Executive Careers Blog

How's Your Learning Power?


I'd screwed up—judging from the look on my boss's face.

Just out of business school, I was in a new job. My boss had been observing me conduct a leadership workshop. And she'd video-taped me.

After the audience left, time for feedback.

"Are you aware," she asked, "how often you stand with your hands on your hips?"

I was completely unaware.

I remember asking, "Are you sure I do that?" Well, the next thing we did was watch the video. And, of course, my boss was right

I learned an important lesson that day: never argue with your boss—especially if she's just video-taped you.


How good are you at learning?

If you want to move up, and take on new assignments, your learning power is critical.

I'm in the learning business (corporate seminars, keynote speeches, executive coaching). Learning, done well, should be fun.

But it's also painful.

Why? Because learning follows a predictable, four-step sequence (the sequence is well-known, but its originator appears anonymous):

1) Unconscious incompetence. Learning doesn't always start here, but sometimes you just don't know what you don't know.

You could be in front of an audience right now, hands on hips, thinking everything is just peachy.

Is there a video-camera in the room? You need feedback.

2) Conscious incompetence. Learning can also begin here. You're incompetent—and you know it.

If you're giving a presentation, you know your hands are a problem, but you don't know how to fix it.

I learned an important lesson that day: never argue with your boss—especially if she's just video-taped you.
Express Potential
Paul Hellman

Let's just hope you're not going up to random audience members and slapping them silly.

You need role models.

3) Conscious competence. You're improving. Your hands look good, and they're well-behaved, but that requires your total concentration.

Everything else could go right out the window.

Your presentation might meander. It might be completely and utterly incoherent. But, hey, at least your hands look good.

You need practice.

4) Unconscious competence. You no longer have to worry about your hands or even think about them. Finally, you can put your attention elsewhere.

Your feet?

Tip: What are your learning goals? Set a few.

p.s. Re hands: avoid hands on hips, behind your back, or hiding in pockets. Instead, let them hang loosely by your sides, or hold them by your belly.

Gestures are also good. Twirling a baton can be intriguing, though distracting.


Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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