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The Power of Learning with Baker McKenzie’s Steven Ng

What’s the one thing that motivates you? The Mag’s new “The Power Series” invites industry leaders to discuss the “power” of one initiative and how it’s crucial to everyday life, whether work or play. This month, we speak to Baker McKenzie’s Associate Director - Leadership & Learning, APAC Steven Ng about the Power of Learning.
If you tell someone, life is a never-ending learning journey, no one would dispute that.

But there’s no way you can know everything.

Growing up in the US,
I didn’t plan on a career in learning and development. I only realised I loved public speaking when I took a communications course at university. Post-graduation, I worked in Chicago and travelled a lot in the States and in Asia for delivering training and consulting, which I really enjoyed. So when the opportunity to work in Leadership & Learning at Baker McKenzie came up five years ago, I decided to take a chance and moved back to Hong Kong, my birthplace. Hong Kong is fun, and dynamic. But there’s still a lot of learning to do.

If we anchor ourselves to a purpose and interest, and then we would naturally learn. Reading and listening to podcasts allows me to familiarise with ideas in thinking, both for myself, and to share with others. The book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith has been tremendously helpful at various points of my career. And Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow helps us navigate the way our brains work, so to guide us to better tackle our daily challenges.

It’s impossible to learn everything, though, especially in the current age of information overload. 200 years ago, there was no technology, no 24/7 media, so it was easy to say, let me learn all of it. To me, learning is about interest, minimising the noise, and about being practical. The key is to learn what you need to know for what you need to do next to make an impact, both in life, and at work. It’s all about having a growth mindset, versus having a fixed mindset.
There are two tracks to the learning function at Baker McKenzie. One, is helping people to perform better at their job, for the benefit of the firm. As I shared during the Discover Taikoo Place panel discussion, we have to figure out what the value proposition is for people to stay with us. The second track is providing long-term career development to ensure that they are marketable, so that when they do leave us, they’re ready for wherever they need to go next. The world is rapidly changing, and we need to make sure our people are future-proofed enough to move with it.

You can’t learn anything at work without first learning about yourself. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t get to where you need to go. Our mid-level associates all attend a regional programme where we work through the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment and relate the insights to the firm's Development Framework that outline behaviours and expectations across KPIs and personal qualities.
None of us exists in a vacuum. Self-awareness allows you to understand where you need to fit in. We are all an important piece of the puzzle, in teams, in organisations, in society. Understanding the purpose of what you’re trying to do, and getting to the essence of what the team is trying to achieve…then you can figure out – like I mentioned before – what you need to learn to fulfil that role.

It’s a work in progress. Law is very time-based, and people are judicious about giving it up, so they need to understand where their learning fits in with their job. Because we are a specialised industry, our challenge is in balancing the focus between the facts and updates, and that kind of “continuing education”, with the non-technical, but still necessary, slice of the learning pie. We’re working on developing a more business savvy staff; how do we take it past transactional relationships with our clients? It’s about bringing the whole firm to our client, not just a particular specialty. It’s not just about knowledge or skills, because that’s a given.
Of course, leaders need to advocate a culture of learning. It’s not about telling people what to do, though. Working across different jurisdictions in Asia Pacific, I encounter different styles of learning, and different attitudes in learners. Some might prefer dynamic interactions and experiential learning. Others respond better to more formalised, lecture-focused learning. How far can you push things? What kinds of questions can you ask?
Leaders can even support a culture of failing. Even scientists test things out in a safe environment! So leaders need to create a safe environment, especially psychologically, for staff to try things in, so that they will feel engaged and encouraged to give ideas a try – and try again. It’s important to lead by example, to promote and facilitate that mindset, instead of merely downloading information – that’s not the future anymore.

All in all, it’s about developing your muscle to keep an open mind, to learn from others, and then think critically when shaping your perspective. I keep a simple cadence in mind as I work across the various APAC cultures: seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. It's simple, but not always easy.
What else does it take to succeed? See what RPC’s Kate Gregg has to say about the importance of culture.
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