Self-Directed Learning – The Ultimate Success Skill

The process of continuously improving – not only professionally in the core competencies of a professional sales person, but also personally as well – is the ultimate success skill for our time. The ability to learn and grow in a proactive and disciplined way is summarised here.

Self Directed Learning for High Impact Sales

In the last 12 months, only one out of every 20 sales people have spent R200 or more on their own improvement! Incredible.

Let me repeat it to make sure you read it correctly:  In the last 12 months, only one out of every 20 sales people have spent R200 or more on their own improvement!  That’s my conclusion, based on lots of anecdotal evidence collected over the past 25 years of working with sales people.

I am embarrassed by that. Only five percent of my colleagues are sufficiently dedicated to their own personal growth and professional success that they will invest their own money in their careers.  That means that ninety-five percent are not sufficiently motivated to take their own personal development seriously.  What a shame.

I am convinced that the process of continuously improving – not only professionally in the core competencies of a professional sales person, but also personally as well – is the ultimate success skill for our time.

Development factors

The ability to learn and grow in a proactive and disciplined way is several things:

1. A method to do better at your job. Good sales people sell more than mediocre sales people.  Good sales people make more money, enjoy more success and greater status than mediocre sales people.  Good sales people work at becoming better.

2. A way to distinguish yourself from the masses. Remember, ninety-five percent of your competitors and colleagues don’t care enough to invest  in themselves.  When you do that, you eventually separate yourself from the pack.

3. A minimal requirement for your employer. I often tell my clients that every sales person (and every employee, for that matter) has two jobs:
a.  his job, and
b.  continually improving himself.  If someone is not interested in improving his skills, I don’t want him working for me, or for my clients.

4. An ethical imperative. It is, I believe, immoral to not improve yourself. Your employer has hired you not just for what you know and what you can do, but for your potential to know more and do more. When you refuse to improve yourself, you rob your employer of some of the reasons he pays you. That, to me, is immoral. The same is true for your family, friends and people with whom you have some influence.  You owe it to them to become the best that you can become.

5. A necessary process that inevitably leads to spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is, of course, “growth.”  Growth requires positive change and transformation.  Thus, the ability to grow and change in a dedicated and disciplined way is a requirement for serious spiritual growth.  Additionally, a serious student of personal improvement inevitably moves from focus on tactical issues to deeper, more spiritual, issues.  See my article on “Layers of depth.”

Focused, systematic learning

That’s a lot of value wrapped up in a single, fundamental process.  You can see why I believe that the ability to learn in a focused, systematic way is the ultimate competency – the foundational skill that, if mastered, will eventually lead you to success.

I call this – the ultimate self-improvement skill for turbulent times and beyond – “self-directed learning.”

When you hear the word learning you’re probably reminded of your days in school, or perhaps seminars and company-sponsored training programmes come to mind.  While these are all means of facilitating learning, they don’t capture the essence of the ultimate success skill.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is the ability of individuals to absorb new information and to change their behaviour in positive ways in response.  The key is behaviour change.  Learning without action is impotent.  Knowledge that doesn’t result in changed action is of little value.  Constantly changing your behaviour in positive ways is the only reasonable response to a constantly changing world.

For example, let’s say that you’ve read my book, Question Your Way to Sales Success. That’s a necessary first step.  But, it’s one thing to read and understand the material in the book, and it’s another to actually use it.

It’s nice that you understand it, and it’s good that you think it may help you.  But that particular piece of information is worthless until you actually start using it.  When you change your behaviour and incorporate those ideas into what you do, then you will have learned.

Everything else – the reading, understanding, and mental processing that came first – is necessary but not sufficient.  They, by themselves, fall short of the goal.  It is not until you actually do that new thing – ask questions more effectively, that you will have learned.

Self-directed learning differs from the traditional approaches to training because it requires you to assume complete responsibility for your own behaviour change.  The stimulus for the learning must come from within you. You must develop your own learning programme to expose yourself to new information and to change your behaviour appropriately.

In every direction to which you look, you’re faced with rapid changes.  And these changes require you, if you’re going to stay competitive, to learn and change at a rate never before required of you.

I firmly believe that the ability to take charge of your own learning, to consistently expose yourself to new information, and then to systematically change your behaviour in positive ways based on that new information is the ultimate success skill for the Information Age.

If you can master self-directed learning, you’ll eventually master everything else that you need to be successful.

Prerequisites to mastering self-directed learning

Proficiency at the ultimate self-improvement skill demands some fundamental attitudes on your part.  I like to characterise those attitudes as being a “seeker.”

