Lifelong learning is critical to navigating a world that changes at an ever-increasing rate. Leaders who have this mindset remain fresh and engaged in their role in organizations. Ben Welch, the executive director of Mays Center for Executive Development’s Halliburton Programs and former assistant dean for executive education, described the characteristics of lifelong learners during Mays’ 50th Anniversary Celebration Sept. 7.
Welch previously asked executives to share one word that described a lifelong learner. His findings were:
- Determination – Leaders need to think daily about what they need to learn to hone their skills. Welch suggested adopting an attitude of perpetual learning. “You have to decide that you’re not going to give up,” he said.
- Industrious – Welch encouraged leaders to make learning a regular part of their schedule. “Decide that every day, I’m going to spend this amount of time on lifelong learning,” he said. The popular educator noted that through this approach, leaders will find that they can give 110 percent throughout their career and in all parts of their life.
- Futuristic – Welch suggested that leaders should take a strategic approach by considering what they want for their future and then deciding what they can learn to build that future.
- Friendship – Friendships offer camaraderie and sustenance for leaders facing challenges. The connections through the Aggie family also can encourage lifelong learning.
- Eagerness – Welch noted that complacency is easy. Instead, he believes great leaders demonstrate an eagerness to learn in all situations. He described how he has learned to properly interact with clients who live in cultures as diverse as Latin America (hugging), Egypt (no touching) and Oman (rubbing noses).
- Respect – Welch encouraged leaders to get past appearances and realize that you can learn from anyone. He described an encounter he had while working as the director of student activities when Bonfire Collapse fell in 1999. While waiting for updates on the injured students in the hospital, a man approached Welch with a purple bag that Welch dismissively thought contained alcohol. Instead, the man, who worked for minimum wage, had heard about the Bonfire collapse and had brought the spare change that he had been collecting over several years so that the students who were holding vigil could purchase food and water.
- Encouragement – Welch noted how important it is for lifelong learners to encourage people. He pointed to Mays Dean Eli Jones, who makes a regular point to text Welch to ask about his elderly mother. “People want to know they are valued,” he explained. “We need to emulate that.”
- Name – Pointing out that a reputation is made over a lifetime but can be shattered quickly, Welch suggested that leaders adopt his father’s timeless advice, “Don’t forget your name.”
- Character – Lifelong learners think about the quality of their thoughts and actions when nobody is watching. To illustrate this point, Welch shared a story about a man who worked in construction and was on the verge of retirement. His employer asked the man to build one more house. Thinking that this was his last construction project and no one would know that he had cut corners, the man didn’t pay attention to the quality on this project. Once the house was completed, the man handed the keys to his employer, who handed them back to him and said he wanted to make a gift of the house to the retiring man for all of his years of service.
- Enthusiasm – Welch noted that a three-year-old child can sense negativity. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to be conscious of their emotions. “Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm,” the long-time educator noted.
At the end of each session, Welch pointed out the acronym for each of these words spells DIFFERENCE. “That’s what makes a lifelong learner,” Welch explained. “They are saying, ‘I’m going to make a difference in my life to start with. Then as a representative of Mays Business School, I’m going to make a difference for those whose lives I’m blessed to be a part of every single day.’”