Forever learning – Your key to growing as a leader


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 13, we spoke with Graciela Szwarcberg, an Organisational Consultant and Executive Coach.

Graciela has over 20 years of experience as a facilitator and executive coach assisting organisations and leaders become more successful and reach their full potential.

Her intelligent insights and influential skills are harnessed to alter business behaviour to create beneficial outcomes. Graciela has experience in full scale transformations at individual and organisational levels and regularly assists leaders in all fields.

In our chat, we spoke about being a “forever student”, the role of a business coach, the importance of leading from the heart and why you should always try to be present. 

To learn more about Graciela Szwarcberg, listen to our chat on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Graciela Szwarcberg.

When I arrived in Australia 30 years ago, with two children, a suitcase, and no money, I could never have imagined my life turning out the way it has. I took a leap of faith moving from Argentina to Australia. I knew no one here and didn’t speak a word of English when I first arrived.

Flash forward to now and I am an Organisational Consultant and Executive Coach, with extensive experience coaching leaders across the globe in both commercial and non-profit sectors. After many years working in the community sector and in private practice, as a social psychologist, supporting and educating those who are living with trauma, I returned to an area of work I love – the organisational setting.

I opened my own consultancy 22 years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. My work centres around the end-to-end cycle of organisational change and behavioural initiatives, from strategy formulation to implementation and embedment. My work centres around leaders (as individuals), leadership teams and organisational cultures.

Through my work, I’ve had the privilege to coach leaders and their teams, helping them become the best version of themselves and drive effective organisational change. I’ve also been lucky enough to consult a diverse range of industries and corporations, including Sydney University, KPMG, News Ltd, Cricket Australia, Mercer Consulting, Gerard Lighting, Marubeni Itochu Oceania, Football Australia, Queensland Rail, Jacobs, CCS Institute, James Hardie, and the Department of Education.

In this article, I will tell you about how my passion for always learning took me to where I am today, and how possessing the mindset of a “forever student” will help you grow as a small or medium-sized business owner. Then, I’ll explain two key traits that will help you grow as a leader of a small or medium-sized business. These traits are the key markers of effective leadership that I so often coach industry-leading corporations on. But these leadership traits and behaviours apply to everyone – no matter how small your business is.

Forever Learning
I often call myself a “forever student” because when you have a passion for learning, that passion never stops. When I arrived in Australia, one of the first things I set about doing was learning English. I would attend a day class after dropping my children off at school and then, at night, I would watch Sesame Street to pick up new phrases and words.

When I arrived here, I already possessed multiple qualifications in social psychology and social communication science. But learning English helped me further my education, and I went on to achieve a Master of Management at the University of Technology Sydney and was later a Lecturer for the Australian Graduate School of Management’s (AGSM) MBA (Executive) program.

Why am I telling you this? What I’m trying to get across is not that Sesame Street is a great way to learn English (even though it is!) or any degree or course you should study, it’s that, as a small or medium-sized business owner, you should always be looking for opportunities to learn and further improve your leadership skills.

An article by Forbes Magazine highlights the benefits of being a lifelong learner for business growth. This is particularly important for small and medium-sized business owners in our rapidly changing economy, marketplace, and society. Success requires adaptability and resilience –skills that you can develop if you have the mindset of a “lifelong learner”. This means realising that completing school or receiving a degree doesn’t mean your education is finished, instead, you should never stop seeking out opportunities to learn and grow as a business leader.

If you view yourself as a “forever student”, you will also see that it is never too late to improve your leadership skills as a small or medium-sized business owner. I know this from experience, having worked with clients who are 80-years-old and then seeing these clients develop and grow as leaders. But to do so, you need to have the courage to change, but you also must recognise that learning requires the determination to unlock the best version of yourself.

What are some ways you can learn right now? For one, I recommend seeking out articles online (many of them are free) or books about areas where you want to improve. When you read this information, you should never just give it a quick skim and then tick that task off your mental to-do list. To truly learn, you need to be an active reader, who is studious and disciplined. When I read an article, I always take the time to reflect, and then decide if there is any information I can incorporate into my life or business practices. Another effective way is to join a professional organisation in your industry and find a mentor that can provide you with some guidance.  

Another way you can learn is as simple as asking questions. Go to the people you manage and ask about how you can best lead them. This might take some courage but being open to feedback is one of the best ways you can grow professionally and strengthen your business.

If you have the resources, hiring a business coach is also a great way to learn and grow your business. Now, I know you might be thinking I’m just saying this because of my professional background, but I promise, research backs me up! A recent study found that 90% of business leaders benefit from executive coaching, but 14% have not heard that coaching exists and only 1% of those business leaders will seek out a coach. Moreover, this study delved into the tangible benefits that businesses receive when they seek to learn from an external coach. Here are some of the figures they reported: a 53% increase in overall productivity, 23% lowered costs, 22% increase in profitability, 61% increase in job satisfaction among employees and executives, and a 34% reduction in client grievances.

Why does learning from a business coach drive these incredible outcomes? It’s because an external set of eyes will challenge and focus you, helping to drive an alignment between the business you dream of and where you are right now. Business coaches can help define your purpose, as well as a clear set of goals and the steps needed to achieve them. They can also identify problem areas in your business that you may have overlooked. But, perhaps most importantly, a good business coach also acts as a support pillar for small and medium-sized business owners.

