Executives should learn like they’re running for president by Alexander Saint-Amand, CEO of GLG


September 16, 2015

By Alexander Saint-Amand, Chief Executive Officer of GLG

Image: Wikimedia Commons

At the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in California on Wednesday, the candidates will be tested on their knowledge of immigration reform, ISIS, healthcare policy, and countless other complex issues. To prepare for those questions – and to one day run the country – they have been gorging on as much information as possible so they can demonstrate their mastery of the critical issues facing the nation.

Cramming isn’t anything new, but here’s the twist: the candidates aren’t taking courses on foreign policy or reading books cover-to-cover. Instead, they’re talking directly to the smartest experts. Hillary Clinton has reportedly met with more than 200 economists, policy wonks, and academics to learn what she needs to know. Donald Trump, the Wall Street Journal just reported, says that in an “age of specialization, I am tapping phenomenal people in every field.”

Presidential candidates have made one-on-one learning their standard operating procedure. And the savviest business leaders are starting to do the same. In my experience in the field, I’ve seen Fortune 500 companies, major financial institutions, and leading consultancies depend on this type of learning to stay ahead of the curve.

As technology has helped make the best information increasingly available, it’s imperative that companies seize the opportunity to learn from the brightest.

Just like politicians in the middle of a grueling campaign, professionals don’t have the time to pursue traditional avenues of learning. They typically can’t put their days on hold to read a book or attend conferences and seminars. The pace of innovation today is too fast. When faced with critical business decisions, they need access to specific, relevant knowledge – and they need it now.

Take, for instance, an engineer rising through the ranks into management. Without a background in operations, she has to decide whether to open a plant in China or India. The decision requires a range of knowledge about manufacturing, geopolitics, trade policy, and local distribution channels. It would be difficult to gain the information she needs through one book, or even twenty.

For this engineer and for presidential candidates, one-on-one learning is the only way for them to learn exactly what they specifically need to know, in real-time, from sources they can trust. Here are three reasons why:

Specific challenges require tailored solutions.

Consider a soap company executive who needs to understand the pricing of shampoo in Mexico versus Canada. This executive couldn’t get those answers from a conference on consumer hair products or by reading about Mexico and Canada. There are a limited number of people who understand the shampoo market in Mexico, and there isn’t a great blog on the subject either. The soap executive needs to talk to experts on the ground, likely one-on-one.

Evolving situations require interactive environments.

Professionals, like presidential candidates, have to make decisions in constantly changing environments. They need to be able to take intellectual risks as they learn, asking new questions and exploring new perspectives as facts on the ground change. Take an incident like a major oil spill. A range of parties – environmental engineering firms, hotels, banks, seafood distributors, and even liquid detergent makers – need to know what’s going on but lack the relevant expertise internally. The world’s top professionals cannot afford to wait for books to be published on the topics they need to understand.

High stakes situations require trusted sources with credible information.

Professionals need to trust their learning colleagues, knowing that the information they’re getting is credible. Credibility is why online marketplaces for expertise have failed to gain traction and why Internet searches aren’t enough to satisfy top professionals’ learning needs.

Business leaders, like candidates, face increasingly specific, complex, and dynamic challenges. So they are radically rethinking the way they learn about these problems and their solutions. In a recent GLG survey, we found that 87% of senior executives want to consult with outside industry experts before making critical business decisions.

Innovators know that the best teachers have years of experience and expertise to share. For example, we learned from the recent Fortune cover story, “The Education of Airbnb’s Brian Chesky,” that Chesky talked to George Tenet, Warren Buffett, Bob Iger and Jony Ive for counsel on tackling specific challenges.

Business leaders who miss the opportunity to learn this way put themselves and their companies at risk, just like political candidates. For instance, during a recent interview Donald Trump awkwardly dodged questions about the leadership of terrorist organizations. Perhaps if he had spent more time learning from intelligence experts, he would have avoided the ensuing controversy (although it doesn’t seem to have hurt him in the polls.)

Presidential candidates get asked who their advisers are all the time. What they’re really being asked is “Who are you learning from?” But the takeaway for business leaders should be that when the stakes are highest, the politicians facing the toughest questions have figured out a better way to learn about their countless, complex challenges. More and more business leaders are starting to do the same.

Commentary by Alexander Saint-Amand, CEO of GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group), a platform for professional learning and expertise. Follow him on Twitter @asaintamand.

Originally published on CNBC.com.