Looking to cultivate a culture of learning at your organization in 2023? For the most inspiring examples, look beyond the classroom.
The best pro sports teams are world-class learning organizations. Consider the teams you root for every weekend. They compete in an environment of constant upheaval. New technologies are constantly emerging, rivals are always adapting their tactics, and fresh players are joining the fray. The approaches that guaranteed an advantage yesterday are table stakes today.
“Pro sports is just about the most competitive environment you can find,” says Mike Sullivan, head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “There’s a lot of parity in the league, a lot of bright people and a lot of teams are trying to win. In that context, my job is to establish a culture of learning that is conducive to winning.”
Coach Sullivan can credibly claim to be an expert on winning. With over 300 wins as Penguins head coach, he is the winningest coach in Penguins franchise history, and the only American hockey coach to win more than one Stanley Cup championship.
One of the secrets to his success is the culture of learning that he has built on his team. “The game is constantly evolving,” Sullivan says. “Even today’s athletes are different than they were 20 years ago. For us, learning is a pillar of strength. Each and every day, we focus our players’ mindsets on the process of trying to improve.”
Coach Sullivan has four pieces of advice for training leaders looking to build a culture of learning off the rink.
1. Foster a “Safe Zone” for Learning on Your Team
Hockey is an intense, physical game. The best players are gritty, tough and fearless on the ice. “Our opponents sometimes try to drag us into a street fight,” Sullivan says.
It’s surprising, then, that Sullivan strives to cultivate a totally different atmosphere in the locker room — what he calls a “safe zone for learning.” During meetings, the team reviews video clips from previous games — with a particular focus on mistakes that the team made on the ice.
Sullivan believes that this footage is a powerful way to avoid costly mistakes in the future. However, he emphasizes that the purpose of these sessions is not to assign blame for past errors. The goal isn’t to enforce accountability. Instead, Sullivan wants to create a learning environment.
“We don’t want a player walking into our video room on eggshells worried about ‘Am I going to be in the film? Is Coach going to yell at me in front of everyone? Is he going to pick me apart because I made some mistakes?’” Sullivan says.
“It’s a game of mistakes. Our responsibility is to learn from them.”
For corporate trainers, your team’s mistakes can create powerful teaching moments. If you can expose a knowledge gap — ideally, before it results in an operational error in the field — you can trigger your team’s appetite for learning. The key is to set the right tone. If you can create an environment where it’s safe for your team to mess up when the stakes are low, you can set the stage for high performance when it really matters.
2. Focus on the Process of Improvement, Not the Outcome
It’s tempting to fixate on the end goal of training: in Sullivan’s case, a Stanley Cup win. However, Sullivan has found that obsessing on the outcome can actually hinder growth.
When Sullivan became head coach of the Penguins, the team was in rough shape. “There was a dark cloud over the locker room. The team was overwhelmed by negative media. Talk radio was saying that the team consistently underperformed, that our core players’ best days were behind them.”
In Sullivan’s first meeting with the team, he tried to adjust the team’s mindset to focus on the process of improving as a group — on “controlling the controllables.”
“I told them that there are certain things in life we can control and certain things we can’t. We needed to focus on the things that we could control and not dedicate any cognitive resources or worry to things we couldn’t control.”
In Sullivan’s experience, getting better is a daily endeavor, and one that requires a relentless short-term focus. For the Penguins, this approach led to a dramatic turnaround that culminated in back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
The best corporate trainers care passionately about the business outcomes they unlock for their teams. Sullivan’s advice, though, is that the best way to achieve those outcomes is to focus on the elements within your team’s control. Acknowledge that success is a combination of chance and skill and use your valuable training time to zero in on the daily behaviors that will maximize your team’s success.
3. Make Continuous Learning Easy
To help his team focus on the process of improving, Sullivan looked for ways that his team could practice continuously — even when off the ice and outside of team meetings.
“It’s all about short bits of information we could push out to our guys. They’re all on their iPhones as it is. That’s the generation.”
The Penguins coaching staff created microlearning lessons and quizzes and sent them directly to players’ phones. Based on quiz results, coaches knew exactly where to focus in team meetings.
“We’d push out quizzes to their phones, and we found that we didn’t have to make them mandatory. They were having fun with them and doing them of their own volition, on their own time,” said Sullivan. “It’s amazing how powerful it is when they’re investing in their own learning process.”
For corporate trainers, the lesson here is to train your team members the way they want to learn. How can you make it easy for your team to invest in their own learning process? Given the short attention spans of millennial and Gen Z learners, we recommend training in short bursts, on the device that your learners always have with them.
4. Make it Personal
“We talk a lot about not getting caught up playing someone else’s game but playing our own game. Other teams’ tactics won’t work for us.”
In the same way that Sullivan urges his team to ignore the uncontrollables and focus on mastering the Penguins’ specific playbook, he recommends that corporate trainers tailor their approaches to the specific needs of individuals on their teams.
“You can’t take a cookie cutter approach. Every individual is different, so I’ve never been a believer that you can approach everyone the same way.” Sullivan believes that one of the key skills of corporate training leaders is the emotional intelligence to understand how to maximize the potential of each individual – from the star players to the newest members.
To do this well, you must have a personal stake in your team members’ success. “One of my mentors told me, ‘Before players want to know what you know, they want to know that you care.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I try to show my players that I care about them. As leaders, when you take an interest in your people’s lives, when you show your sincerity and authenticity to them, and how much you care about them as individuals, it makes you much more effective.’”
A Winning Culture of Learning
In a sport that is most associated with speed, power and physicality, Sullivan believes that his team’s secret weapon is their ability to adapt and learn from adversity.
“We say to our players all the time: We’re not the smartest coaching staff in the world. We don’t have all the answers. But, you know, we’re certainly not the dumbest either. And whatever answers we don’t have, we’re fairly confident that we can figure it out as a group and solve problems together.”