I know from my own experience, and I’m sure you’ve had this too, there are times when you might feel stuck or lack motivation. It can be a lonely job as a business leader, you’re often carrying a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and need someone to cheer you on. With a business coach, you’ve got that. You can take confidence in knowing that there’s someone out there who has your back and is focused on helping your company succeed.

So, now you might be asking what I, in my role as an Organisational Consultant and Executive Coach, advise business leaders. How do I help them take their company to the next level and drive meaningful change? And how can I help you, as a small or medium-sized business leader, be the force behind that change? Well, here are the two key areas of leadership that I always tell my clients about. These areas aren’t just restricted to large corporations, they’re just as important for small and medium-sized businesses because these leadership traits are key to success – no matter how small or large the company you run is.

1. Show up as your full self
What do I mean by this when I say that business owners, as leaders, must always strive to “show up as your full self”? For me, showing up as your full self is all about being present. By this, I’m not saying that you need to have a charismatic personality that draws people towards you. Instead, being present is about having your heart and mind focused on the people you are with. If you are not distracted, if you are mindful and focused as a leader, you will command the attention of your employees, especially in times of difficulty and crisis.

With the realities of owning a small or medium-sized business, I’m sure you know that this is easier said than done. Being present is difficult when you feel tired, overworked, or burdened by the responsibilities of owning a business. But always remember that behaviour, how you act, is something you can control – it’s a conscious choice you make.

Before you enter a space, you should always make a conscious decision about how you’re going to show up. This doesn’t mean that you should lie or pretend to be someone you are not. Instead, making a conscious choice about how you are going to show up is about preparing yourself to focus, with your heart and mind, on how you are going to behave, the impact you want to have on others, what you want to communicate, and how you want others to see you.   There are some tricks I tell my clients to help them with this. One of these is to have a spare shirt in your car, so you can change roles when you’re entering or leaving work. Another is to take a walk around the block before entering work during stressful periods, as this will help clear your head and prepare you to “show up”. There are also some excellent free smartphone apps that can guide you through short meditation practices, such as breathing exercises.

2. Recognise how your behaviour impacts others
Recognising how your behaviour has an impact on others is all about understanding yourself and knowing how to be a “leader of self”. The key to this is leading from the heart. But leading from the heart is not just about being a kind employer (although this is very important!). It’s also about loving your products, your business, and your employees – you need to be passionate about what you do and why your business matters. If you’re passionate about your business, this passion will rub off on your employees and drive performance because they’ll see how much you care about what you do.

If your employees see this care, they’ll be more engaged with the purpose of your company. Your successes will be their successes, your vision for your small or medium-sized business will also be there’s. I believe successful business leaders create a culture where employees treat a business like it’s their own, and this all comes from their engagement with the purpose of what the company’s leader is setting out to achieve.

If your employees buy into your company’s ambitions, this will also help you avoid becoming the type of leader who micromanages. In my work, I have consulted companies and organisations across the globe, and even though there are cultural differences and unique issues for each client, there is one common thread I’ve noticed over my many years of experience: People do not want leaders who micromanage, they want leaders who trust them and give them the freedom to “be”.

In an article, the Harvard Business Review warns about the dangers of micromanaging because it damages your team’s morale. It establishes a tone of mistrust, and it limits your employee’s capacity to grow. Anna Wintour, the Vogue Editor-in-Chief, lists “Don’t micromanage” in a MasterClass article on effective leadership, writing “If you trust your team, you can avoid micromanaging. This doesn’t mean you can’t be detail-oriented – Anna reads every word that goes into the magazine and approves every look for fashion stories, but she also empowers her editors to make decisions on her and the brand’s behalf.”

But recognising how your behaviour impacts others also requires you to take care of your wellbeing. Wellbeing drives performance because if you don’t look after yourself, you’re in no position to help others. Let me give you an example of why this is true. When you are flying on an aeroplane, there are always safety instructions before take-off. One of these is to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Why? It’s because you cannot help others with their masks if you do not look after yourself first.

So, make sure you take the time to look after yourself as a business leader. I know from experience that running a company is anything but stress-free. Find ways to recharge. These can be as simple as stretching during a long day and having a laugh with an employee. By taking this time to recharge, your behaviour will have a more positive impact on your team because you’ll possess more energy, resilience, and clarity of mind.

To wrap up this article, I have a short exercise for you that I often ask my clients to complete. Often, books and articles focus on weaknesses in leadership styles or business practices. I, on the other hand, work on strengths. So, when you have the time, I would love it if you could sit down and write a list of 20 strengths you possess as the owner of a small or medium-sized business.

Obviously, your strengths are what you perform best in. Just be aware that our strengths can also become a liability if we overuse them. For example, you might be an excellent communicator but if you communicate too much and bombard your staff with constant emails, this strength will become a liability. As a small or medium-sized business leader, you need to recognise where that inflection point is. Once you do so, you’ll be better equipped to perform every leader’s central job: unlocking and nurturing the strength of others.