The Apprenticeship Gap


By David Selby

“View your career as a lifelong apprenticeship” was a wonderful piece of advice I received early in my now long professional journey. I probably didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but it is advice that I have carried with me and reflected upon often.

To me “lifelong apprenticeship” has come to mean that I should always strive to be learning, to be questioning, to be a student of the business and of those around me. I have also come to believe that it carries a message of humility – i.e., we are never truly experts, nor have we ever exhausted our need to learn from others – those who formally teach and train us, and, maybe more importantly, those whom we observe and who may have no idea how influential they are.

As the structure of work has fundamentally and seemingly forever changed, I have begun to wonder about the future of apprenticeship, particularly the informal kind. Will the nature of how we learn from others in the workplace change? How will knowledge and experience be shared?  How will the nuance of business – the important stuff that often separates great from good and that can’t really be taught, but is rather intuited – be imparted?  And what impact will this “apprenticeship gap” have on future leaders and the work they do?

As managers, we are going to have to be significantly more diligent in creating those moments where we can teach and share what we know. And as learners and apprentices we’re going to have to be more proactive and assertive in seeking out opportunities to learn. It’s hard to “schedule” learning, and it is impossible to impart subtle yet vital experience and knowledge in a virtual setting. I think about all that I learned by observing others, particularly in unplanned settings, and how it prepared me for the big tasks I encountered later in my career.  These were moments of apprenticeship, whether I knew it at the time or not.

Here are a few things that I am doing and thinking about to try to fill this gap:

  1. Proactively finding moments to share my experience and perspective, in “real life”. I’ve never wanted to be that guy who feels compelled to tell you the way that it was or should be. But I do find value in sharing experience and advice, sometimes even if it hasn’t been solicited. More recently, I have been reaching out to young leaders to schedule time to talk about their work and to see how I can be helpful to them.
  2. Trying to listen to and watch others more intently. This can be hard in the real world and even harder in the virtual world but paying attention to others is a powerful way to learn. How do they approach their work and handle situations that are similar to those you encounter?
  3. Being open to those who want to connect and inviting them into situations where they can learn. Hey, we’re all busy, but making time for those around us, whether they work for/with us or not, is important. And including those who may not have an immediate impact on the project at hand but who can learn by observing can pay dividends down the road for them, and for you.
  4. Proactively being the apprentice (no matter where we are in our careers) and scheduling time with those I know I can learn from. This should be an endless pursuit – and it does require taking initiative – which can be intimidating as it requires a bit of vulnerability to ask for “help” or to admit there are things we don’t know. But I have always been pleasantly surprised by how willing others are to share their perspective and wisdom.
  5. Asking LOTS of questions. While we all want to have the answers, it is in the asking of questions where real growth and learning occurs. Too many organizations and managers create cultures where having the “right” answer carries more weight than asking the right question, and this can breed myopic and legacy thinking.  Curiosity is a powerful virtue!

I’d love to know if this concern resonates with you and what you may be doing in your organizations and careers to address it.





One thought on “The Apprenticeship Gap

  1. I enjoyed reading your take on lifelong apprenticeship. This article did a wonderful job explaining the value of being intentional as leader and as a teacher. As I’m starting my own professional journey, I’ll follow your advice about being a proactive student. I also admire your call to action for other organizations to address the gap that is being created. – Lauren Barnes writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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