Ed Hess on Hyper-Learning: An interview by Bob Morris

Ed Hess is a Professor of Business Administration, Batten Fellow and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia. He spent more than 20 years in the business world as a senior executive at Warburg Paribas Becker, Boettcher & Company, the Robert M. Bass Group, and Arthur Andersen.

Ed joined academia in 2002 as an Adjunct Professor of Organization and Management at the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University where he was the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Entrepreneurship and Corporate Growth and The Values-Based Leadership Institute.

In 2007, he joined the faculty of the Darden Graduate School of Business as Professor of Business Administration and the first Batten Executive-in- Residence. He teaches in the MBA & EMBA Programs; has taught in over 21 Executive Education Programs; and is the author of 13 books, 150 practitioner articles, and 60 Darden cases. His work has appeared in over 400 media outlets worldwide.

His new book, Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change” (Berrett-Koehler, 2020) focuses on the “New Way of Being” and the “New Way of Working” that will be needed in order for human beings to excel in the Digital Age.

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Before discussing Hyper-Learning, a few general questions. First, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

In December of 2017, I took a week and looked back on my life using the workbook “The Path of the Everyday Hero” by Lorna Catford and Michael Ray. I deeply reflected upon how a kid from a very humble background from rural Georgia got to where I was. I have had three different successful careers – law, business and academia. I was passionate about humanistic and cognitive psychology – twice being accepted into world class graduate psychology programs. I had great mentors who encouraged me beginning in the 8th grade. I had excelled in areas that I had no professional training. I had continuously made choices to take on projects that appealed to something inside of me that I had no idea of how to do.

That exploration was me asking myself the same question you have asked me. What set me on my zig-zag professional journey? The answer began in my senior year of high school and has\ continued through today. I had people who believed in me and who encouraged me to try new things. I learned over the years that I could go into the unknown and figure out what to do.

For example, a mentor from my practice of law in NYC became the CEO of a global investment banking firm 5 years after I left NYC. We reconnected and he offered me a senior investment banking position with responsibilities in the areas of private equity and IPOs. I looked at him and said: “You know that I do not know how to even compute an IRR”. He said: “Yes, I know that but I know you will go figure it out before this weekend.” And, I did. I was not afraid of trying new things.

So, when I left the business world and joined academia I looked for opportunities to do research and make contributions in areas that were generally unexplored. That led to my research and creation of the Organic Growth Index – a major research project that built a model which illuminated public companies that consistently out-performed the market by growing organically as opposed to growing via acquisitions or financial engineering. Then I wanted to study those companies and figure out what made them different. Likewise, I went into the barren area of studying private entrepreneurial companies that over the years had continuously adapted to be leading-edge private companies competing successfully against much bigger companies. And then I moved into researching companies that used science to build leading edge learning organizations. That led to my focus on how we humans can excel in the Digital Age.

So, the turning point for me began years ago in my senior year of high school. I have been on a multi-decade learning and exploration journey. And it continues today. I am happiest when I am learning and creating new stories intended to help people. That is the purpose of the Hyper-Learning book. It invites people to embrace a science-based “New Way of Being” and “New Way of Working” in the pursuit of meaningful work and meaningful relationships in the Digital Age.

Who and/or what have greatest impact on the development of your thoughts about accelerated, high-impact learning? How so?

Many, many people have helped me get to where I am today. It began with my parents and my high school coach. My love of humanistic and cognitive psychology was ignited in my undergraduate days by Arthur Combs and Sydney Jourard and in my graduate school days by Lyle Bourne, Jr. My passion for humanistic values-based leadership was fueled by many CEOs that I have studied or worked with and written about in my books. Foundationally, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers were the two pillars that lit my humanistic psychology fire in undergraduate school and in recent history, Kim Cameron’s, Jane Dutton’s and Barbara Fredrickson’s works have played strong roles in my evolution. And I have had great mentors in the business world and in academia.

I am where I am today because of “Others”! For that I am eternally grateful and I try to “pay it forward”.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

I agree. I believe that great leaders are “enablers” — they enable and empower others to engage, excel and find meaning in their work.

Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Yes, and; The ability to do that requires people to take ownership of their mind, emotions, and behaviors in order to
effectively emotionally engage with others in the pursuit of collaborative learning. No one can learn at their highest levels by themselves.

From Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Humility is the new smart.

From Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I love this quote. The business world undervalues emotions but emotions are so important. The science is clear that positive emotions enable learning and negative emotions inhibit learning. The science is also clear that positive emotions enable the creation of caring, trusting teams, which are foundational to effective collaboration. Human emotions may ultimately be our human uniqueness with respect to smart technology.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Behaving in ways that clearly demonstrates that you care about people as unique human beings will be part and parcel of the workplace of the future and a humanistic society. Caring will replace competition in the workplace.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

The workplace culture that will be needed in the Digital Age is one that is humanistic and validates everyone’s human dignity irrespective of position. That culture will also operationalize behaviorally in the daily way of working the psychological principles of Positivity, Psychological Safety and Self-Determination Theory along with an Idea

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

The greatest challenge will be creating a Hyper-Learning Organization that can excel at adapting at the speed of change. Without that, the life expectancy of an organization will be very short.

Now please shift your attention to Hyper-Learning. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decide to write it?

Based on my research and consulting work especially over the last five years, I became convinced that the traditional defining principles of the workplace and the common organizational design and way of working would not enable human excellence in the Digital Age. I believe we need a “New Way of Working” and that way of working will require a “New Way of Being” in the workplace. That is why I wrote this book: to put worth a practical science-based “how-to” behavioral model of how organizations and human beings can stay relevant in the Digital Age.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Yes. In writing this book, I became convinced that I had to write this book in a style or format that is very different from my prior books and different than most books which basically discuss concepts or models. So, the final book is a “learn by doing” book where the reader is invited to emotionally and cognitively engage with me in “making-meaning” of the content and then operationalizing that meaning through behaviors.

My publisher bought into this approach and created a “My Hyper-Learning Journal” that allows people to write down digitally or physically their Reflection Times and Workshops work products. That Journal is about 140 pages long and is free and can be downloaded from the book website. So, this book is a book with an imbedded workbook – that was the big difference from what I envisioned.

To what extent (if any) does your hyphenated term Hyper-Learning differ from what J.H. Favell characterizes as “metacognition”?

Hyper-Learning is broader than metacognition. Hyper-Learning includes metacognition. Hyper-Learning is cognitive AND emotional AND behavioral. That is the difference. Hyper-Learning requires managing one’s ego; managing one’s emotions; and managing as best one can what is going on inside of one’s body. Hyper-Learning requires one to take ownership of
what is going on inside of us and ownership of our behaviors so that we can more effectively think, listen, relate, and collaborate.

I think you are an evidence-driven pragmatist who provides a brilliant explanation of HOW TO in Chapters 1-3 and 6-8. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you consider to be the single most important point to keep in mind when engaged in each of these processes. First, how to achieve inner peace

The “How-To” Chapters are mission critical. The most important point is for people to understand that we are talking about human transformation and human development. We are operationalizing concepts through one’s behaviors. That in many cases will require behavior changes. That requires patience, hard work, self-discipline and daily rigor. Common errors people make are trying to change too much at one time. Start “small” and use the Diagnostic in the book to help choose where to start. I invitethe reader to start with their “WHY” – Why should I do this? Why is this so important that I should create a daily regimen that I practice every day in order to improve? Behavior change is daily work. The good news
is that anyone can do this if one sticks with it. And as you make progress, you will see the difference and others that you care about will see it, too. This journey is joyous if one has the self-discipline and drive to become one’s best self.

How to adopt a Hyper-Learning mindset?

In Chapter 2 of the Book, I invite the reader to create their Hyper-Learning Mindset – which basically is one’s definition of how one wants to behave or be in the world and one’s adopted principles that will guide one on a daily basis. To help the reader do that I have given her or him many readings from ancient and modern thought leaders from different domains with the invitation to create their Daily Intentions using the principles in Chapter 2 and one’s chosen behaviors in Chapter

The end game is to create your Daily Intentions – how you want to be – behave in the world each day and to read those Daily Intentions first thing every morning and visualize yourself behaving the way you want to behave. And each night review your day (mental replay) and grade yourself and focus on improving the next day.

How to Behave like a Hyper Learner

I recommend taking the Hyper-Learning Behaviors Diagnostic at the end of Chapter 3 to illuminate one’s opportunities for improvement. Having used that Diagnostic a lot with senior executives I can tell you that most everyone will have many behaviors to improve. Then I would choose one or two granular behaviors to work on and use the behavioral change best practices discussed at the end of Chapter 3 to begin to work on improving one’s behaviors.

