What my Te Reo journey taught me about learning (and five tips for mastering a new skill)

This week is Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) in Aotearoa (New Zealand). As I’m the only Pakeha in my family (my husband and children are Māori), they see this week as a solid opportunity to take the mickey out of my Māori pronunciation. Especially my teenage son, who’s pretty ace at speaking Te Reo.

I can’t argue with him. I appal myself.

It would be easy for me to give up learning Te Reo because of the embarrassment of being so bad at it. But if I’m going to let the fear of failure shape my decision to learn and connect into an important part of my whanau, then I’ll never master anything.

The process of learning something new – language or otherwise, can take us outside our comfort zone and stir up all manner of anxieties. These worries are often magnified when it comes to learning something new in the work environment.

“What if I suck and everyone knows it?”
“What if I can’t do it and my colleague is way better at it than me?”
“What if I fail – and publicly?”
“What humiliation or career limiting move will ensue because I’m no good at it?”

Let’s be honest, the feeling of being a whizz at something is way more pleasant than the stumbling, bumbling ‘learner driver’ akin to listening to me speak Te Reo.

As a leader, you’ll be learning something new most weeks, and you will be leading others that are also learning new stuff. So, here is a list of tips for learning – for you as a leader (and for myself and my Te Reo journey).

  1. Consider the different ways that people learn best and then adapt the learning approach to suit. The popular VARK Learning Styles Model can help with this. According to the model, most of us prefer to learn in one of four ways: visual, auditory, reading/writing or kinesthetic (although, in practice, we generally “mix and match” these styles).

    Visual: a visually-dominant learner absorbs and retains information better when it is presented in, for example, pictures, diagrams and charts.
    Auditory: an auditory-dominant learner prefers listening to what is being presented. He or she responds best to voices, for example, in a lecture or group discussion. Hearing their own voice repeating something back to the person teaching them is also helpful.
    Reading/Writing: a reading- or writing-dominant learner uses repetition of words and writing. Clearly, there is an overlap with visual and auditory styles, as words and writing can be both, but, commonly, a person who prefers to learn this way remembers or organises things best in her mind by taking down notes.
    Kinesthetic: a kinesthetic-dominant learner prefers a physical experience. These people like a “hands-on” approach and respond well to being able to touch or feel an object or learning prop.

    My son prefers me to say the English word and he says the Māori version, whereas I like to write the words down and use this nifty app.

  2. Make meaning from the learning. In an organisational setting, if the skill we are learning has an immediate and relevant impact in our current role it is more likely to stick. If it can be tied to achieving the company’s overall vision in some way, then it’s going to pack a greater punch than if it’s taught in a vacuum or if your team member won’t apply the learning for a long time.

    Learning Te Reo Māori by helping my son practice for school makes it more meaningful for me than learning it on my own. I have purposefully connected my learning to helping him with his favourite subject and getting to hang out with him (any mothers of teenage boys know that this is rarer than the sighting of a tara teoteo).

  3. Learn by doing. Practice and practice – ao noa po noa (24/7) – if you must. There’s no getting around the power of practice. Test yourself, get feedback, reflect on your learnings, and then repeat the process. The Forgetting Curve model shows how powerful practice and testing is when it comes to learning.
  1. Explore all the different methods of learning. The “send them on a course” knee jerk reaction is one of the biggest traps I see leaders make when it comes to skills development. Yes, there is a place for external training programmes, but also consider cross functional projects, mentoring, online learning and coaching.

    The 70/20/10 model of organisational learning will give you a steer here. Look beyond the first obvious answer for how to learn a new skill.

  1. Be realistic about progress. No Suzi, you’re not going to sound like Mihingarangi Forbes in the next couple of months. How about we just settle for pronouncing Tauranga waka rererangi (airport) without your son bursting into snorts of derision. Feedback and coaching (preferably in a kinder manner than from The Boy) is helpful when people are in that ‘disillusioned learner’ stage.

So karawhiua (give it heaps) and Kia Kaha ake (give it a go). Get out of your comfort zone and learn a new thing. You can use the tips above to make it a smoother journey for yourself and the team you lead.

Perhaps I may have even inspired you to learn Te Reo?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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