A seeker attitude is composed of several parts.  First, you must have an attitude of proactive responsibility for your situation.  In other words, you must believe that your actions have consequences and that to change the consequences, you must change your actions.

This sounds so fundamental as to be ludicrous, yet it seems to be a concept that is foreign to much of the world’s population.  Most people tend to blame their problems on forces outside themselves.

Your parents didn’t raise you correctly, your spouse doesn’t understand you, your boss doesn’t like you, your customers don’t respect you, the stars are aligned against you, etc.  As long as you remain, in your mind, the victim of someone else or some outside force, you have no responsibility to change your own behaviour.  After all, your situation isn’t your fault.

That’s exactly the wrong attitude.  If you are going to be successful, you’ll need to begin with the conviction that your actions have consequences, and that you can change your future.  Once you get that, then you are ready to discover what actions will have the greatest impact on your success.

So, you must accept the responsibility for your own behaviour as well as for the consequence of that behaviour.  As one of my clients said to me, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”

That’s common sense.  But think about the implications of that statement.  If you want different results, you must do something differently in order to get them.  The emphasis is on do. The responsibility is yours.

Next, sales people with a seeker attitude need to be open to new information.  One of the sure harbingers of pending failure is the attitude that you know it all.  Sales people who continue to improve themselves understand that they will never have all the answers.  There is always something new to learn. They become like magnets, constantly attracting new ideas, new perspectives, and new information to themselves.

Finally, a seeker has the ability to follow through on his plans.  You must have the ability to act on decisions you make, and to become a creature whose actions arise out of conscious thought rather than unconscious habit.  In other words, you must have the strength to decide to do something and then to follow through with that decision and actually do it.

From time to time, people ask me about the characteristics of my clients.   They’re expecting me to answer with the size of various companies, or how many sales people they have, or the product lines they serve.  They’re always surprised when I answer that my clients are not defined by size or products.

Rather, they are defined by the personality of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).  All of my clients have CEOs who are open minded, interested in outside perspectives, willing to learn, and committed to the growth of their businesses.  The sales people who attend my seminars can be described with the same terms.  They’re seekers.

It’s interesting that this description only applies to a small percentage of the population.  It probably describes you, or you wouldn’t be reading this Ezine.  Take heart in that.  In a rapidly-changing world, the competent, self-directed learners will end up on top.  The fact that you’re probably one of them means that you’re already separating yourself from the mass of distributor sales people who are more interested in maintaining the status quo.

Richard Gaylord Briley, in his book Everything I Needed to Know About Success I Learned in the Bible, talks about the five percent principle.  You’re familiar with the Pareto Principle — the 80/20 rule.  Applied to sales, the principle says that 20 percent of your customers provide 80 percent of your business, and that 20 percent of the sales people capture 80 percent of the business.

Briley’s five percent rule is similar.  It holds that five percent of the individuals in the world provide success and opportunity for 50 percent of the rest of the population. Applied to sales, the Briley rule would hold that five percent of the sales people in the world contribute 50 percent of the volume.

I believe that these five percenters are active, self-directed learners who maintain the seeker attitude I’ve described.  And I believe that you have the potential to be a five-percenter for the rest of your life.  The starting point is the cultivation of the seeker attitude.

Given this set of attitudes, you can begin to master the procedures and disciplines that will characterise you as a self-directed learner and equip you to be successful in our turbulent times.

Core Strategies for Self-Directed Learning

If you have the right attitude, you’ll find the following two strategies to be powerful ways to practice self-directed learning.

1.  Inject yourself into learning opportunities.

There are two parts to the learning equation.  The first is to constantly expose yourself to new information, and the second is to change your behaviour in positive ways based on that information.

For example, reading this Ezine is a way to expose yourself to new information.  So is reading a book, listening to a podcast or CD, attending a seminar, etc.  That’s the first half of the process.  If you now make changes in what you do as a result of it, you’ve accomplished the second half.

The second part rarely happens unless the first part precedes it.  So, to put the whole process into motion, you must regularly expose yourself to new information.  To do that, you must inject yourself into learning opportunities.

You’re thinking, “What’s a learning opportunity?”  It’s any event or situation that causes you to face some new information, or that stimulates you to reformat information you already have.

Here are a number of ways to inject yourself into learning opportunities that will help you continuously improve.

