10 questions with Brad Staats

I recently had the privilege to interview Brad Staats. He is a professor at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and the author of “Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018). 

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background?

Brad Staats: I’m Brad Staats and I’m currently a professor of operations at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Before academia I was trained as an engineer, worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, strategic planning at Dell and venture capital. I got my MBA at Harvard Business School in the middle of all of that.

I’ve always been fascinated by learning and so when I made the decision to go back to academia to study it, I thought that operations was the right field to situate myself in. That way I could study processes – how we convert inputs into the output of learning.

I quickly came to understand though that although good learning processes are necessary they are not sufficient. Our behavior plays a key role in whether we successfully learn, or not.

And so I made the rare decision in academia to situate myself on the boundary between operations management and organizational behavior. I actively publish in leading journals in both disciplines. This approach has enabled me to gain valuable insight in how learning works.


Kurt Manwaring: What is “Never Stop Learning” about and who would most benefit from reading it?

Brad Staats:  We know that we should learn continuously in today’s rapidly changing world, but often we struggle to do so because of cognitive biases and behavioral tendencies that ultimately inhibit our learning. “Never Stop Learning” identifies these learning impediments, explains why they happen, and suggests ways to change your behavior to learn more effectively.

It is a book that is written for anyone who struggles with learning – it will likely resonate most with a working professional as they think about their career, but I’ve found that not only does it apply to all areas of my life, but others who have read it often come up to me to talk about its applications to their roles as parents, students, partners, and beyond.

“Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive,” by Brad Staats. Image provided by Harvard Business Review Press.

Kurt Manwaring: What was the catalyst for presenting the research as a book and how did you partner with Harvard Business Review Press?

Brad Staats: In my late 20’s I found myself in what I thought would be a dream job, but I was stagnating and not learning. I didn’t understand why it was happening and as I talked to others I realized that this problem of failing to learn was a common one.

Inspired by this puzzle, I enrolled in a doctoral program to study why we sometimes fail to learn and what to do about it. I wrote Never Stop Learning to share the lessons I have learned over the past fourteen years with others who want to improve.

I had worked with Harvard Business Review previously for articles and received an introduction to the editorial director at the time, Tim Sullivan. I went around and talked to many different publishers, but I felt like Tim really understood what I wanted to create – a book about learning that had individual and organizational implications. I felt like he would not only let me write the book that I wanted to write, but more importantly he would push me to develop it even more and to learn from the process. Thankfully that is exactly what happened.


Kurt Manwaring: Would you paint a picture of how two otherwise equal employees would progress throughout their careers if one choose to continually learn and one considered the last day of college to be the last day worth investing in learning?

Brad Staats: For many years people have said that we have been living in a knowledge economy – she who has the most knowledge will be able to succeed and thrive, but I would suggest that designation is inadequate to describe things today. Yes, knowledge is important, but it is changing so rapidly that to succeed in the long run we have to be able to learn, as Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, has said, “Ultimately, the ‘ learn- it- all’ will always do better than the ‘ know- it- all.’ ”

Specialization, globalization, digitization, analytics, and artificial intelligence are just a few of the forces that continue to reshape our world and make learning more important now than ever before. If we apply this to the question then the challenge is the individual who fails to learn and adapt will quickly become irrelevant. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that over a 30 year career employees held an average of 12 jobs. The change across jobs and even within jobs necessitates continuous learning.

We live in a world now where either we learn or we are left behind.


Kurt Manwaring: Many businesses offer continuing education opportunities for their employees. What separates a company that truly puts learning to work versus one that is simply checking off an education goal in a five-year plan?

Brad Staats: When a company truly puts learning to work they recognize that it isn’t just a matter of checking off some courses through HR or Learning & Development, but rather really thinking about the learning journey that each employee needs. Much of that learning needs to come from different roles. What is the portfolio of experiences – geographies, customers, functions, etc. – that will help one develop? Then courses – in-person, virtual, independent and heading to a degree – all get factored in. Finally, those companies that truly value development are figuring out how to mentor and coach employees frequently so that development isn’t a once a year event, but rather a process that truly is continuous.


Kurt Manwaring: What does it mean to be yourself in the learning process?

Brad Staats: When we step into new situations we often look to others to figure out how we should act. To a point this can help as we might pick up useful tips. Unfortunately, too often we end up fundamentally altering our approach and so we end up being pale imitations of others, rather than doing what we do best.

Being ourselves is vital as it leads to increased motivation. In addition, it increases our positive emotions. This is important as when we experience positive emotions we learn differently – we follow what UNC psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls a broaden-and-build approach.

In other words we think more broadly about what is going on and can creatively identify connections. Why are we afraid to be ourselves?

Often we think ourselves aren’t up to the task. Psychologists call this fear the impostor phenomenon. Even talented people who have a proven track record may be convinced they can’t do it again. For example, poet and author Maya Angelou commented, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”

What we have to do is recognize that a little bit of individuality can go a long way. Yes, we may struggle when we are authentic to ourselves as we do things, but we also may struggle when we try to copy others. That releasing the individual – at least a little bit – is likely to help us learn. We can stick at tasks longer and approach them more creatively. So heed the words of Andrew from the movie, “The Breakfast Club,” “I mean we’re all pretty bizarre! Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”

Think about how you might be a bit more bizarre to learn.


