Five Core Skills for Intentional Learning and the Career Advantage

  • By Brooke Ballenger
  • Published: 3/22/2021

intentional learning article

For intentional learners, learning is not work. It does not require extra effort. Instead, it is unconscious, reflexive – a mindset from which they operate all the time. In today’s world, where all professionals are expected to refresh and upgrade their skill set on an ongoing basis, intentional learners have the career advantage. Fortunately, we all have the ability to become intentional learners. 

In a recent AFP webinar, “Intentional Learning and the Career Advantage,” Jim Kaitz, president and CEO of AFP, moderated a discussion on the core mindsets and skills of effective learners. Joining Kaitz for the discussion were two of McKinsey & Company’s learning experts: Matt Smith, chief learning officer, and Lisa Christensen, director of Learning Design and Development. They provided insight on the importance of intentional learning and fostering learning by adjusting mindsets.

According to Smith and Christensen, there are two critical mindsets that foster learning: growth and curiosity. A growth mindset suggests that you can grow, expand, evolve and change. It releases you from the expectation of being perfect and allows you to find value in the process, regardless of the outcome. The curiosity mindset includes awareness, an openness to ideas and the ability to make connections between disparate concepts. This mindset can be strengthened by facing your fears, seeking novel experiences and ideas, and focusing on what you love.

While growth and curiosity mindsets are the foundation of intentional learning, these approaches must be carried out effectively. Smith and Christensen provide five core skills that help intentional learners get the most out of their experiences.

1) Set small, clear goals.

Intentional learners are anchored in actual goals, and learning takes hold when they can retain and use what they have learned. “Intentional learners have a specific area in mind that they want to develop,” said Smith. “They try to make these learning goals tangible, specific and time-bound.”

According to Smith and Christensen, the best practices for goal setting include setting a goal that matters to the individual, making the goal concrete, and adopting a “once-in-a-career” mindset. This once-in-a-career mindset enjoys and learns from every opportunity and is a powerful reframing technique, turning even the most challenging circumstances into an opportunity to learn.

2) Remove distractions.

Although intentional learners face the same distractions and expectations that their peers do, they protect time for learning. “The reality is that all of us face distractions,” said Smith. “It is not that these people who are great at learning have easy jobs with no distractions and can spend all their time reading books and watching TED Talks. Intentional learners make sure, in whatever way their learning works for them, that they set aside time and remove distractions to invest in their learning.”

Setting aside time can take a variety forms — such as blocking specific time on the calendar or shutting off notifications when trying to focus — depending on what an individual wants to learn and the style on which they choose to focus the learning. “While there are many different ways that it can be structured, distraction is one of the biggest enemies of learning, and effective learners realize upfront that distractions will come no matter what, and they must be proactive about putting strategies in place to remove them,” said Smith.

Smith and Christensen also note three tactics that are helpful to make and protect time for learning in a busy day: carefully evaluate yourself and make a plan, be mindful in the moment, and conduct experiments to find what works and be flexible.

3) Seek feedback.

Intentional learners not only seek feedback but also pursue it voraciously. “Feedback is something that most people recognize is an important tool for development, and we see a wide range of styles and approaches for how people think about feedback,” said Smith. “However, the best learners that are learning with a high level of effectiveness and intention not only open up to feedback but also seek out feedback proactively and pursue it in effective and targeted ways around the learning goals they have set.”

For example, Smith explains that if you want to develop confidence in presenting to executive audiences, let a teammate or manager know and set up feedback calls after presentations. “By following this best practice, you will receive feedback that is more targeted to your learning goals,” said Smith. “You are helping the other person help you, as well as receiving feedback that is more specific and actionable.”

As you seek feedback, Smith and Christensen also recommend that you prime others — press for details, decide how to treat feedback, and seek experts.

4) Practice deliberately.

The pattern of trying, failing, and refining your approach, and trying again, is at the heart of building all behavior skills. According to psychologist K. Andrews Ericsson, there is a scientific approach to developing expertise, and “experts are always made, not born.” Deliberate practice creates expertise and is aimed at the skill gaps just beyond an individual’s current set of skills.

“It is incremental but effective because you will not ritualize mistakes or build into the way you act with things that do not work out,” said Christensen. “You are making little baby steps of progress that are building your skills over time. You are not going to be perfect at it, but you are moving forward.”

5) Practice regular reflection.

According to Smith and Christensen, reflection is a diagnostic skill that helps intentional learners evaluate themselves and determine their learning needs. It allows them to unpack their actions, refine the component pieces and put those pieces back together in a way that improves their performance. “Any time you plan, whether for a meeting, choosing what you want to take away from something, or contemplating the kind of leader you want to be on a new project, that is reflection,” said Christensen. “It is a simple practice that can have a big impact on your performance in many different ways.”

Furthermore, Smith and Christensen note that intentional learners not only engage in reflection but also ritualize it. They create consistent and predictable patterns, both for when they will reflect and what they will think about. “While it can be hard to look back over a period of time and see the arc of improvement in our own behavior, a regular practice of reflection sets those mile markers so you can see the difference,” said Christensen.

Visit AFP's Career Hub for more resources on searching for a job, career skill building and management resources. If you’re an AFP member, don’t forget you have access to a full catalog of recorded training webinars here.

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