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Jesper Bendtsen, chief people officer at Top Hat.

Dianna Lai Read

Chief people officer, Top Hat, Toronto

When it comes to recruiting talent, the most progressive and high-growth companies today place their highest premium on hiring continuous learners: the kind of people who are adept at picking up new skills and new technologies, can think strategically as well as tactically, and make a habit of adding to their knowledge base. For every candidate who walks through the door, employers are trying to find out if that’s the kind of person they are – whether by inquiring about their learning habits or simply asking them point blank.

This new recruiting imperative is true in nearly every industry, but it’s particularly crucial in the tech sector, where business plans, revenue models, competitive environments, and job descriptions are in a constant state of flux. The iterative nature of the high-growth tech world means that staff need to be able to absorb new information quickly and act fast on what they learn. For example, here at Top Hat, we’re on a major mission to shape the future of higher education by improving learning experiences, course content and student success. To achieve this, it’s imperative for our selection process to identify people who are willing and able to stretch themselves.

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Admittedly, nearly every company is on the hunt for that same kind of talent, and every company claims to have lots of them already among their ranks. The real question is how to retain them. Continuous learners can be among the most challenging to keep and to keep happy. By their nature, they are motivated by – and hungry for – new opportunities.

Companies don’t always walk the talk on this one. On the one hand, they fill their ranks with continuous learners so that the fundamental pace of learning within the firm will be effortlessly fast. On the other hand, they don’t create workplaces that allow the organization to capture learning, share it and act upon it in a coordinated way. Latte machines are a great perk, but they can’t provide talented, growth-oriented people with the sense of professional growth they crave – nor do they keep an organization working seamlessly together in pursuit of common goals.

To create the kind of workplace that will truly reward continuous learning, companies have to demonstrate their own credentials in three key areas:

Make high-impact continuous learning part of the corporate culture

Fast-growing companies need their staff to pick up skills on the fly: project management, team leadership, client relations and myriad other skills. They rely on the natural abilities of their continuous learners to keep things moving, especially in the early going. But then what? If a company truly values continuous learning, it will invest in training to solidify and certify those new skills, and add still more to its employees’ toolboxes – skills that will help them better manage projects and measure outcomes. Team leaders should know what skills each team member is acquiring and encourage their continued professional growth.

Create workspaces designed to encourage collaborative learning

Research shows that people learn better when they learn with others, and they learn best by talking. Workspace design should support those dynamics. Open-concept floorplans with lots of common workspaces encourage both planned collaboration and serendipitous collisions. Companies that want everyone to learn from everyone else don’t provide closed-door offices to employees it deems important; everyone’s personal workspace, from team leaders up to C-suite executives, should be open to what’s going on around them. Top Hat’s Toronto office features a multitude of meeting rooms, all of them behind glass walls, so that attendees and whiteboard plans are never closed off to anyone.

Restructure the way employees work together

Some companies design workspaces to support collaboration, then neglect to structure their work teams and processes for the same purpose. An office full of smart, engaged continuous learners is full of ideas about how to make teams work better; companies need to listen to their ideas and give them the latitude to enact them. And they shouldn’t be afraid to spread ideas that work throughout the organization. At Top Hat, our marketing and HR teams apply the agile principles that work so well for our development teams, conducting their own daily stand-up meetings, scrumming their projects and working in sprints.

Above all, companies that truly value the smartest talent must demonstrate the ability to inspire and lead with purpose. Smart people know how to read between the lines. They won’t stay long with a company whose leaders’ words don’t match their deeds, or whose values don’t align with their business practices.

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