You are here


Building a learning culture means giving staff room to grow

Three association executives share strategies for encouraging employees to expand their skills and share knowledge with colleagues


Jan. 22, 2021
By Walt Williams

Creating a work culture in which employees are continuously improving themselves requires focus on the part of the top executive, but the result of that effort will be an organization that more easily adapts to change, according to three association leaders.

A “learning culture” is, loosely defined, a workplace culture where employees not only continue to gain knowledge but share those insights with colleagues. The concept has been around for years, and in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has gained new attention as organizations ask staff to do more with less or to take on projects outside their current roles. 

“I interpret a ‘learning culture’ as one where knowledge and resources are shared in a way that helps staff give and grow together,” said Sheri Sesay-Tuffour, CEO of the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. “And I think it’s a process that happens throughout the organization as opposed to selecting people.”

Sesay-Tuffour joined PNCB in September 2020 and before that was CEO of the American College of Nurse-Midwives, where she began putting in place some of the key components of a learning culture. The topic may be getting more attention because of COVID, but the CEO warned against thinking of it as simply as a way to deal with the pandemic’s effects on your organization, saying the benefits go beyond any one scenario.

“When you have that in place, the advantage is having a staff who, in essence, are prepared to deal with the unknown—to adapt, adjust (and) grow with the issues that are presented.”


Sharing ideas

A one-size-fits-all approach to building a learning culture isn’t going to cut it, Sesay-Tuffour said. She noted her own experience leading ACNM and now PNCB: “They’re two completely different teams in two different organizations. It needs to be tailored to the styles and needs of your team.”

That’s not to say there aren’t strategies that work across associations. When Sesay-Tuffour was at ACNM, she launched “ideation” meetings where, once a quarter, staff would research a topic beforehand and then share what they learned. All the research was related to the association’s mission of maternal health.

“We would have a full-day meeting,” she said. “We would do breakout groups to develop strategies and tactics on an issue or to support a program. So (the meetings) helped us stimulate our brains, our learning and our findings, but also watch and see what other people were learning and what they were contributing.”

Sesay-Tuffour said ACNM held staff-led training sessions where employees gave presentations on subjects they were familiar with. For example, some staff were very good at virtual meetings, so those people gave other employees crash courses on how to use Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other teleconferencing tools during all-staff meetings. In addition, staff who attended conferences were expected to take notes and share what they learned at the next all-staff meeting.

“They’re motivated and they feel they are contributing to their learning environment,” she said.

Sesay-Tuffour is implementing those same policies at PNCB, although one new thing she is doing is giving staff what she calls “professional development time.” Every other Friday, staff get two hours of uninterrupted time for activities that help them grow professionally. The exact hours are staggered through the day so at least some staff are available at any given time.

She is also carrying over a policy from ACNM of awarding “CEO spot bonuses” of up to $1,000 to employees who have put in the effort to learn something new and share that info with other staffers. The bonuses—but not the actual dollar amount given—are announced to all the staff so individuals can be recognized for their efforts.

The bonuses act as motivation by showing employees that when they embrace a learning culture, “you will be rewarded,” she said.


Professional development

If you are a CEO who wants to develop a learning culture at your organization, give staff room to say there are things they simply don’t know or need assistance with, said Stefanie Reeves, executive director of the Maryland Psychological Association. 

“When your staff doesn’t feel as though they can come to you and ask for extra help or assistance, then you don’t encourage people to learn and improve skills and find ways to benefit the association,” she said.

Reeves regularly reminds staff that their professional development is key to the success of the organization. To aid in that development, MPA has an organizational membership in ASAE. 

MPA staff  “may not first and foremost think of themselves as association professionals, but it gives them access to tools and resources that only I would probably have access to as a single member of ASAE,” she said. “That also gets them connected to other colleagues in their area of expertise.”

The financial restraints of running a small association limit what MPA can provide in both time and financial resources for learning. Then there are age differences, with Reeves’ staff of three consisting of a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer and a Millennial. That means each employee is looking for a different s<>et of skills relating to where that person is in his or her career.

The key for Reeves is to be honest about the limited resources MPA has for learning but to continuously seek out and be open to staff suggestions. MPA may not be able to send staff to every conference and workshop, but it may be willing to foot the bill if those learning opportunities align with its strategic initiatives, she said.

Dresden Farrand, CEO of the American Water Resources Association, said she s<>ets aside part of her organization’s annual budget for professional development opportunities and consults staff when developing that figure. Like MPA, opportunities that help the association advance its mission get preference.

“If there are different initiatives that (staff) know they are going to be working on in the next year, they can figure out what resources go along with that,” she said.

In terms of internal development, Farrand has some of her more seasoned staff—particularly managers on their way to becoming directors—attend some of AWRA’s executive meetings. They sit, they listen, and afterward they can share any ideas they had with her. She also makes an effort to provide positive mentorship opportunities, particularly to women and people of color.

That focus on diversity is coming a bit late to her group and many others, Farrand said. But she sees it as vital if organizations want to create a learning culture that benefits everyone.

“That work was never done before because no one saw it as a benefit. … How do we get to that way of thinking? How do we change that?” she said. The answer, she added, “is in taking ownership and responsibility, so we are having a lot of those hard conversations now.”