How to never stop learning
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Hello and welcome to INTHEBLACK Career Hacks podcast. I'm Jessica Mudditt. To help us understand how accountants and finance professionals can overcome common roadblocks to learning, I'm speaking to Shelley Laslett. Shelley is the CEO and co-founder of Vitae.Coach, which uses brain-based coaching based on neuroscience. She's also a guest lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, and the director of people and culture at UX research platform, UsabilityHub. Welcome, Shelley. It's great to have you here.
Thanks, Jess. It's great to be here.
I think that many of us draw a line in the sand when we finish university, thinking that the learning is done and now it's time to start earning. Why do you think it's important for us to continue learning throughout our careers?
Yeah, it's a really good question. I think also learning up until that point is super structured. So part of the reason we sort of feel that it ends is because the structure falls away. So to answer your question and why it's important is because really learning's essential part of growth. When we stop learning, we stop growing. And that happens not just on a professional level, but it happens on a neurological level too. Learning is particularly important to brain health, and it's also important to progression overall. But there's sort of a little bit of lower-level detail around that. And it's not learning just general things, it's actually learning hard new things. It's incredibly important. So it's stuff that is beyond reach currently within our current capability. But things that we desire and attain, so a professional qualification, an upskilling in a certain type of coding or language that we wanted to learn, a learning of a new language, learning of a new skill, and whether or not that's physical or musical, all of these types of things are actually super important to us. But when we think about our career trajectory, what we know is that careers are anything but stagnant in the modern age.
So we've seen a lot of change even in the last 10 years in terms of skillset, capability. The work we do at UsabilityHub is an example of that. What we used to think was sort of nuanced and perhaps niche now becomes the norm. And it's really important when we think about our own progress in careers, so our own learning, is that we have to be going to where our industry is. And what do I mean by that is what's coming for our industry, what's on the horizon, and how am I using my skills that I either have today or skills that I'm going to attain to stay relevant to my industry or relevant to my clients? Because we know in terms of tech and the way that it changes things, we can't simply rest on the laurels of what we once knew. We have to continue growing and learning. And I think one of the best guiding principles we can take in that is what are you excited by? So when you think of your industry, when you think of where you are, when you think of where it's going, what bits of that get you excited? What draws you in to start to think about how you would essentially play in those areas if you could? But to give up on learning is to give up on progress. And to give up on progress is to give up on progression. And that's kind of a professional suicide position, really. We really want to think about how do we continue to grow ourselves, and thereby be part of the growth within our industry.
Wow, okay. So that's a really powerful reason to continue learning. Shelley, the term adaptive learner is one that I must confess I haven't heard much about. Could you break down what an adaptive learner is, and share your tips for cultivating that kind of a mindset?
Yeah, sure. So I think when we talk about adaptive learner, it's kind of in the title. So the ability to adapt down learning styles or our learning needs based on the task that's in front of us, and what does that really mean. Without sounding too academic, it's what's ahead of us and what do I need to do with what I have today to adapt to get to the outcome I'm after? So I think adaptive learning in general is more about that custom learning experience as such. So how does it address the unique need that you have versus a blanket all approach to learning? So often what you see in classrooms or in universities, a blanket all approaches to learning and adaptive learning style. And this, I caveat, has been integrated into tech in a number of ways of designing adaptability and algorithmic adaptability.
It's looking at the nuance and the uniqueness of what you need to do as a learner and how you need to adapt either yourself or the modification of what you are learning to suit your needs. So what that really means if we break it down is how do we adapt to what I need to do next to get the outcome I want? And this dovetails really quite cleanly into a process of thinking, and that's called metacognition. So effectively thinking about our thinking. It's a neurological process that we humans do, and it has a lot of benefit when it comes to learning. So metacognition kind of breaks down into three levels. It's metacognitive knowledge, my awareness of the learning process, the beliefs I have about myself as a learner and others. My metacognitive experience, emotions and feelings related to learning. Some of us love learning and can't wait for the challenge. Some of us are more resistant. That's okay. It's just part of it. And our metacognitive strategies, and this is the bit that relates to that adaptivity about learning. So what do you design and what processes do you use to monitor how you're learning and track your effectiveness in terms of ascertaining that knowledge? And that's probably the most important part. It's awareness of where I am as a learner in the process of either my mastery or my misunderstanding of what I'm trying to do. So metacognition is something we have.