Kurt Manwaring: Failure plays a critical role in the learning process. What do most people misunderstand about failure? Accordingly, why do we fail to learn from our failures?

Brad Staats: Failure is easy to talk about, but hard to do. Conceptually we all know that failure is necessary to learn – we have to try new things and they won’t always learn. However, just because we know this it doesn’t meant we follow through. When we fail it can be painful. We feel embarrassment or shameful. Most people think that it is somehow unique to them. That since others talk about it then they must find it easier.

Here’s the thing – we all struggle with failure – albeit to different degrees.

Then we need to recognize that bad can overpower good. What I mean is that when we think about new things we tend to obsess about the ways that things can go wrong. We don’t spend enough time thinking about what can go right. I like to use the annual review test. When making a decision think about a year from now. How will you feel if you don’t try something? That helps overcome inertia.

Finally, we have a tendency even after we’ve tried something new to deny that failure has occurred. What I mean is that although outsiders might recognize that something has gone wrong we make excuses or claim that was our goal all along. Psychologists have identified a bias called the fundamental attribution error. Anytime we take an action and look at what happened the outcome is a result of things we did (our effort or skill) as well as the situation. When we fail we tend to blame the situation, not ourselves and our learning may be compromised. To overcome this take the time before you start something to think about how it should play out – maybe even write about it. Then afterwards you can compare what happened to what you expected. When things go wrong fight the urge to blame others and instead ask – how was I responsible?

Failure is hard to deal with, however, it is one of the most powerful tools for learning. So recognize that it will be hard, but with concerted effort you can use it to learn.


Kurt Manwaring: Under what circumstances is it not only appropriate, but also wise to say, “I don’t know”? Conversely, when would it be inappropriate to answer a question in this manner?

Brad Staats: We live in a culture where we want to rush to answers. We think that we need to always know the answer for any question. The challenge, of course, is that things change rapidly and we can’t be an expert in everything.

One of the most powerful phrases I know is – “I don’t know.” It enables us to then ask questions. When we ask questions we are able to learn what we need. We open ourselves up to help from others.

We are often afraid to do this as we think that we’ll look foolish. The great news is that a thoughtful question can be seen as a strength. Research shows that we like others more when they ask questions – we take it as a compliment when others ask us for help. So – “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” is an appropriate way to respond as we move into new areas.

I’d highlight two places where “I don’t know” can be a suboptimal response.

The first is when it becomes a crutch for not doing our work. It is true that we can’t know every answer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know some answers. For example, if we are preparing for a client meeting then we need to actually do the work. We might not know everything they ask, but we need to show we have worked hard to anticipate many of their needs.

The second, time it is a bad answer is when we use it to try and avoid work. Responding with “I don’t know” and implying “I don’t care”. This kind of approach is a sure fire way to lose respect in the eyes of others.


Kurt Manwaring: How can we recognize our weaknesses without fixating on them?

Brad Staats: There is a reason that strengths are such a popular topic for discussion these days. When we play to our strengths then we are more motivated and more likely to achieve higher performance since we bring unique skills to the table. However, isn’t learning about addressing weaknesses, or things where we have problems?

I’d give that a qualified yes, but. We need to look at our weaknesses and think about which ones support our strengths and which ones are okay to leave as weaknesses.

What I mean by that is any minute we spend working on a weakness is one that we aren’t developing our strengths further. If we try to spend time on everything we aren’t good at then all we will do is make sure we aren’t good enough at anything.

So instead, think about what weaknesses will help us do even more with our strengths – I call these our critical weaknesses.

Let’s say that our strength is sales and the interaction with a customer. Perhaps we have a weakness around product knowledge. Now we need to address that so we can effectively sell the product. But that doesn’t mean we fixate on it to the point where we have trained ourselves as a product engineer. Instead we learn enough to do our job more effectively.

By focusing on your strengths, addressing critical weaknesses, and making sure you use your strengths productively rather than in harmful ways— you’ll improve your ability to learn.


Kurt Manwaring: Is there ever a point in which a strong desire to learn from others can impede belief in oneself?

Brad Staats: This is a great question. Others are a powerful learning source. Why reinvent every wheel if others have already figured something out? Watching, talking, and then learning from others’ experience is highly productive. So in that sense a strong desire to learn from others isn’t a problem. However, we do need to recognize that there is a danger of us psyching ourselves out. We might see someone that is supremely talented and then just decide – ‘why try, I’ll never be that good?’ Here is the great news about learning – wherever we are we can get better. You can teach an old dog new tricks – as long as the dog wants to learn.

So although it is true that someone may be much better than us now, the only way to get better is to start the learning process. We might not ever be as good as they are, but we just might end up being better. The point isn’t the competition, but rather the learning – it will engage us and when we focus on the process the outcome will take care of itself.


Kurt Manwaring: If you could go back in time and observe all the conversations behind any key business decision, what would you want to observe and why?

Brad Staats: I would love to go back and observe the launch process for Lexus by Toyota. We take it for granted now, but at the time, BusinessWeek noted that Toyota launching a luxury brand was like getting Beef Wellington at McDonald’s. I’d love to watch when Toyota chairman Eiji Toyoda challenged his team to build the world’s best car. I’d be most excited though to see the project manager, Ichiro Suzuki, as he worked with his team on one great learning challenge after another.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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