Why intentional learning is going to be the next super skill


Published 25th August 2021

Since March 2020 there has been a seismic shift in what consumers require from the brands and businesses they engage with on a daily basis. Consequently, organisations have had to completely reimagine their product(s), brand, purpose and crucially, their teams and their respective skills and abilities – in order to meet the needs of a wildly evolved consumer. Put brilliantly by Mary Meany, during an Inside the Strategy Room podcast:

“Given how fast our world is changing… from the boardroom down to the engine room, everybody’s skills have a shorter and shorter shelf life – we’re all getting obsolete faster and faster.” Mary Meany

Depending on your source, different skillsets are estimated to have a “half-life” of anything from 2 to 7.5 years. See IBM and Business Standard as examples.

Even non-corporate roles – take fitness and health professionals – are going to see an urgently needed renaissance in what it means to be educated, or indeed qualified – FitInsider published very recently on the topic.

This is why we need to start thinking differently about learning and professional development; no longer limited to one off certifications or “training” to help teams and individuals perform in their current roles, and no longer an encouraged activity purely for junior team members, but instead:

  1. Future-focused growth; diversifying skillsets and experiences to prepare talent for an unknown future work landscape
  2. Lifelong learning; supporting senior team leaders to share their ongoing learning priorities without the worry of appearing under-skilled
  3. An acknowledgement that the skill of learning itself, needs to be learnt

In only a few years time you’ll likely find yourself in (and hiring for) roles that don’t currently exist. So if there’s one consistent task we’ll all be spending time on for the duration of our careers, it’s learning.

“People who have mastered the mindsets and skills of effective learning can grow faster than their peers and gain more of the benefits from all the learning opportunities that come their way.” McKinsey, Aug 2020

Aside from that, there are a host of other reasons why refining your ability to learn is a very good idea. These are my top 3 observations:

  • The best leaders are the ones who have developed the ability to absorb skills and abilities from other departments – ie the Sales Director who can write a marketing plan, or the Client Manager who can do.. everything (let’s be honest). I imagine these leaders to be like the superheroes in films that can absorb the powers of other superheroes… and yes, this would be my power if I could pick one.
  • The adoption of a wide range of skills makes you more able to jump between jobs and even job families, should the need arise. At some point, you’ll likely face a decision of whether or not to transition into something new – perhaps your team will be dissolved or a new, more appealing opportunity will crop up in an entirely new area of the organisation. When that happens, it pays to be a good learner, because you spend the first 3-6 months leveraging the skills you already have, whilst learning all the new elements as fast as possible.
  • It’s far easier to process the concept of “fail fast” when you swap “fail” for “learn”. No one likes failing, I don’t care how you wrap it up. I understand and appreciate the concept, but I’m yet to see any company or individual really champion their failures without framing it as a learning. So I’ll be switching to “learn fast” from now on – a little more positive and helpful, I believe.

If you need more persuading on the importance of being a great learner, then take a closer look at this McKinsey report on Intentional Learning from December 2020.

Alternatively / additionally, read on for my view of what a great learner is and how they do it – amassed from podcasts, books, whitepapers, and my own experience attempting to put it all into practice; the three key attributes of a great learner.

Learn intentionally

In case no one has made this very clear, you are responsible for your own growth and development. Not your boss, not HR. You.

Start by taking time to think about what you really care about, what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Where does your mind go when you begin to imagine the perfect role where you get to leverage all your strengths and passions?

As you do this, what other topics or areas crop up that intrigue you?

Whatever you identify, lean into that. Make that topic your focus for as long as it feels compelling – it is easier to learn about something when you’re genuinely interested, and you’ll be amazed at how it finds relevance in a wide range of other areas in your life.

Learn effectively

Like any skill, learning effectiveness can be improved; an effective learner has a tried and tested learning strategy or methodology, but they didn’t produce this overnight – it’s a process – so start, learn, adapt.

The basics of learning efficiency, however, I believe are as follows:

Great learners set goals they truly care about – what do you want to achieve, produce, be able to do, or be able to talk about? A goal is important, otherwise you’re not learning, you’re just browsing. It’s also only valuable if you actually care about achieving it.

Great learners seek those who know more than them; a mentor or a coach is like a torch in the dark – you’ll still need to do a fair bit of stumbling about (an important part of the learning process), but they can shine a light on the key areas before you fall off a cliff.

Thirdly, develop your own learning rituals – when are the times you feel most excited to absorb information? In what formats do you find it easier to digest new ideas? I’ve discovered that I like to have a few contrasting books or podcasts on the go at once, in the form of books for when I’m at home, podcasts for when I’m out and about.

A mentor of mine nudged me back into podcasts as a way of “habit stacking” – I was already working on increasing my step count each day during lockdown, so putting a podcast on at the same time required no extra time or effort. I’ve since kept up the habit and now can’t seem to go anywhere without one.

That said, after a couple of episodes or chapters, I’ll find time to journal and reflect – to ensure I’ve pulled out and examined everything from what I’ve absorbed, and committed it do a deeper part of my brain – in the hope that it will come to me in a later time of need.

The instant and very gratifying outcome of becoming an intentional learner, is that you can immediately apply your learnings to a real life situation; it’s not like an academic style of learning where you don’t apply your learnings until an exam in 6 months time, instead the positive impact on you and your team is instant.

This is also of course is why institutions absolutely should be supporting and empowering employees to become intentional learners – upskilling can happen in real-time, and literally change the outcome of the next conversation, pitch, team meeting or proposal.

Learn visibly

Leaders, I’m looking at you. Great learners do so visibly; your team don’t need you to be perfect; they need you to be open, world-curious and setting the benchmark for what a true growth mindset really looks and sounds like.

If you are fortunate enough to have a job title that consists of “Head of…” or “Chief of…” it does not mean you are expected to be an all-seeing, all-knowing oracle. There is really no such thing as experts. If there were, they’ve all been reset to factory settings when the world changed as a result of the pandemic.

A digital marketing podcast unexpectedly provided additional insight into this topic; ultimately, members of senior management are likely to avoid engaging with learning or training opportunities, either out of ego (belief they don’t need it) or fear (belief they should appear as if they don’t need it).

If you’re reading this and cringing or feeling offended, it’s probably because this is you. Sorry.

No judgement, but now is the time to make a change; tell your teams what you’ve identified as your personal unknowns and what you’re doing about it – it will give them the courage to do the same.

If you’re in need of further inspiration, I highly recommend this High Performance podcast episode with Ben Francis, CEO and Founder of Gymshark. Ben took a very public step back as CEO of his own company, to work on his leadership and business management skills. He has recently been handed back the position, as a much stronger and conscious leader.


Whether you’re a leader or an individual contributor… please consider your approach to learning, and how much importance you are really placing on learning as a skill in itself.

Please also promise that what you choose to learn is more than just how to bake banana bread… no one needs any more of that.

As ever, I welcome any opportunity to continue this conversation – and would love to hear what you’re listening to and/or reading.


Written by Emily Smith – Business Development Manager 

GymPass, London 

Email: emily.smith@gympass.com