The Workplace As A Sharpening Saw of Humanity: The Complete Guide To Creating a Culture of Learning

Read Time: 12-15 Minutes


If you’re looking to have a successful (and sustainable!) business, education matters. It matters a lot.

Continuous and never-ending improvement is not only the key to making continued improvements in the business, it’s necessary to not fall behind.

Perhaps most importantly, investments of time, energy, and money in education are vital to keep your team engaged. Not only will the quality of their work output improve, but it provides the growth opportunities they’ll need to stay passionate about their job over time.

From our birth, personal and professional development has been a core value at Mark Fisher Fitness. As we imagined what MFF could be way back in 2011, Keeler and I were inspired by companies with cultures that embraced constant learning. Since learning had always been a personal passion for each of us, we set out to make MFF one of those companies and find other team members who shared this value.

Over the years we’ve played with all sorts of approaches. We’ve had some serious successes and serious missteps. And of course, there’s some things we’re still in process of figuring out.

Nonetheless, I think this has always been a huge strength for us, and one of the most underrated pillars of our success. And if you’re looking for an effective and engaged team that kicks serious business ass, you’ll want to make education a pillar of your organization too.

In this article, I’m going to offer you a simple framework that will help you decide what to focus on, assess your educational options, and finally, how to put it all into a plan.

What Do You Want To Learn?


First and foremost, you have to determine where to focus your energy.

You can start by asking the magic question:

If you were to be given a magic wand that would let your team suddenly become world-class at one competency, what spell would you cast?

The most intuitive way to answer this question is to consider a pain point to address. For instance, a few years ago we noticed that the MFF team was struggling with a challenge all organizations face. People were getting frustrated or resentful with other people but weren’t talking about it (well, at least not with the person they had “feelings” about).

Keeler and I recognized that while this was normal, it certainly wasn’t our vision for MFF. We knew that airing out these frustrations would lead to drastically improved personal relations and a much more highly functioning organization. We also realized having conversations like this is not a natural behavior for most humans. As frustrated or upset as people get with one another, most people are simply too uncomfortable with conflict to address the issue directly. This inevitably devolves into gossiping, political factions, “meetings after the meetings,” and all the other bullshit that slowly destroys a community.

Happily, we recognized that we were simply missing a skillset. We had to learn how to have these difficult conversations. More below about our successes and missteps in addressing the issue.

Let’s also remember, that sometimes you should actually focus on leveraging your strengths.

Not sure to address weaknesses or leverage strengths? Read THIS

For instance, we’ve always hired a lot of kind and empathetic people at MFF. Our team is made up of people that live to serve. As a whole, MFFers are gifted at deeply listening. And say whatever else you want about MFF, we genuinely give a shit.

However, we knew there was an opportunity to augment these natural strengths by training the team in the technical skills of coaching conversations. So we spent all of 2016 going through a year long curriculum that Keeler created. We drilled and drilled and drilled on our proprietary coaching methodology. We “chunked” various skills like “power listening,” “validating,” “empowering questions,” etc.

At the end of this period, we were able to upskill one of our organization’s existing superpowers and improve consistency by adding a technique to our talent. As good as we were before 2016, this commitment of time and energy brought our skills to the next level.

Want to learn more about about how we approaching coaching? Go HERE to get the details on our course on Coaching Conversations.

Invest in Personal Development


Lastly, don’t be shy about addressing things that help your team be better at life. Even if it’s not directly related to their work!

At its best, the entire point of working for a business is that it gives you a way to make a living by serving other people in some way. And to be the best servant possible, you have to keep growing into the ever-evolving best version of yourself.

In fact, more than just skillsets, great organizations spend time working on mindsets.

You may even argue our example above about working through difficult conversations is a demonstration of this value. Ideally, mindset is part of what you’re addressing as your team works through the inevitable interpersonal conflicts that happen in any organization.

But I believe a true learning organization needs to go beyond working on skillsets that directly serve the organization.

Over the years we’ve also brought in a meditation teacher and subsidized the team studying meditation. We’ve offered visioning and goal-setting workshops, we’ve done in-services to explore personal values, and we’ve done workshops on personal finance with financial advisors.

And while I’m the first to admit personality styles and emotional intelligence tests have serious limitations, we’ve found them valuable to start a conversation around personal values and systems of belief.

The way I see it, there’s no way to achieve your potential as an organization unless you give your team the space to clarify their personal mission, values, and vision as individuals and commit to them succeeding as a human being. So don’t be shy about doing “non-work” workshops!

What Are Your Logistical Options For Education?


Once you’ve clarified what you’d like to work on, it’s time to consider the training options at your disposal.


Team Meetings


Most businesses have some sort of regular team meeting. We’ve talked before about why meetings usually suck and what you can do about it in this post HERE. One of the best ways to make sure you’re using your meeting time well is creating trainings for your team.

This can go any number of directions, and based on your chosen topic, some approaches are a better or worse fit. The most common type of team in-service is led by you or someone on the leadership team. But it’s important to remember one of the best ways to learn is to teach, so having your team members prepare and lead in-services is a great tool.

