“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” –John F. Kennedy

A successful organization is a continually improving one. To be successful, leadership has to establish a learning culture within the organization – and be a model student.

Two children are looking at a sheet of paper on a clipboard.

Think about a new concept or skill you’ve learned. How did you go about such learning? Where did you find the information and then figure out how to apply that knowledge? Most likely a teacher was involved who shared her insight and modeled the behavior you were aiming to achieve (okay, that includes TED talk experts and YouTube video instructors if you were able to absorb and achieve something valuable).

As the leader of culture creation in your organization, your goal is modeling the behavior you expect: Be the best example of what you hope your employees will achieve. Here’s how you do it.

Tell employees what you expect them to learn

Make clear to staff the training opportunities and development pathways that will help to move them from Point A (current state) to Point B (future state). And once you’ve shared such expectations and opportunities, share them again and again. Use multiple channels to ensure all employees are receiving your message. Just when you think you’ve reached the point of obnoxiously over-communicating tell them one more time.

Show them how to learn

Be conscious of not appearing to exist in a vacuum. The “sage on a stage” is no longer relevant for organizational leadership.

When you attend conferences and seminars, bring information back and share your new knowledge with the rest of the organization. During group meetings, make sure you’re striving to learn from your team. Ask relevant questions to solicit valuable new knowledge, not questions designed to tease out what you want them to say (that last a particularly dreadful leadership-manipulation technique). You, like everyone else, can benefit from the collective smarts.

Be authentic

Leading through learning doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. In fact, employees will respect you more when you’re honest with them about your own opportunities for improvement. After you’ve communicated what effective learning looks like explain how you are personally pursuing such learning. Be realistic about your strengths and achievements and likewise about your failings and shortcomings.

Make yourself available to employees as a teacher

Attend employee trainings and facilitate those for which you have expertise. Create space in your schedule to mentor at least one employee. When staff members understand you’re serious about their professional development and see the time you invest in learning programs, they will take their own growth more seriously.

The specific training and development programs you implement to drive culture change and organizational performance will be unique to your agency’s goals. But these tenets for learning through leadership are consistent for all nonprofit managers. When you attempt to shift your agency’s culture, your front-line leaders have to be on board with changing their knowledge, skills, and abilities, too.

For change to stick, you must empower your managers and employee leaders to increase their performance in meaningful ways and model your learning culture, too. And you must engage them in the process – meaning, true behavior change and performance improvement only occur when individuals make the choice to change.

Employee Learning – Peeling the Culture Layers

American management professor Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model is also known as the onion model. It illustrates how the surface layers in an organization (artifacts and symbols) are easier to peel, while the deeper layers (assumptions) are more difficult to adapt.

So how does a nonprofit leader who wants to drive deep and lasting culture change get to the center of the onion? Culture transformation is like any political or social revolution: You put the power in the hands of your people.

As a leader committed to learning, employees already have begun to see learning as a hallmark of their organizational culture. The next step is to make training and development highly accessible and consistently customized to staff and organization development needs. You can do this by:

  • Providing selective focused learning opportunities
  • Matching the appropriate learning experiences to work skills and knowledge (for example, on-the-job training versus classroom training)
  • Building an environment of learning at all levels of the organization

 Here are some practical ways to develop a learning culture that reaches deep into the layers of the organization.

Talent attraction

Tailor your employment recruitment efforts for individuals who value learning. Use behavior-interviewing techniques to find candidates who clearly convey they prioritize professional development.


As early as day one of employment, align employee training with organization goals. Explain to new hires how their ongoing learning and development will affect the organization’s outcomes.

Performance management

Identify employee learning goals, outline development pathways, and measure progress frequently. Hold employees accountable for learning by building the achievement of new knowledge and skills into individual scorecard metrics.

Coaching and mentoring

Provide connections for employees to learn from others. Whether through a formal coaching relationship focused on behavior change or an informal, mutually beneficial mentorship, encourage all individuals to incorporate one-on-one learning within their personal development plans.

Rewards and recognition

Uphold employee learning as an achievement for which staff are tangibly rewarded. Celebrate staff members’ knowledge and skills gains with agency-wide recognition programs. Incentivizing personal development  can be both a value and a symbol of your organization’s culture.

Measuring What You Have

If a “learning culture” resonates with you, take some time to assess your organization’s current learning culture health. To what extent are you attracting talent primed for personal development? How well are you onboarding and managing performance to maximize learning? Are you providing coaching and mentoring opportunities? Do you reward and recognize individuals who prioritize personal development?

As with most organizational change and development initiatives, it makes sense to start things off with metrics provided by a statistically reliable and valid survey. A great tool to use is the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI), the most widely used and thoroughly researched tool for measuring organizational culture in the world.