You don't need to go away and buy it. You don't need to upload it, you don't need to do a course. It's simply something you have. It's a muscle, and so we should use it. So when it comes to adaptive learning, the things I would say is metacognitive knowledge, what do you already believe about yourself as a learner? Because it's likely you might have some false beliefs. And we hear people talk about this all the time. "I'm not very good at math. I'm not very good at exams. I'm better at this. I'm better at that." You might know your natural preferences. If you are being self-directed in your learning, you're not on a course, you're not being told how to do it, use that to your advantage. Adapt that to how you would like to be learning. The metacognitive experiences, notice the emotions that come with it. Do you get a little bit of anxiety when it comes to learning? Do you get excitement? Know that anxiety and excitement are actually kind of the same neurological cocktail, just how you characterise the emotion, which influences whether or not it's positive or negative. But that metacognitive strategies bit is super important. So what are you going to do to have checkpoints or reflection points with yourself to know, actually, did I understand that? So often we might, "Okay, we've got to move through modules three to four. I'm going to go through 3.1, 3.2, okay, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick."
But we don't go back and reflect, "Actually, did I understand that? I might have ticked the box, but did I actually understand that?" So going and doing that practise quiz or going and working with a partner or someone to say, "Hey, ask me a question about this," and then seeing if you can articulate it. This is why those practical practise exams, if we're looking at professional qualifications, are super important because what you're doing is putting that learning into practise. If you simply attain knowledge without any practical application, you're not really learning.
Okay, that's a really great insight into how our brains work. Can we turn now to the common obstacles and roadblocks to learning that many of us face, such as procrastination? I'd love to hear your tips for overcoming it, and to learn what's actually happening in the brain while we are procrastinating.
Yeah, great question. So I think it's important to understand there's actually a power in procrastination. I think most folk think of it like a negative thing.
Tell me more.
Yeah, I know. I know. Everyone's going, "Great, I can watch Netflix for hours as positive procrastination." What we mean by that is it's generally referred to as moderate procrastination, and it's something that our organisational psychologist, Adam Grant, kind of calls the sweet spot. And what we mean there is it's where we think about what we're trying to do in a more wiser and effective way, and what that looks like is effective procrastination. So this moderate type of procrastination is essentially buying yourself time to think, and it becomes rumination time for the brain, meaning that we sit back and reflect, "Actually, what is the task here? How am I going to do it? Why am I potentially resistant to starting this?" When we're thinking, "I've got to do that thing, but I'm not sure why I'm not executing immediately." But what we really mean by that is procrastination isn't so much a time-management problem, think of it as an emotional regulation problem. And what do I mean by that? Basically, your brain is trying to give you time and space to think creatively and innovatively about the solution before driving into execution.
When we talk about the power of procrastination, and sometimes our brain's unwillingness to execute immediately, it's actually for us to potentially understand some of those emotions underneath, but also to regulate ourselves more effectively, to feel comfortable to start the task, so that when we start, we can focus and be effective. Versus we just focused on executing and I didn't really think this through, and now I'm halfway through writing this assignment, or I'm halfway through executing on this model and I realise I don't actually have what I need. So sometimes it's about sitting back and knowing that there is a bit of that power in delaying the task, just to give yourself a moment, but also to be quite kind to yourself if you do delay the task, you're not being lazy or ineffective. And I can't probably describe it anymore than it's an urge. You go to execute, and you don't. That would be an essence of your brain saying, "Hang on a tick. Let's just think this one through a little bit more. Let's buy ourselves a bit of space."
So my advice when you feel that urge is to stop and reflect, okay, why am I resisting here? What do I need to know more of? Have I got everything covered that I need before I go and execute? What am I missing? And these questions, what am I missing? What's the outcome? What am I trying to achieve here? If I execute in this way, will it achieve those objectives? Stop, reflect. Actually, it's probably not right. What's missing? Some of that work is equally as effective as output. Now, we can't procrastinate till the cows come home. You do have to put a bit of a time box on it. So what I would say there is just set yourself some guidelines, meaning, okay, I'm going to give myself this amount of hours or this many days or this many weeks depending on the size of the project or the thing you're trying to execute. And that's going to be my positive procrastination time, and I'm going to use the power of procrastination here to my favour. What I'm going to do is then reframe how I'm thinking about the project.
I'm going to break it down into short sprints, and then I'm going to focus. That's just the first step I need to take. I'm going to stop and reflect. I'm going to have sub-goals, which are going to keep me orientated on time, meaning don't think about the whole project being completed, thinking about what you need to do in this moment. Be in the now. And then also to help you regulate the emotions that come with procrastination, because often there's a lot of guilt and that guilt, you go out and do something and you're like, "Oh, I should really be doing that thing." You kind of need to tell yourself, "Put it down, time and space away from that thing is actually going to allow me to approach it in a better way."
