Translate Learning to Performance

How learning conversations aligned to the individual heart and mind have the best chance of translating to performance improvement

After winning the French Open title for the first time this year, Roger Federer announced that he can now truly enjoy the rest of his career without the pressure of needing to pursue the full set of Grand Slam titles. And I bet he continues to get better and win more titles... What a different story it was for poor Ivan Lendl who, back in the 80’s as World No. 1 seemed to drive himself to frustration and bad form in his (unsuccessful) quest for the last (Wimbledon) Grand Slam crown.

A bias on learning over performance?

As leaders we are often quick to align our development with the specific ‘performance-related’ goals we have set. A bias towards performance means we are aligning with a particular measure of success. This typically means we’ll channel our energy into proving our ability or worth by our ability to achieve this, often with accompanying anxiety. Ideally, learning goals would connect with our dreams of who we would like to become and how we would like to be. This kind of learning bias then focuses on the possibility that if we improve ourselves, there will be a corresponding improvement in performance. And like Federer now, we are likely to experience a higher level of contentment in our life in general. The best kind of learning plan is one that resonates with an inspiring and value-based picture of where we want to be - rather than someone else’s version of this. The outcomes of this can then be articulated as meaningful and motivating performance expectations and behaviours. Better this than a standard list of performance expectations that may not fit with individual aspirations.

The evidence for this can be seen even in the goal-oriented area of sales. Research has shown that setting learning goals has been shown to lead to greater improvement than setting purely performance goals. Why is this? Surely a well stated and agreed performance goal will be the best determiner of a successful performance outcome? The fact is, committing to a learning goal that is meaningful to us is far more likely to move us in to consistent action – the kind that will easily form into a successful habit.

Individually aligned goal setting

Setting goals is common currency for managers these days as we are expected to plan not only our own development and progress towards them on an annual, quarterly, weekly and daily basis ...but often those of our direct reports too. Frequently in the rush to fill out the forms and get the process done, the outputs of these (seemingly endless) plans are standardised, unrealistic and often very forgettable. When we sit down and spend time planning our learning goals we need to ensure that a few key, common-sense principles are applied. And yes, you have seen these somewhere before. Often talked about, seldom enacted as 90% of pre-produced personal development plans we at The Acumen Company see in our coaching and training interactions testify! They should be aligned with:

  • Individual aspirations
  • Existing personal strengths
  • Personal learning style


Can you think of a time when you have had to search for a copy of your personal development plan to refresh yourself of what it contained? This is probably because they were your manager’s goals rather than your own – fitting more with their quarterly ‘performance gap analysis’ of you than your own compelling designs.

This happens a lot: we agree to a goal that is presented to us, especially when the presenting manager or coach wants us to change. The drawback, especially with the highly challenging, demanding goals we are influenced to adopt, is that we will simply not feel committed enough to fully apply ourselves to them if they do not resonate with our personal ambitions, desires and values.

The challenge for you as a leader is to make sure you connect with your people at this ‘deeper’ level. To do this requires time, forethought, a good, trusting relationship – and perhaps bigger and better questions.


A good manager recognises that we all work in different ways. Taking the time to tune into a person’s individual talents and working preferences will give you the best chance of turning their talents into performance. To do this you need to position people in a role where they will be able to use and build on their strengths. This will impact their confidence to pursue any learning plan they have agreed to.

Furthermore - the closer learning outcomes are to individual strengths, the more likely these will translate into improvements in performance (rather than energising and fortifying weaknesses).

Learning Style

Most people have a way they prefer to learn in, a mode that feels more natural and effective to them. Paraphrasing Kolb’s well known Learning Style Inventory model, this could by means of:

  • Actual experience
  • Reflecting and thinking about experience
  • Theorising and fitting observations into a model
  • Active, trial and error learning
As learners ourselves, we will be pre-disposed to suggesting learning strategies that align with our own style or a ‘company culture’ prescription (e.g. attend a course or job shadowing). This can lead to wasted action steps and lost time.

So what will you do?

Following these guidelines will help ensure learning conversations and outcomes are engaging and well-aligned with individual’s preferences. Doing this can start with asking ‘better’ questions such as:

  • What would be your dream role in this company?
  • What is the most inspiring or exciting thing you have ever done at work?
  • If you left here and started afresh, what other company or industry would you go for?
  • If money were no object, how would you spend your time?
  • What do you think are your 5 top strengths or character traits in your professional life? What would your family or close friends say they were?
  • How would you prefer to implement this goal?
  • Would you prefer to shadow somebody or try it out first?

We would encourage you to think about how you can make these questions part of your ongoing learning conversations and reviews. And critically, make sure that any plans you draw up are flexible and manageable to give them the best chance of hitting reality!

Daniel Stane, is a member of Winning Teams and is Director of The Acumen Company, a leadership development specialist based in London and Prague, with a focus on sustainable behaviour improvement in the areas of emotional intelligence, coaching, change and diversity.

To discover more about Daniel's work follow this link

For Winning Performances every time

To return from Learning to Performance to Performance Articles follow this link