Lastly, bringing in outside presenters can be awesome when you need a specific subject matter expert. They can bring their particular expertise and experience helping people learn about a given domain. Outside experts have one other benefit; as much as your team may respect and love you, sometimes it’s simply easier to absorb information coming from an outsider. As the saying goes, you’re “never a profit in your own land.”

While a full discussion of effective training is outside the scope of this article, if there’s one thing we’ve learned (the hard way), it’s that effective training is NOT being given a lecture. It shocks me how often trainings are given in lecture format.

Adults generally learn best by having opportunities to “chew on” the activities. Whenever possible, it’s great to roleplay skills. At the very least, breaking up into small groups of three to four people to discuss the content is a crucial step in really processing and integrating what’s being learned.


External Trainings


In addition to trainings at team meetings, you can also consider sending your team out into the world to learn. No matter what skillset you want to develop, there will be all manner of workshops, summits, and certifications for further study.

One of the most important investments of my career was doing a year-long unlimited pass at the American Management Association. I studied everything from public speaking to management to marketing. Not having an MBA, this was an important step for me to fill in some blanks in my education.

Based on where you live, a surprisingly underutilized venue for education is taking college courses. In 2015, it became clear to me there were some things I just couldn’t understand about our numbers. Keeler and I went and took a financial accounting for non-finance managers at New York University’s Stern School of Business. (ALSO I GOT AN “A,” HELL YEAH BABY, STILL GOT IT.)

Since MFF is in the fitness industry, our trainers have all sorts of options to take weekend workshops, attend seminars, and get certifications. To maintain a current certification, a certain amount of continuing education has to be done every year.

While it’s very valuable to receiving training outside your organization, the downside is that this is almost always more expensive to pay per individual.

A great technique here is employed by my dear friend Pete Dupuis of Cressey Sports Performance. CSP will only pay for one person to attend a workshop, and then have them prepare an in-service for the team to share what they learned. Not only is this cost-savvy, it creates an opportunity for the attendee to deepen and enrich their mastery of the material.


Books, Audiobooks, and Videos


As most people know, I’m a voracious reader. Having your team do “book club” reading assignments can be a great way to stimulate conversation and create a shared vocabulary.

Want book recommendations? Check out this article HERE of my favorite books of all time organized by category. 

However, here’s one important caveat we’ve learned over the years; you’ll still need an in-service if you really want to process the information.

For our first couple of years doing reading assignments, we’d simply have folks write me a short book report and then take a few minutes to chat about it in team meetings. While this is better than simply reading alone, remember my point above about adult learning. Your team needs to “engage” with the material, particularly if there are specific skills involved.

For instance, when we first had everyone read Crucial Conversations to begin to learn how to have difficult chats, we didn’t see much improvement in behavior. Now to be clear, part of this is simply that cultural change takes time. Particularly when you’re dealing with adults who have decades of certain patterns of behavior. Change will not happen overnight. In my experience, you’re usually looking at about two years (!!!) of “constant, gentle, pressure” and reinforcement.

However, we also realized (based on their feedback) that simply reading a book wasn’t enough. Things didn’t start to noticeably improve until Keeler did a role-playing workshop to review the material several months after we had read it.

While we’re still not even remotely perfect here, after years of hammering away at this, we’ve increased both the quality and quantity of these important conversations. And at the very least, we now have a shared cultural vocabulary for how to talk about the things that matter when we’re angry or hurt.

In addition to reading books, we usually give the team the option of doing the audiobook version if that’s their preferred style. It’s also great to consider video options whenever possible. For instance, our training team in particular benefits from the high-quality seminars  and workshops now available via streaming videos.

We’ve also done group learning assignments on Coursera, which is a website with free online classes. These courses are “mixed media” and usually have a mix of videos, articles, and short quizzes. And best of all they’re free!

Perhaps one of our most popular (and free!) team education assignments was watching ten TED videos that Keeler curated. This allowed us to enjoy a pu pu platter of topics by thought leaders on any number of topics. After the assignment, many of our team were organically inspired to go deeper and read books written by the speakers.

(And no, we didn’t include our TEDx talk, but we do make all team members watch it as part of our onboarding.)


Individual Educational Pursuits


Finally, it’s great to support your team’s own interests and encourage them to pursue education on their own. We offer a stipend to team members to partially cover approved educational expenses that relate to their work at MFF (workshops, books, classes, etc.).

I’ll be the first to admit, deciding what to approve is a bit of an art when we define education as broadly as we do at MFF. While we haven’t approved everything we’ve been asked to reimburse, I know we’ve paid out for many things that wouldn’t make any sense to most outsiders.

But if you want to create a true learning organization, you have to find ways to support your team member’s authentic personal interests.

What’s The Plan For Implementation?


Now that you’ve clarified what you want to learn and considered your options for how to learn it, it’s time to create a plan.

The first step here is to consider your logistics and what’s actually possible given the constraints of our organization.