Okay, Shelley, I'd also love to hear your advice on how to resolve all the competing priorities we face with little spare time. And how do we know what value to ascribe to learning as opposed to performing well at work? And I think this is really true for finance professionals who have a huge load of tasks to complete, not much time. How do you resolve that tension?
Yeah, so effectively, how do you prioritise when everything's a priority?
Yeah, very much.
Yeah. So first principles is our brain loves structure and order. We crave structure and order. We are kind of like pattern recognitions machines. So when we don't have any structure in order to the way we work, everything goes out the window. So first principles, right? Have some structure and order to how you prioritise work. So do you have a simple traffic light system, high, medium, low? Do you have a grading system? In software delivery we often use sizing of tasks. So is it small, medium or large if it was a T-shirt size? What actually is the thing you need to do? Because you might have five really short little tasks that you think that would just take me five minutes, classic saying. It doesn't, it actually takes like five hours. So the first thing is to have a way in which you're going to structure and prioritise your work, whatever that looks like to you.
Again, leverage the software you have. It doesn't have to be fancy. It can be as simple as what's blocked out in my Google Calendar or what's blocked out in my Outlook is what's getting done at the time. And then almost like your prioritisation or assessment matrix, what am I going to use to actually figure out what is the most pressing, what is the most pressing priority? And this is hard because it's often make the plan, regulate the plan or get the work done. And there is no simple solution to that. I can't say, "Here's a magic wand for how you solve that," but what I will say is the more rhythmic you get with using a system to prioritise, the more easy it becomes and the more your mind will relax into it. So try as much as you can to follow a process in which you will bring structure and order to prioritising. It doesn't have to be complicated. Again, red and green, most of us know what that means, follow that and put it down somewhere outside of your head. Or super low fidelity, tick boxes on a page. This is the most important thing. This is what's happening tomorrow.
One of the big things as well with that is plan out your week. Don't try and plan out your month, it doesn't really work that way, but plan out your week. When am I actually going to do these key things that I need to get delivered? When am I structuring in my breaks? Because then your workout actually, is that going to take me five minutes or is it going to take me an hour and a half? In which case I should probably do that. Some people like to use the timer effect, so they actually stop a timer and they work out how long it takes. I know that's pretty popular with some of the accounting mates that I do have. Works for some people, not for all. Just find your own system to bring structure and order into how you prioritise, and then your own rituals around prioritisation. The other piece I would say is if you're working with other people, collectively prioritise. What I mean by that is what you think might be a priority might not be a priority to someone else, so make sure there's alignment.
Make sure there's like whips, or team ceremonies where you know you're going to have those check-in points to make sure that your prioritisation is aligned with theirs. Working in isolation to sort of divide and conquer is fantastic, but when you're working in a team, you also need those connectivity points. So you can have your own individual way of organising your thoughts and prioritising, but if you're working collectively, make sure that that's shared, and there's an understanding there. Because we've all been on a project where we think someone's doing something or we think we are doing that, and then we've either doubled up, or we're not sure, or the deadline got mismanaged. It happens. So those regular check-ins are super important. Structure and order around your own prioritisation matrix, and then that collective communication if you're working with others.
That's amazing. Terrific. Okay, Shelley, I've got a bonus question for you now.
If you could give one piece of advice on what a finance and accounting professional could do now to prepare for the future, what would that be?
Ooh, great question. So I think having a deep understanding of accounting practises and financial literacy overall that folks in this area possess is hugely powerful. And I mean that in a sense that knowledge is power, but only when you use it to empower another. So really, know and trust that the skills that you have present you with a great opportunity to help other people understand their finances, balance sheets, and thereby, the basics and the complexities of how individuals and businesses can succeed, and that's hugely valuable.
That was amazing. There's so many practical things that we can do to keep learning. Thanks, Shelley.
No problems. Anytime you want to talk learning, you know where to find us. Thank you for having me.
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To help us understand how accountants and finance professionals can adopt efficient learning habits, I'm speaking to Huw Thomas. Huw is head of offerings, thought leadership and capability development at Blue Seed Consulting. Welcome, Huw. It's great to have you here.
Thanks, Jess. It's great to be here.
Time is often described as our most precious resource, and we all seem to be short on it. Can you please share some practical tips on carving out time to learn? Can we steal small chunks of time here and there, rather than striving to find those elusive one-hour blocks?
