Have you ever been tempted to put your kids on a plane and send them to the other side of the world for the summer? For Ingar Skaug, that was a normal part of childhood.
Skaug, a native of Norway, grew up to become President and Group CEO of Wilh. Wilhelmsen Holding ASA, a world leader in shipping, logistics, and maritime services. He currently serves on the boards of a dozen organizations worldwide, including his role as chairman of CCL’s Board of Governors.
In his newly published memoir Make the Leap: Success, Failure, and Other Hard-Won Lessons of Leadership, Skaug recalls a highlight of his early education. His father, an employee of Scandinavian Airlines, put him on a plane when he was 9 years old and sent him to spend 2 months with distant acquaintances in California who were total strangers to young Skaug. By the time he was 18, Skaug had made similar journeys from Norway — entirely on his own — to Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, and Kenya.
Looking back, Skaug reflects: “These trips helped me learn to fend for myself, and I became quite independent — no matter where I was or how I felt. This was one of Dad’s ulterior motives. At the same time he wanted to develop my social skills, so I had to learn to mix with people I didn’t know. Dad knew that well-being is not the only prerequisite for learning. One must be challenged in order to grow.”
Because of these trips, Skaug says: “It was as if the world shrank to a manageable size. People were people, no matter where they lived. I could thrive anywhere by adapting to local conditions.”
I thought of this memorable story recently while reading Learning Agility: Unlock the Lessons of Experience, by my colleague George Hallenbeck. The book explores the 4 keys to learning from experience and putting the resulting knowledge to work: seeking, sense-making, internalizing, and applying. Here, we’ll focus on seeking, which is the starting point for sustained success.
As Hallenbeck notes: “Learning agile individuals see the value in continually seeking and embracing learning opportunities that will propel them to ever higher levels of learning and growth.” Ingar Skaug’s father instilled that habit in his son early on — and it prepared Ingar for a lifetime of increasingly challenging leadership roles that continue today and taught him to avoid becoming too comfortable.
If we take our work seriously — whether it’s raising a family, volunteering at a school, or working for a business — we’re going to become good at it. That’s a great feeling and well worth celebrating. But being comfortable is also dangerous. Because after a time, we start to sit back and enjoy the lack of tension in our lives. We become maybe a little too satisfied; it’s human nature. That’s when we start to plateau — and that’s when we need to find our next challenge.
While that can be exciting, as Skaug found during his youthful travels, these “seeking” experiences aren’t always a lot of fun, especially at first. We can struggle mightily and see our performance decline for a time as we scramble to find our footing in a new environment. It’s a scary feeling that makes us want to retreat back to what we know how to do already. As Hallenbeck puts it: “If we react to the new learning opportunity by choosing to stay close to our comfort zone and minimizing or avoiding exposure, we miss the uncomfortable plunge caused by going against the grain, but also the corresponding rebound in growth and performance.”
If we push through to the other side, we’ll acquire a new set of experiences and skills that open up worlds of opportunity.
Hallenbeck offers some excellent advice in his book for seeking a high quantity of learning experiences that are also high quality and highly diverse in terms of the challenge at hand. I’ll add only this — sometimes we can’t figure out on our own which experiences to pursue.
We have a tendency to build mental fences that guard our egos and pride and sense of security. It’s those fences, for example, that kept me from pursuing a great new opportunity during my career in the U.S. Navy — until a very wise mentor told me, in colorful terms that I cannot repeat here, that I was making a huge mistake. He broke down those fences — and I was fortunate to have others do the same during other critical moments in my life.
The first rule of learning agility is that you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with every day. We should seek out mentors and coaches, whether they are spouses or friends or trusted colleagues, as aggressively as new experiences themselves. Then we must listen and reflect on what they say to avoid becoming too comfortable. When what they’re saying makes us squirm a little (or maybe a lot), that’s a sign that we’re really onto something.
Explore more of John Ryan’s LinkedIn Influencer columns.