Some time ago, I was watching an old management film called The Professional. Van Johnson, the well-known Hollywood actor of yesteryears who featured in many westerns, plays the lead role in this movie. In one of the scenes, Johnson is told that, to be a real professional, he should have the will to learn and keep on learning, throughout his professional career.
Johnson wryly responds that it seems he would now have to attend night school, or worse, obtain a PhD to be a professional. His senior colleague clarifies that this is not what is meant. He says that Johnson has been learning all these years—albeit, not in the formal sense—but through attending seminars, trade shows, industry conventions, sales conferences, etc. Johnson, thus, had several opportunities for learning; yet, he was not aware of them. He has, therefore, missed out on getting the full benefit of the learning exposure.
I have been doing some development work in change processes for a large company. I have consistently found that the higher the level of management, the less likely they are willing to learn. Workshops for vice-presidents and general managers are poorly attended; those for middle managers are better attended; and workshops for the junior managers have the best attendance.
The junior-most managers are mostly recent graduates out of college. Their knowledge levels are high, although their experience may be limited. The senior managers have graduated 30 years ago, and the world has gone through a sea change since that time. If anyone needs reorientation, through formal and informal learning, it is the senior managers. And, yet, paradoxically, they are the most reluctant to learn.
What is the system of informal learning? It requires an open mind and an ability to learn from superiors, peers and subordinates. It requires a certain sublimation of the ego and a humility that ‘the more one knows, the more one knows what one does not know.’ And the opportunities for learning from the streets are enormous—if only one keeps the windows of the mind open!
I have had the opportunity to interact with some unusual examples of ‘continuous learning’. One model has been Philip Kotler, the world’s guru of marketing. With visiting professors of marketing at Kellogg, Kotler would sit in the front bench and take copious notes. When I asked him what he takes notes on (is there something in marketing that he does not know?), he said that he does so because, otherwise, he will never know about case studies in Asian markets, and this provides him with material for his own lectures later. Kotler continues learning even though he is now past 90!
I also had the opportunity to be a close friend of Prakash Tandon, over a period of time. Tandon was the first Indian to be appointed chairman of Hindustan Lever (HLL). Tandon was a chartered accountant by training and had a distinguished career—even after HLL, as chairman of State Trading Corporation of India and, later, chairman of Punjab National Bank, and also chairman of IIM, Ahmedabad. Yet, Tandon always had a mini notepad and a pen in his pocket, wherever he went—a business meeting or a social event. During a conversation at a party, Tandon would occasionally say, ‘That is an interesting observation. May I just make a note of it? I would like to use this point when I address some meetings, if you don’t mind.’ He was then making brief notes! Tandon continued doing this till he was too ill to continue! In spite of all his achievements, he kept on learning!
When I was posted at Jabalpur 50 years ago, I went out on my first day of field work for Glaxo. At that time, there was a big market war for narrow spectrum antibiotics between Glaxo, Pfizer and Sarabhai. At the first retail outlet I visited, I met Rodrigues, a senior representative for Pfizer. He had a paternal look and, as I discovered later, was the most respected medical rep in Jabalpur (in fact, in the whole of Madhya Pradesh). He asked me whether I was the new medical representative of the area for Glaxo, and whether I was new to the profession. The answer to both the questions was ’yes’. He offered to take me around, and introduce me to the leading doctors in Jabalpur. He did that over three days. In some cases, he even requested the doctor to give me prescription support, since I was new to the profession. At the end of the third day, he said, ‘Walter, you should now be able to manage on your own. It was nice working with you. But, from now on, we will have a good fight in the marketplace.’
Rodrigues was so up-to-date with his medical knowledge that, every year, he was invited by the medical association to address doctors on the latest developments in medicine, although he himself was not a doctor. He taught me, early in life, the true meaning of professionalism. He was knowledgeable and he kept learning, and helped others in the profession to keep getting better. He knew that ‘he never stoops too low, who stoops to help a child’. He taught me how one also needs to transfer knowledge, when one has the opportunity! Be a learner and a teacher at the same time!
There is a flower vendor at the traffic lights at the corner of Churchgate and Marine Drive in Mumbai. The lights change every three minutes. He has just those three minutes in which to identify prospects in passing cars, demonstrate his product, create a desire to buy, negotiate the price, close the sale and collect the money. All in three minutes! Even for me, as a marketing consultant, he has taught me more lessons on the theory of selling than all the tomes that have been written on the subject (including my own)!
There are opportunities for learning all the time - at conferences and seminars; in books and magazines; on TV and on the net; and in the open university of life. If we blind ourselves and ‘close the doors to fresh winds’ from the outside, as Mahatma Gandhi once observed, we will have shown an unwillingness to learn or to change, and are therefore not eligible for the appellation of ‘professional‘.