De La Vega on Leadership: Leadership and Lifelong Learning

By: Ralph de la Vega

Technological change is making us rethink what we thought was indispensable.

Take the college degree, for example. It used to be the standard requirement for most professional and managerial jobs. 

But recently as many as 15 top employers, including Apple and Google, have dropped that requirement[i].

Innovation may be outpacing the knowledge learned in college. Consider the argument[ii] that the half-life of a learned skill is about five years.  That means half of what you learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what you learned five years ago is irrelevant.

 Is a degree still necessary?

 I’m a huge proponent of a college education. When young people ask me that question I encourage them to get the best education possible. But I also tell them they must continue to learn their entire lives so they can remain up to date.

The key is to do both. If I had to choose, I’d say that constant learning in a self-directed environment might even more important.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, two of the best-educated people I’ve known, did not get college degrees. Yet they found a way to educate themselves and never stopped learning. As a result, they were able to bring incredible innovation to our lives.

From the leaders’ point of view       

When I talk to leaders, I encourage them to look for people with proven records of handling difficult and varied assignments with unquestionable integrity. People who can continuously develop new leadership skills.

Academic degrees and strong grade point averages (GPAs) are good indicators of the person’s self-discipline to achieve a goal. But they are not the sole    indicators of his or her future performance.

In an article I wrote for LinkedIn[iii] (What I Look for isn’t on your Resume) I argued that, for me, a candidate’s ethics, integrity, and credibility were more important than degrees and GPAs.

I continue to stand by what I said at that time. In fact, given today’s pace of change, I’d add the ability to learn to the list.

 Your organization depends on it

If you are in an industry that is impacted by change (and which isn’t?) you must look for the ability to learn and relearn among the people you hire and promote.

Let’s look at the fast-moving field of information technology and software development using the 10-year life of a learned skill concept. Over that time frame, the development of the smartphone, app stores, the cloud, microservices and DevOps required learning new skills. Now think of the skills that will be needed in the near future to deal with artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. The rapid introduction of new technologies and concepts will require continuous learning and adaptation. 

The key to success

The organizations that will survive and succeed in the fast-changing environment are those that not only possess the best talent but that are also driven by a culture of continuous learning.

It is the leaders’ job to create a culture that prizes innovation driven by lifelong learning.

A culture that embraces rather than fears change.  A culture that encourages individuals and teams to let go of what is no longer valid and learn again, as many times as it takes to stay on the lead.

In my view, creating that culture is the ultimate calling for todays’ leaders. And, if well done, it could be their highest achievement. 



[ii] John Seely Brown and Prof. Peter Denning in “A New Culture of Learning.”