Getting Into The "Zone" – The Learning Zone

cliffhilton Blog, Lead Others, Lead Yourself

Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” Anthony J. D’Angelo

I have a confession. There was a time in my 20’s when I viewed my boss as my nemesis. In fact, I was so frustrated with my boss, I used to imagine finding him in the parking lot after a late night of work and running over him with my car. Why would I have these extreme feelings of frustration? The answer is simple. Every time I became comfortable in my role, he chose to move me to a new position I knew nothing about. I never got to live in a state of confidence, and this was incredibly frustrating.  

For example, when I was in my early 20’s, I worked in Field Human Resources as a Human Resource Generalist. One of the most challenging tasks I encountered was negotiating labor contracts with Teamsters. Keep in mind that I’m negotiating contracts with people much older than me, yet I learned how to do this well and after 3 ½ years, I was finally getting good at it. My confidence was growing.

Guess what happened next? My boss recognized my newfound confidence and moved me to Compensation Manager at the corporate office. I was not excited about this position. In the field, we made fun of corporate, calling it the Ivory Tower. And now, I worked in the Ivory Tower. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The Compensation Manager role was a difficult assignment. Not only was it analytical in nature, but I also needed to attend training and learn the language of compensation, which was gibberish to me when I started. I was an incompetent manager leading people who were completely competent. My confidence was shaken. This was not an easy transition.  

Because my boss kept challenging me with new roles, my resume included diverse knowledge and experiences. I moved quickly through the ranks and became a leader among peers who were much older than me. These diverse roles and experiences greatly helped me when I became an Executive. Much to my surprise, the compensation role helped me learn how roles and processes interacted within an organization and this knowledge allowed me to successfully lead multiple organizational restructurings as a Senior Executive. The role that was such a struggle prepared me for the future.  

Many years later, I had a lightbulb moment. I finally realized my nemesis boss taught me how to grow and accelerated my learning by putting me in positions that I knew nothing about. While I didn’t initially understand my boss’ intentions to develop me quickly, over time, I came to appreciate what he did.  When I reflect on how I became successful more rapidly than others my age, I discovered it was from getting in the Learning Zone. My boss knew the secret of the Learning Zone and I became its student. The Learning Zone separates those who top out in their position from those who have potential for greater roles. Those who stay in their Comfort Zone top out, while those who get in the Learning Zone have greater potential for growth within an organization.

Understanding the Learning Zone

The Learning Zone model, created by Noel Tichy, explains how we learn and grow. Let me share a brief description of the model.

  • The Comfort Zone is at the center of the model and it’s where we gravitate. It’s the place where we feel, well, comfortable and we do our best to stay in the Comfort Zone. However, no growth or learning takes place here because we are comfortable rather than stretched.  
  • The Panic Zone is a place of high stress and drama. Growth rarely happens here because there is a high degree of stress and anxiety experienced in the Panic Zone.
  • The Learning Zone is where growth occurs. In the Learning Zone, you have an elevated sense of anxiety and pressure because you don’t have everything figured out. Yet you believe success is achievable and you’re motivated to learn and grow so you can accomplish your goals. 

Once I finally understood the value of getting in the Learning Zone, I started putting myself in the Learning Zone. When I was in my 30s, a university invited me to give a commencement address. My initial reaction was no way I’m going to do that! Yet I knew my gut “no” reaction meant I needed to say yes because it would require me to get in the Learning Zone. I said yes and forced myself to learn how to give an effective commencement address. I chose to lean in and accept the challenge rather than avoid it. The secret to getting in the Learning Zone begins with recognizing your gut “no” reaction, and then choosing to accept it as an invitation to get in the Learning Zone.  

Do You Avoid the Learning Zone?

Great leaders put themselves in the Learning Zone rather than waiting for their boss to do it for them. Consider your own perspective on the Learning Zone. Do you resent living in the Learning Zone? Have you come to appreciate how you grow and develop when you are stretched? What fears keep you from getting in the Learning Zone? Getting in the Learning Zone may be uncomfortable, but you can learn to appreciate it like I did. Download this guide to discover more about the value of getting in the Learning Zone. 

Claude Bernard gives us an important nugget of wisdom: It’s what we already know that often prevents us from learning. I choose to view the Learning Zone as the gift I didn’t know I wanted, but learned to love over time. And the Learning Zone is now a gift I give to myself. Will you accept the invitation to embrace the challenge of the Learning Zone so you, too, can become the best leader you can be?

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