Simon Fowler's Blog

rLiving Day 27: Learning with my CEO (Power)

Posted by Simon on May 28, 2010

“Connections” is an internal collaboration we have at the Forum Corporation to create and sustain ongoing learning and a sense of, well, connection. Every three months a different volunteer runs it, starting with a promotional launch inviting us to request a connection. You just say, “I want to learn about … research/IT/project management/finance/etc.” and they match you with someone. Hopefully you’ll be matched with someone who wants to learn from you also. Then you decide between you how often and for how long to meet over three months. We’re in round 5 right now and I’ve participated in four of them. One of them is still going after almost two years.

I’m in two connections right now and one of them is with my CEO, ‘Ethan’.

The usefulness of the Relational Proximity model, I’ve come to realize, is not so much about measurement; “where is the relationship on the scale?” of directness, purpose, multiplexity etc. Rather, its usefulness is that simply being aware of those dimensions of a relationship helps me understand my relational/social life, online and offline, better.

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

Parity is probably the one dimension if not understood, or more likely, if misunderstood, that can cause the most dysfunction in a relationship. So an awareness of a power asymmetry can be very helpful for explaining why a relationship feels the way it does (whether good or bad). And given further thought it can help redress the imbalance.

But ‘redressing the imbalance’ doesn’t mean making everybody equal. That’s just empirically not true, is a utopian pipe-dream, and represents a total disregard and disrespect for difference. We are equal in VALUE, however. [I realize that ‘value’ could mean ‘value to the company’s objectives’, which may be different for each person, but I’m not using value in that sense.] I’ll say again, power does not equal value. Value is not contingent upon any person or any thing or even on the self, but on God alone (who values each one of us he has made higher than one can possibly imagine, enough to die for. For most of us who struggle to shed a sense of low self-worth, this is very good news!).

Understanding that power differentials exist, and that they don’t mean difference in value, is one thing. One must also understand that power is (should be?) limited to the specific task or goal. I may be stronger than you, but you may know more than me. You may be my boss, but you ain’t my mom! You’re a Police Officer, but I decide what I eat for breakfast.

And so it also goes with knowledge and learning. A difference in knowledge/skill doesn’t mean difference in value. And knowledge/skill is limited, it is not absolute and complete.

In my industry (performance improvement / workplace learning) there’s an incredibly persistent and annoying mindset that if a skill or knowledge needs to be learned, “trainers” or “Learning and Development departments” are the ones to provide it. I guess it’s inevitable in a society that has abdicated all “learning” to educational institutions, teachers, professors, trainers. But it results in learners thinking they can’t learn without teachers/trainers, and in teachers/trainers/L&D depts thinking no-one can learn without them. A good response to that is not – as I seem to see a lot – to take an absurd, almost marxist, suspicion of anyone who purports to “have some expertise worth teaching in some kind of ordered way” as though they’re some kind of fascist, party-pooping, oppressor.

No, a good response is to think: [As a learner] hmmm, how do I do this? maybe I can teach myself? who or what can help me? are there others who are learning the same thing? I don’t know/need what I don’t know, who can help me know what I need(to know)?! [As a ‘person who knows’] hmmm, who might benefit from this? how can I make my expertise/knowledge as easily accessible to others so they don’t have spend 20 yrs learning it? what could be captured and made available using media? what would be best done personally?

And, finally to my point, the ‘learner’ and the ‘person who knows’ may be the same person, depending on the context or topic, and may switch roles even in the middle of a conversation. A student may have knowledge and insight that a professor could learn, but the student ought to listen to what the professor has to say! My technology and workplace learning research may be useful to me CEO. So I’ll want (in fact I do) want to share it with him. Even as I do that, I want to learn from his 20+ years in the performance industry. I also, mainly, want to learn how he runs the business, so I ask. As he teaches me about his stakeholders, what he thinks about, what he worries about, how he makes decisions in his role, he’s interested in my questions and my thoughts. I share some of the research I’ve found that might help him manage some of his dilemmas and challenges.

In these conversations, he is still the CEO with enormous power in his specific role. But we’re of equal value. He also has an expertise and experience vastly greater than mine. But he doesn’t know everything. Because I know these things, because I’m aware of them, I am bold to approach him. Because he knows these things, he is happy to be approached. And so for the last three months we’ve met for half an hour each week, taking turns to share with each other our area of expertise and experience, but both learning.

This isn’t a suck up to the CEO. It’s also not a very sophisticated or radical idea, for us anyway. And it’s also not very complicated. Someone in our company has spear-headed it from the beginning, and she’s found volunteers all along. The sponsorship of Connections by our CEO gave explicit permission for people to spend their time on it. And a naturally curious workforce simply took up the offer of a chance to learn and connect. But I’m REALLY glad I work here!

End note:
Formal schmormal? This whole experience has been designed, you know, formally. Who knows, maybe Ethan will decide there are certain things we discussed he can put on the Knowledge Management system (which he does). Maybe he’ll decide to create a short “CEO for the day” designed classroom experience for more people. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s formal or social learning. Each has it’s place, and each of have roles to play as teachers and learners as we strive to master our arts.

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One Response to “rLiving Day 27: Learning with my CEO (Power)”

  1. christian said

    Great post, Simon. You might find this anecdote interesting. In my first day of class each semester (i teach a 300-level course in new media theory at Indiana University), i try to re-frame the power relationship in the course with the following remarks (paraphrased):

    “During our class discussions, i encourage any of you to raise your hand and “call bull-@#$%” on me if something i say seems to be wrong. You of course have to back up this claim with some reasoning beyond pure opinion, but please do it. In fact, you are more likely to get a good grade by doing this than by sitting there passively. Because you have grown up with it, your generation of students has a deeper intuitive knowledge of new media than does mine, so i expect to learn things from you too over the course of this semester.”

    It has worked pretty well. In four years of teaching the course, i’ve had very very few problems with students misunderstanding this as an invitation to disrupt discussions, or to question my authority to help keep discussions on-track, assign grades, etc. I think what i’ve done is to try to replace a power differential with mutual trust as a mediator of the teacher/student relationship.

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