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Learning From Your Employees

You may be the boss, but that doesn't mean you can't let your employees teach you a thing or two.

Kim Seymour spends her days giving birth to new business strategies as founder and owner of Cravings, a 2-year-old Raleigh, North Carolina, retail company that sells trendy maternity clothing and accessories. Along the way, she seeks advice from her three employees, who have taught her about merchandising, marketing and customer relations. One employee had spent nine years as a retail manager, experience Seymour didn't have when she started the company. "There's no way someone is going to be an expert in every aspect of running a business," says Seymour, 35.

In today's knowledge-driven economy, entrepreneurs need to get strategic in creating workplaces that value "learning up," where entrepreneurs and managers learn from people they hire. Like Seymour, this might mean acquiring new merchandising and customer service strategies.

In most companies, however, training and information still flow downhill and not uphill. Over the next decade, successful companies will bring the knowledge economy full circle by making sure knowledge flows up, down and sideways, increasing innovation and competitiveness. "The only way they're going to do that," says Mark Loschiavo, executive director of the Laurence A. Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship in Technology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, "is if they break down the barriers that say 'Because you work for me, I can't learn from you.'"

Training the Boss?

Smart entrepreneurs "hire up," meaning they hire people who bring the latest skills in technology, sales, accounting and other fields. This is an excellent strategy-until you stop keeping up with how the work is changing. So how can you create a "learning up" strategy? First, managers need to acknowledge that they can learn from rank-and-file employees. This requires a cultural shift, and it's hard for most leaders, who would rather have a root canal than admit knowledge gaps.

The truth is, savvy employees already see the gaps. "[Employees] are dying to contribute," says Howard Goldman, a San Carlos, California, performance coach and author of Choose What Works: The Proven Secrets of Professional Greatness. "Great managers allow for contributions and, most important, acknowledge them." Seymour keeps her approach low-key. "It's just a matter of opening a conversation and saying 'I want to run something past you,'" she says.

Define each employee's expertise because it legitimizes everyone's role as an expert in a particular area, Loschiavo says. Figuring out who can teach the latest software package or which salesperson can share selling techniques takes pressure off managers, too. "It creates a greater level of partnership," Goldman says.

Learning also puts leaders back on the front lines, where new business strategies and best practices can result as the company grows. "As the leader of a [tech] company, you wouldn't get [an employee] to train you how to program," Loschiavo says. "But you need to understand [emerging] implications of technology to make good, strategic decisions."

How Do You Do That?

Make continual learning a part of your hiring process. Ask management candidates how comfortable they are with learning from employees. Can they put their egos aside to ask a rank-and-file person how to do something? If not, this person might not be a good fit for the learning culture you're trying to create.

There are risks to learning up. Employees might think teaching the boss gives them more say than they really have. It could encourage some to ask for a raise. At worst, employees might worry that teaching others their unique expertise could make them expendable. Managers need to explain the importance of companywide learning. "Communication needs to happen outside the boardroom," says Amy Fox, president of Accelerated Business Results, a corporate training firm in Cincinnati.

Companies that don't take learning to the next level risk irrelevance in the marketplace. Learning from employees "is the only way an entrepreneur or a manager can stay on top of what's relevant," Goldman says. "[Information] doesn't flow in just one direction. It flows in a circular direction."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the June 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Live and Learn.

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