Yeah, great question. I think a lot of people struggle with this one. For me, I think the first thing is having a solid belief around learning yourself, and a belief around what your goals are and what you're trying to become. And when you've got that as the starting point, it gives you a strong motivation to go and find the time. If you don't have that, then you'll easily get distracted by just the urgent stuff, which is coming at you day-to-day. So I think having that sense of purpose and goals about where you're going is really important. I think being pretty assertive to say no to some of those short-term things is really a challenge for some people, and is something that they may need to work on. So pushing back on those urgent things because that to-do list is never going to end, and we often won't find the time to learn unless we say no to things pretty firmly.
And I think the other is to try and think about what that learning is. And like you say, it doesn't have to be formal learning, it can be ongoing mentoring or could be just trying something new and taking the plunge into that, or making some reflective time to think about what you did and how you might learn from that. And then thinking about what that topic is and just adopting a sense of immersion in it. So whether it's listening, reading the latest books on that or podcasts, and going to some formal training or getting a mentor in that thing and just surrounding yourself in it for a period of time, and making some structured time to do that. I think that goes a long way to helping.
Now, we only all get 24 hours in the day, but some people seem to do so much more in theirs. What's your advice on improving time-management skills, and what do you think are the most common traps that people fall into?
I think the most common trap, Jess, is seeing time as this limited resource rather than what it really is just a set of priorities that you make each day, and that you actually have a lot of control over those. And as I sort of touched on before, we get locked into doing the urgent stuff rather than thinking about what's important. I think the most successful high performers that I work with, and a lot of my clients who are CEOs and have huge demands on them, are really good at saying no to a lot of the small things and those urgent things and delegating, but they just make time to look ahead. So they're looking at a three-year horizon often or more, or one year, or even a quarter, and they're breaking it down into those pieces, around if we need to achieve something in that time or get better and improve some capability in that time, we need to do these important things right now or this week, and they're really disciplined about making the time for it.
So thinking about what's not just urgent and getting through that to-do list and getting the dopamine hit out of getting through that to-do list, but actually thinking about what's going to be most valuable to me, my career and the business I'm working in the long term, and then just being really assertive about making the time to do it. I think the other thing then is, or at least I try, is just to sort of obsess over my calendar and really look at it regularly. And I try and plan over a year, a quarter and then in a fortnightly basis. And then I'm looking at my calendar virtually every day, planning meetings, planning time, I've got my personal appointments and kids pickups and things I've got to tend to there, and even weekend activities. It's all in there in one place. And I just make sure that I'm trying to follow that really clearly and just move the boxes around as needed. And that's the kind of practical thing I really obsess over.
Now, let's talk about chunking, chunking up learning, which is a term that I wasn't familiar with. Can you tell us exactly what it is and what are your tips for mastering it?
Yeah, it's an interesting concept. And this is a thing of the reason why we break our phone numbers down into those sort of three sets to make them more memorable. So I think we often shy away from learning something new and a different discipline because it seems overwhelming, it seems like a really big thing. Like my degree's not in that thing. I didn't study for three years in that thing, and it's going to be really difficult to go and do that thing. But when we chunk it down into small pieces, it actually becomes much more digestible, into digestible pieces of learning. In my experience, I started my career as a learning strategist and designer in L&D, then into change management, and I moved into leadership coaching and training. And then I do a lot of sales and business development, and they're sort of different things, but the chunking element that I used there was sort of trying to see patterns throughout all of them. So there are fundamentals throughout all of them, which is really just influencing people.
And so that's the chunking technique, which is seeing that kind of pattern from one thing to another. And so what I asked myself each time I was trying to move into a different discipline was, what do I already know that's going to be useful in this thing? And then break it down into those small pieces and how can I apply what I already know, and then just sort of build on that adjacent learning skill? So it might be about influencing people, but it's within a different process, so I need to just learn that specific process of selling, which is different to maybe change management or designing some training, but the fundamental steps around how I influence people is going to be quite similar. So I think that's one example of how I've used it, turning it into digestible pieces, just like we break those phone numbers into the smaller sets to make them memorable. And then trying to learn just one thing at a time and not overwhelming yourself. And I think over time, it's amazing what you can learn in even the space of a year just with those sort of small steps, even if there's a few little failures along the way, which you shouldn't shy away from. But if you just try those small things, learn from it, and then learn the next part of that big thing you are you're trying to work on.
Okay, Huw, how should a person speak to their employer about learning and development? And is there anything that they shouldn't say? I'd also be interested to hear your thoughts on how to frame the conversation to maximise the chances of receiving a positive response.