Let’s say some C-level executives have carefully read Hyper-Learning and then decide to establish and nourish a workplace environment within which Hyper-Learning is most likely to thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

The C-Level Executives need to begin with themselves and personally commit to role modeling the mindsets, behaviors and daily use of practices that they want their team members to role mode. They have to go through the same process as their employees. So, that is number 1. They have to actually spend 3-4 months using the processes outlined in the book to begin the journey. Then they are ready to begin changing the culture inside the company by installing a “New Way of Working” based on the three psychological concepts discussed above along with an Idea Meritocracy.

They have to create the story: – the Why, the What and the How to roll out to their team members. It all begins at the top and then has to be scaled down the hierarchy. It could take a year or two to roll this out in a big company. It starts at the top. Senior Leadership has to wholeheartedly embrace the behavioral approach with authenticity and courage and vulnerability. To humanize a business requires the humanization of leaders.

What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when planning and implementing that community platform?

The most important do is for leaders to do the personal work on themselves that will be needed. They need in most cases to change how they lead and how they behave in meetings. They have to become in many ways more human: authentic, transparent, and work on their “soft skills” since the needed transformations are highly dependent upon positive emotions and emotional and social intelligence.

The second most important to do is to take a systems approach. You have to align the newculture, leadership model, HR policies, measurements, rewards and daily work practices to enable the desired behaviors and mindsets and to deter the undesirable behaviors and mindsets.

What are the most difficult barriers to Hyper-Learning?

The most difficult individual barriers are how we humans overcome our “wiring” – we are generally “wired” to seek confirmation of what we believe; affirmation of our egos; and cohesiveness of our stories of how the world works. You can add to that overcoming the two big inhibitors to learning – ego and fear. And you can add to that a mentality that life is a competition based upon survival of the fittest.

The most difficult organizational barriers to overcome are command and control cultures and ways of working; a negative emotional work environment; elitist leaders; arrogant leaders; leaders who are poor listeners, poor collaborators and who excel at knowing; and leaders who view employees as a resource to be exploited – cogs in a big wheel – rather than fellow human beings who want to have meaningful work and a meaningful life who should be treated with human dignity.

Which of them (if any) seems to be especially difficult to avoid or overcome? Please explain.

All of this takes consistent hard work over long periods of time. That is why I call it a “New Way of Being”. If forced to choose I would say the hardest parts are overcoming one’s ego and fears.

Having been a school and then college English teacher for 23 years in a prior life, I am eager to ask you the next two question. First, to what extend (if any) can Hyper-Learning improve the quality of precollegiate education? Please explain.

That is a great question. I have had preliminary conversations with two leading public-school educators about creating a Hyper-Learning High School. I believe at a minimum that the approach in this book should be considered for grades 11 and 12 in high school to help prepare students for the velocity of change that they will experience in their life-time.

To what extend (if any) can Hyper-Learning improve the quality of education in colleges and universities? Please explain.

Well, I am biased. I think this book would add a lot of value as a required Freshman Course. It brings together different disciplines and research. It can help people be more productive all through their formal education.

An African proverb suggests, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In your opinion, what is the relevance of this proverb to the rules for collaborative engagement?

I would suggest the following revision. “if you want to fail, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”If you want to be a Hyper-Learner and be able to continuously adapt as the world changes you need to embrace “Otherness”. We all need others to help us be the best we can be and therefore, we need to be the type of person that Others will want to help – that is why we will have to help others be all they can be, too”.

To what extent (if any) does creating a Hyper-Learning community platform involve what Joseph Schumpeter characterizes as “creative destruction”?

Love this question. In many cases, organizations will have to jettison their Industrial Revolution culture and way of working and leadership model for a much more humanistic model as we discussed above in order to excel in the Digital Age. So, in that regard they have to completely transform. So, the question becomes is that transformation the same as “creative destruction”? I think so.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Hyper-Learning will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

I will assume that the person will not start off as manager. In that case I would advise them to focus on the “New Way of Being” part of the book – the pursuit of Inner Peace. Begin that personal work to enhance one’s abilities to think, listen, relate and collaborate at high levels consistently.

To a first-time supervisor who has several direct-reports entrusted to his care?

This person needs the entire book.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

The owner/CEO of a small to midsize company has a choice. She or he has the power to embrace this book and transform his or her company. And they have the choice to stay as is. I would recommend that they do some scenario planning and assess how technology will transform or disrupt their business and think about the human capabilities that they will need to deliver a compelling customer value proposition. How will their business stay relevant? Will they have to automate some parts of their business? What are the human skills?

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Ed cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website.


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