  • How much training time is realistically available via team meetings?
  • What is your budget for bringing in external experts, books, materials, sending your team to outside trainings, etc.?
  • How much time can you realistically ask your team to commit to working on education outside of work (reading books, watching videos, etc.)?
  • What mode of learning (books, college courses, external experts, certifications, etc.) is the best fit for a particular skillset?

A useful approach is to think about the quarter as a whole (or even better, the entire year). Create some sort of master spreadsheet that lets you visually organize how you’ll use your full team meetings. Once you’ve created this spreadsheet, you’ll be able to see at a glance how you’re apportioning your valuable full team meeting time and make sure it’s reflective of what you actually value.

At MFF, we use a rotating, four-week cycle to make sure we’re balancing our time effectively between professional skillsets for the trainers and the biz team, while making sure we save time for full group topics like customer service and life coaching skills.

Depending on what you’re working on, different topics lend themselves to different lengths and a different number of exposures. If you’re drilling a single aspect of customer service or simply introducing a topic, a single in-service may be fine. More often than not, it’s better to think of a long term holistic curriculum. Remember, repetition is the mother of mastery.

Pros don’t practice until they get it right, they practice until they can’t get it wrong. 

An example here is our life coaching curriculum. We’d been drilling pieces of the methodology off and on since 2012. And frankly, we were pretty damn good. But it wasn’t until we got disciplined and actually integrated a full year curriculum that we saw our team really start to master it (and I’d include myself in that!).

Very few topics can really be mastered with a single training session. At best, you can introduce concepts with a single exposure. If it’s really important to master a competency, you want to drill on it over and over and over. I’m not totally kidding when I say you want your fastest learners to be noticeably frustrated and looking impatient. Once you see this, it means you’re at the very beginning stages of your team truly mastering a given skill.

In order to not drive them insane/  improve their understanding, review the same material, but in slightly different ways. While you don’t want to do the exact in-service over and over, you’ll generally need to cover information at least three times before it starts to “stick.”


Invite Your Team To Help Create The Plan


Finally, the great news is you don’t have to do this alone.

Invite your team to be a part of this entire process. Ask them the “magic question” and get their ideas for what to focus on. Let them choose ideas for trainings at team meetings and recommend books or other learning materials. Give them the chance to create in-services.

Odds are, they’ll have great insight into what the organization needs and they’ll have great ideas for how to address it. Furthermore, when you get weigh-in you get buy-in. You’ll see more enthusiastic embracing of the learning curriculum when it comes from their ideas.

Final Thoughts


I have grand dreams for what MFF can be in the years to come. And it all hinges on how we approach the work of getting 1% better everyday.

Getting good at learning is the core metaskill that creates the platform for anything you want to create in your life. To give you some insight and hopefully inspire your own vision, here’s how I see this playing out for us…


A Vision For MFF and BFU’s Future (For You To Model and STEAL)


As we continue to grow, we will have team members offer classes on specific disciplines during our slower mid-afternoon weekday breaks. We’ll offer trainings in everything from program design, to developing their personal brands, to advanced management practices.

We’ll have accountability groups based on different interests so team members with shared passions can become truly world class at skills they want to master, both for their life at MFF and to prepare them for whatever comes next in their career. We’ll continue to grow and build-out our library with the greatest books ever written on the skillsets and mindsets that will help us be our best selves. We’ll continue to balance our study of deadlifts and customer service with philosophy, sociology, and psychology.

We’ll continue to “learn how to learn” and improve the quality of our education systems in every way based on constant feedback and our relentless studying. We will stay abreast of the progressive educational approaches, always designing our trainings with respect for how people best acquire and master skills. Our focus is never on knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but turning that knowledge into action and creating new and better results.

We’ll find ways to leverage our ever-improving trainings and share them with other organizations both inside and outside the fitness industry. This will create new opportunities for pay and career advancement for our team members, and contribute to serving other businesses so we’re making an even larger impact on society.

We will make the Grand Unicorn Experiment a hub for like-minded and high-integrity human beings from all disciplines that are committed to lifelong learning. Our extended community will joyfully make the maximum positive impact on their world with their work. And in the process, they will become the very best version of themselves… and have a blast doing it!

As for today?

While I think MFF is doing amazing work, I know we still have tons of room for improvement.

We can still do a better job of reviewing information repeatedly so the team has time to truly master it. We’re currently looking for better ways to encourage the team to commit to their individual education pursuits and hold them accountable without making it feel authoritarian and denying them their autonomy. And I’m never totally satisfied with making our in-services as enjoyable, challenging, and productive as possible.

But here’s the thing…

It will never be perfect. No system is perfect.


Take Imperfect Action


As you start to think on which of the above action steps you can integrate, it may feel daunting at first. The key is to take imperfect action.

Your systems will not be perfect. They’ll probably even suck at first. That’s ok. Do it anyway. Take imperfect action. Do your best, get feedback, and commit to making it better.

This is a big topic, and of course this format can only provide an overview. Interested parties that want help implementing education systems in their business can check out our courses page. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for our course on developing teams, where we’ll go into far greater detail about how to make this work for your organization.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think. Any other mistakes we can all learn from? Any other strategies you love for helping your team develop? Leave a comment and let us know!