the issues we’re facing today. There are a lot of great resources out there, and here are three as a starting point:

  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This beautifully written book follows the stories of three individuals who left the Jim Crow-era South in search of a better life in Chicago, Harlem, and Los Angeles. These three narratives are a compelling microcosm of the largely untold story of the ‘Great Migration’ of six million black southerners who migrated to the North and the West between 1915 and 1970, finding that they had not left racism behind.
  • Uprooting Racism, by Paul Kivel. The 2011 edition challenged a lot of the history I learned in school. It’s uncomfortable, worthwhile, and paradigm-shifting. I just discovered that there’s an updated edition (2017), and I’m looking forward to reading it.
  • Undoing Institutional Racism. This workshop offered by The People’s Institute Northwest is based on the premise that racism has been systematically erected and that it can be “undone” if people understand where it comes from, how it functions and why it is perpetuated.


If you’re like many of my clients, 2017 was a challenging year. It’s hard to keep focused in the face of mounting challenges and divisive attacks, especially if other people are looking to you for perspective, clarity, and reassurance. So here are a couple of resources that have been making the rounds among folks who are wanting to reconnect with a sense of hope and inspiration.

  • I will be a Hummingbird is a two-minute animated video featuring a simple and charming story by Kenyan activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Matthai. When you are feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of your work, take a peek at this little gem.
  • Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (third edition, 2015) by Rebecca Solnit. What are the histories we’re encouraged to forget, and what are the stories we tell to inspire positive action and sustain hope? And what does it even mean to be hopeful in the face of mounting challenges? This thought-provoking, challenging, and paradoxical book reflects on the power of individual and collective action, and the importance of hope. In it, Solnit makes a key distinction between hope and optimism: “Hope is the embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think that it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. [Hope is] the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things that cannot be known beforehand.” This isn’t a fairy tale, and sometimes progress is four steps forward and three steps back (even some of the milestones that she described in the 2016 edition have been challenged since then), but it’s a useful way of thinking about hope as an antidote to cynicism and inaction.

Here's to a year of courageous learning and transformational work.


What books, videos, or articles do you find yourself recommending these days? And how do you weave learning and reflection into the ongoing work of your team?

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