To Win the War for Talent, Create a Learning Culture


People who see their employer as invested in their learning and development are much more likely to stick around and contribute to the employer’s future.

With the Great Recession of 2009-2016 fading from sight in our rear-view mirrors, the greatest employment problem today is not in finding a good job, but keeping good people in those good jobs.  A constant lament I hear from clients across virtually every employment sector is that employees move on more rapidly in the past, creating a state of almost constant recruiting to fill openings.

2020 projects to be another year of significant voluntary turnover, which has continued to creep upwards

While some turnover is healthy, losing talented people who know your organization’s systems, methods, and culture well, are almost impossible to replace in the short term.  Their departure disrupts the organization when they move on, and present a significant cost to replace. 


Yet some organizations do a terrific job of keeping their talented people on staff longer.  Why? Because they have developed a culture of learning.

Author’s Disclaimer: One of the benefits of having worked over parts of six decades is that you get to work for some brilliant people who teach you crucial skills and life lessons.  It also means that you get to make thousands of mistakes – and hopefully learn to learn from each one!  As for me, I began my post-collegiate career in 1976 as a manager-trainee and have been learning ever since…

What is a Culture of Learning?

Perhaps the best definition I’ve ever heard of what an organization’s culture is the simplest: it’s the way we get stuff done around here.  Thus a simple definition of a culture of learning might be: it’s the way we learn and grow around here

One of my earliest business mentors was my grandfather, a very successful local businessman who worked into his mid-eighties, not because he had to, but for the sheer job of learning.  We lived in a small rural Pennsylvania town. Granddad walked to work, rain or shine, so he could come home for lunch. More often than not he’d arrive for lunch very eager to tell us all about what he had learned from one of his customers, a local farmer or the butcher or factory worker.  

I often heard Granddad repeat his mantra on learning, “you know, life is like a summer garden.  You’re either green and growing, or ripe and rotting, and the choice is pretty much up to you.”  I find myself sharing this perspective frequently with my coaching clients, during training programs I conduct, and with my own grandchildren.  Granddad indeed lived a culture of learning, and it kept him young in heart and mind, green and growing.  A learning culture is green and growing, never getting to the place where you think you’ve learned all that you can about something. 

The Connection Between a Learning Culture and the War for Talent

In 2020 there are five generations in the typical workplace: a few Traditionalists, aged 74 and older; Baby Boomers, aged 56-74; Gen Xers, aged 44 – 55; Millennials, aged 26-43; and Gen Z, 25 and younger.  While most people in general desire to learn and grow, Millennials, Zs, and Xers prize learning and growth opportunities as one of their top three reasons to stay in a job, higher than their older counterparts.  Consider these five current startling statistics:

  • 70% of staff members would be at least somewhat likely to leave their current organizations and take a job with one that is known for investing in employee development and learning (The Harris Poll).
  • Career development ranked 2ndto compensation as the reason employees left their organizations (The Harris Poll).
  • More than 80% of employees would quit their jobs for better development opportunities (ExecuSearch).
  • 61% of U.S. adults look for career development opportunities when considering employment opportunities (Jobvite).
  • Among employees who left their previous job, 34% said finding a new job with more career development opportunities spurred them on (The Harris Poll).

Since Millennials, Gen X, and Gen Z comprise more than 75% of the 2020 workforce, employers face a clear choice:

      • Invest in ongoing employee learning and development programs, or
      • Suffer the costs and consequences of high staff turnover. Harvard Business Review cites data that shows the cost of replacing a talented employee to be between 100% and 300% of that person’s annual salary.

Training Industry News sets forth seven advantages enjoyed by organizations with a culture of learning:

      • Increased efficiency, productivity and profit by every employee;
      • Increased employee satisfaction and decreased turnover;
      • An improvement mindset among employees;
      • A developed sense of ownership and accountability;
      • Ease in succession/transition between people and roles;
      • A culture of knowledge inquiry and sharing; and
      • An enhanced ability for workers to adapt to change.

      How to Create and Sustain a Learning Culture

      One: develop and implement a holistic organizational learning strategy.  While there are benefits for individual managers or departments to develop their own learning programs, having an overall learning strategy embraced by the entire senior leadership team will yield the best results, and ensure that such an initiative is properly funded.  Because the ROI on well-crafted learning programs is quite significant, most programs should pay for themselves within their first year.

      Two: determine current and future learning needs. This one will take a bit of forward thinking to ensure that people are being equipped with the skills and knowledge they will need to meet both current and future demands. Understand where your industry sector, technology, and your customers are headed and keep pace with their evolution.  Don’t forget to survey your employees as to what they believe they need to remain current in their craft.

      Three: define measurable learning outcomes. Learning is by definition the modification of behavior, and behaviors determine performance. Specifically what do you want to happen – both quantitatively and qualitatively – as a result of each learning initiative? If your outcomes are achieved, what business results will follow?  Start from the end and work backwards and make certain that you can correlate measurable results and an ROI calculation for each learning initiative. This will help you eliminate “feel good” learning initiatives that drain the organization’s coffers instead of fill them up.

      Four: make learning part of everyone’s performance measurement and recognition.  In order to have a green and growing organization, everyone from the CEO to the entry level worker should have a learning component to their performance evaluations and career development programs.  Learning achievements should be visibly recognized, encouraged, and rewarded.  Every manager must be accountable for monitoring his or her direct reports, which means being involved in periodic career development discussions with each staff member, conducting pre- and post-training session debriefs, and holding each staff member answerable for his or her learning commitments.

      Five: leverage outside expertise and consider the economies of licensing. Consider engaging a qualified learning expert who can give you an outside perspective as you develop and implement your learning culture.  Unless your organization employs a deep and experienced curriculum development team, outside expertise can help you bring highly impactful and engaging programs in-house to augment solid on-the-job and ad-hoc learning. Licensing of successful programs can reduce the cost-per-student for proven learning programs, especially if the content is best-practices based and not reliant on changing technologies (in other words, the content itself has a longer shelf life).

      Six: audit training programs to ensure they are current and producing optimal returns.  As part of each training session, assess the effectiveness of the content from the perspective of both the participants and the managers of the participants. Participants can speak to the training session itself: the clarity of presentation, applicability of the content to their assignments or roles, and whether or not it was worth their time attending. Because learning is by definition the modification of behavior, each participant’s manager is the best person to assess how his or her staff member has incorporated what each program taught.  

      Seven: conduct an annual learning culture audit.  Even the best-designed and implemented initiatives can do with a facelift from time to time. What programs and content should be revised, updated, or replaced? Make this a high-visibility initiative in which all members of the organization are invited to contribute their perspective.  Continuous improvement in continuous learning – what a concept!

      Bottom Line

      Learning cultures attract talented people, develop and focus their talents to accomplish better results more efficiently, and retain that top talent. What’s not to like?

      I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

      • Improving your (or your team’s) management and leadership skills: Leading Through People™. This acclaimed program equips participants in thousands of current and emerging best practices of leadership, hiring, and talent development.
      • Raising your (or your team’s) selling and sales management effectiveness: B2B Sales Essentials™ (among the 30-plus courses we offer are ones on selling with emotional intelligence and storyselling!)
      • Conducting a more effective job search: Get a Better Job Faster™

      I work with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. To find out more, please visit us at, email us at, or call us at 215-942-0982.


Latest Leadership Posts


Counterintuitive Life-Changing Principles, Part 5 Continue Reading


The Seven Essential Soft Skills of Highly Effective Salespeople Continue Reading


Counterintuitive Life-Changing Principles, Part 4 Continue Reading