Yeah, a good one. I think many people and many employers as well see learning as a special career perk or a distraction from your actual work. So they're afraid to sort of ask for funding or time off for formal learning, or perhaps their boss has that sort of short-sighted view of learning and is worried they're going to learn something new and then leave, or they're going to lose their good employees. And I think it's not a great view. And I think a smart boss is going to see someone who is investing in themselves, I certainly do with my people when they want to invest and learn, I see it as a fantastic opportunity. They're going to improve their performance. It's going to make my job easier, and I might want to give them my job and me, so I can move on to something greater in the future.
But if there's no one stepping up, it makes harder for me to grow and focus on bigger things as well. And so I'd encourage all leaders to see it that way with their own people. But as an employee asking for that time off or for that investment, I think be clear about what the value proposition is. And this actually helps you and your employer understand it, I think. Where you think about a particular learning programme you're interested in, it forces you to ask the question, well, why should I do that, and why am I interested in that? And how might I bring the value of that to my team and to my company as well? So I think knowing that yourself actually helps you go and capture the benefits, and turn the learning experience into value for yourself, but also for your team. And so if you sort of have that value proposition clear in what you say to your manager when you're asking for some funding or for the time off or whatever it is, you're really clear about that value and the why behind it.
And the other thing I'd say as well is you don't need your manager's approval for most types of learning. You might need it for the time off or for money in formal learning, but you can start learning straight away. I've done online courses in my evenings, and I read books constantly, and all that sort of informal learning, which you don't really need your manager's approval for, so I'd encourage people to not use that as a barrier. The changing nature of work with technology and AI and automation and things like that, making roles redundant and our kids are going to have very different jobs, probably, many of which aren't invented at the moment. So if your organisation isn't a learning organisation and isn't constantly evolving, then it's at risk and there are going to be competitors who will be learning organisations who are going to adapt more quickly, who are going to work out ways to save costs and to beat you in the market with that or to bring new offerings out and changing the way that they go to market and things like that. So it's going to change significantly. So if you are not trying to become a learning organisation, if your team isn't investing in learning and your people aren't, it's a risk for your people, 100%.
Sure. Okay. Huw, this is a bonus question for you. If you had one piece of advice on what a finance and accounting professional could do now to prepare for the future, what would that be?
Yeah, look, I came across a website recently called willrobotstakemyjob.com. And if you go to that website-
... and you type in various accounting jobs into that, or any job into it, it'll tell you the percentage risk that job won't exist in the future or a robot's going to take it. And many accounting jobs, I think, are at risk when you go to that website, or just when you think about it logically and you understand the technology. And any job that has... Maybe it's quite technical and it doesn't require a lot of human interaction, they're the kinds of jobs which are going to be at risk. So some in the accounting profession are certainly like that. So I think where finance and accounting professionals should be focusing is on that people interaction, and on the types of things which technology can't make redundant, like your ability to think strategically and to be insightful and bring lots of insights for your clients, and to know different aspects of accounting.
Robots are pretty good at doing one thing, but not many things. So if you can pull it all together and to deliver great insights for your clients, to become a trusted advisor, be great at relationship building, to be a thought leader, and be a bit creative about what the trends are in accounting, so you can bring those types of insights and be an influence. And I think just building that broader business acumen and general management capabilities across other disciplines, I think finance and accounting are just such a valuable foundational skillset, absolutely. And that'll probably be that way for some time. But what's going to really make you valuable in future is these broader skills, and how you top that up and bring other things on top of that, particularly around your people interactions, and leadership, and influence and that type of thing. So that's what I'd be focusing on.
Jessica Mudditt:Garreth Hanley:
Just to summarise some of the points that you made was, first of all, protect your time. Say no to time thieves. And the successful CEOs that you have worked with are very good at doing that. And you say time is a set of priorities each day, so we have to make the right choices each day. I really liked that. And then if you're talking to your manager and it's something that you do need permission for, you need to really think about the value proposition for them, so that you can maximise your chances of getting the green light. Thanks, Huw.
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About this episode
Today’s episode looks at how accounting and finance professionals can upskill across their careers, with tips and strategies on how to overcome common roadblocks to learning.
Offering their insights and advice are our two guest experts.
Shelley Laslett, CEO and co-founder of Vitae Coach, which uses brain-based coaching based on neuroscience.
And Huw Thomas, Director, Head of Offerings, Thought Leadership and Capability Development at Blue Seed Consulting.
- Shelley Laslett, CEO and co-founder of Vitae Coach, which uses brain-based coaching based on neuroscience.
- Huw Thomas, Director, Head of Offerings, Thought Leadership and Capability Development at Blue Seed Consulting.
CPA Australia publishes three podcasts, providing commentary and thought leadership across business, finance, and accounting:
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