Read books, magazines and newsletters. I’m often asked to recommend a book for a new sales person to read.  I usually respond by suggesting that, after they have read all of my books, the inquirer go to the library and check out anything that looks interesting.  While clearly my books are the best ever written, if your attitude is right, you can learn from anything.  So, in one sense, it doesn’t make any difference what you expose yourself to, as long as you expose yourself to something.

Reading any book is better than reading no book.  With the proliferation of business books available these days, you can go to the local bookstore or library every couple of weeks and find new books to read.  Almost any book you can find will give you new ideas or, at the least, new ways of reformulating things you already know in more useful and practical ways.

In addition to reading books regularly, subscribe to one or more of the sales magazines or newsletters.  They make a point of discussing the latest thoughts and presenting contemporary sales situations.  There are a number of good magazines and newsletters available.

Make use of podcasts and CDs on sales techniques. These media have the advantage of allowing you to put drive time to good use.  Just pop a CD into the player between calls, and you’ll be amazed at how many good ideas you can get.

Many of my clients have created lending libraries of CDs.  The company owns dozens of programmes, and sales people check them out one at a time, and return them when they’re done.  You’ll find lots of these kinds of resources on my web site:  Listening to CDs and podcasts such as this is a way of continually exposing yourself to a powerful body of new information

Attend seminars and workshops. Seminars and workshops provide you an opportunity to meet with other sales people and see things from a different point of view — not to mention the material and ideas you garner from the seminar leader.

In some locations, you may have the opportunity to join a learning group.  We have organised and facilitated a number of these locally.  We bring a dozen or so sales people or CEOs together for a two-hour meeting in which we discuss an aspect of sales in detail.  The idea is to learn from one another by engaging in a focused, facilitated discussion group.

Make use of DVDs and online learning programmes.  Our economy is awash with programmes of all kinds.  In an hour’s concentrated work, you could probably identify thousands of possible DVDs, CDs and online programmes.  Visit our web-site for an updated listing of our materials.

Whether you use our materials or someone else’s, the important thing is that you use something!

Add these technique and personal self-improvement learning situations to your normal product learning opportunities, and you get an idea of the kind of learning commitment you need to make in order to seriously and continually transform yourself.

Remember that it’s not enough to go to a seminar once a year, or read a book every now and then.  Learning should be a regular part of your work week.  I’d like to see you do something to exposure yourself to new ideas every week.

Reflect on your failures. You’re probably thinking, “Where did that come from?”  I have learned that my failures, both as a sales person and in my life in general, have provided me with my most intensive learning experiences.  In fact, I remember all my failures far more vividly than I remember any of my successes.  As I thought about each one of them, I discovered what I had done to produce that failure, and I made specific decisions to change to prevent them from happening again.

Personally, I think that this practice has been one of the key reasons for the success that I have enjoyed as a sales person.  You can do the same thing.  You are going to fail from time to time.  Everyone does.  The most important part of failing is taking the time to reflect on the failure and to learn from it.

Be sensitive to all your failures, large or small, and take the time to reflect on them.  You’ll find them to be potent learning experiences.

2. Question everything.

There are two big obstacles to learning that are especially typical of sales people.  The first is “stuck in a rut” behaviour.  The second is the tendency to over-rely on assumptions.  The cure for both is the same: to question everything.

Stuck in a rut behaviour evolves out of an attitude that you already know enough.  If you’re content and smug about your current situation, you’re not going to be open to new information.  This satisfaction hinders learning because it hampers the motivation to learn.  Without the motivation to expose yourself to new information and seriously consider changing your behaviour, the necessary changes won’t happen.  You’re stuck in the status quo — oblivious to the need to move out of it.

One of the best ways to pry yourself out of a rut is to begin to ask yourself questions.  Question everything you do.  Is this the best way to present this product?  Should you be calling on this customer once a week?  Are you presenting the right solutions?  Do you really know your customers as well as you should?

Got the idea?  The starting point for getting out of the rut behaviour is to prod yourself via pointed questions.

The other major obstacle to learning is the tendency to do your job based on unchallenged assumptions.  This occurs when you operate on the basis of an assumption that you’ve never really thought about.  For example, you assume that two or three competitors are quoting the same piece of business you are, so you discount deeply.  Or, you assume that your customers always know exactly what they want, so you don’t take the time to question them.

Because you work on an assumption instead of taking the time to verify it, you make decisions that are inappropriate.

The solution is the same as getting out of a rut.  Question everything.  From time to time, stop and ask yourself what assumptions you’re working on, and then question those assumptions. You’ll often find that your assumptions are in error, and the decisions you made that relied on them were also in error.