Leaders Speak with Mark Burns

 Mark Burns

"I have a strong belief in the power of relational trust.  Communities can achieve much more than individuals, but only if there is a common connection. "

I am delighted to speak to Mark Burns, co-author of, ‘The Learning Imperative’ won HR and Management category at the Business Book Awards 2019. Over the last ten years, Mark has developed a proven track record in improving teaching and leadership in education. He’s co-authored two best-selling books in this field.  More recently, he has worked with firms in the private sector including a FTSE100 retailer and third sector organisations, to develop the impact of learning on performance. Through his work, he has developed a deep understanding of learning design and how leaders can overcome the barriers to learning in organisations.  

Tell us about yourself

My passion is supporting organisations to develop effective learning that improves performance. Sometimes this involves working directly with leaders to explore how they can develop learning within their team and overcome any barriers that may exist. On other occasions I work with organisations to design and/or lead learning programmes directly.  

Having spent many years working in education, supporting the development of teacher performance, I was heavily involved in the design and development of a ground-breaking learning programme using video technology to support thousands of teachers’ development.  The learning from this led to me co-writing two best-selling books for teachers.  


What also came from this work, and more recently, with other organisations outside education, was a deep understanding about two aspects of adult learning.  Firstly, the key foundations for effective learning in the workplace.  Furthermore, once the foundations are in place, how to design and lead learning programmes so that they actually lead to learning and performance improvement. 


Through this journey, I became increasingly fascinated as to how leaders in organisations that I was working with, influenced the learning cultures within their teams. Sometimes this was intentional and positive, but in many cases, it was the opposite.  The question I continued to ponder was, ‘what is it that leaders who’ve created an effective learning culture in their teams doing, that their less effective peers are not?’  It was answering this question that led to the writing of ‘The Learning Imperative’.

What's the biggest issues facing leaders right now?

Whether they are in private, public or third sector, organisations are experiencing more change than ever before. Given the imperative of learning in terms of ensuring organisations can thrive in an era of change, anything that inhibits learning can create an existential threat for the organisation as a whole. My learning is there are three major barriers that I’ve found can really inhibit learning and growth;

  • Processing Overload - Processing overload is characterised by a feeling within a team, for perhaps different reasons, that the time or energy for learning and improvement is not available. Sometimes this is caused by the pace of operations, but it can also be due to the lack of opportunities for the team to collaborate and gain shared clarity.
  • Low Relational Trust - Relational trust is crucial for learning to take place. High trust within a team is like oxygen for learning. Where there is low trust, individuals can be less willing to ask questions when they are unclear. It can make them fearful about making mistakes or how they are perceived by others. Finally, low trust can lead to reticence about seeking and giving honest feedback.
  • Perception Gaps – Perception gaps compare an individual’s assessment of their own performance with the reality. Where individuals overestimate or underestimate their performance, the net result is that they may become closed to learning. For those who overrate their performance, perhaps due to an over-developed ego, they ‘know’ there is no compelling need to improve, because they are more than comfortable with their level of performance. On the other hand, those who underrate their performance often lack confidence and even resist feedback contrary to their perceptions because they don’t think they will be up to coping with additional learning.

What I’ve found is that these barriers rarely are found in isolation. Where processing overload is inhibiting learning, relational trust issues can often be found too. Team members frequently attribute the causes of processing overload to the perceived failings of their leaders.

The Solution:

I think a key element is investment. As part of the research for the book, I interviewed numerous leaders who had proven track records. What struck me was how each one of them was emotionally and intellectually invested in their desire to contribute to building something beautiful. Something that would inspire them and those around them. It was clear that this personal investment, modelling if you will, played a key role in them generating the strong relational trust within their team.  Whilst very different characters, they were all highly effective at developing strong relationships that enabled open dialogue to thrive. 

What's your philosophy on leading?

I have a strong belief in the power of relational trust. Communities can achieve much more than individuals, but only if there is a common connection. Too often in organisations, investing time in developing strong relational trust is not given the priority it deserves.  As a consequence, collaboration, communication and feedback are often far less effective than they could be.  Given how much of our lives are spent working, creating a high trust environment which supports the growth and development of all is so important. Think about the day when individuals leave your team. What would you want them to say about the impact of working alongside you had on them personally and professionally as a result of strong trust?

I believe that there is always the potential for a better tomorrow and that being open to learning provides teams and individuals with the most power in shaping this future. As Eric Hoffer is quoted as saying, ‘In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.’

Where teams and leaders are posing questions such as ‘In what ways could we overcome the barriers to improving performance?’, ‘What other sources of valuable feedback might we be ignoring?’ and ‘Is there another way of looking at this situation?’ they are seeking to gain a deeper understanding about the present and how best to shape the future.  I’m also increasingly convinced by the intrinsic benefits that learning brings teams and individuals, through personal growth and feeling of increased competence.

If you could give one piece of advice for anyone entering management position for the first time, what would it be?

Beware of the danger of assumptions. In fact, I prefer to use its’ synonym‘ guessing’.  Too often I’ve observed less effective managers who have, sometimes due to processing overload, fallen into the trap of assuming that ‘telling’ is the same as ‘understanding’.  Similarly, there is the risk of assuming that there is shared clarity within the team about processes or what represents excellence.  It’s fascinating to explore how individuals within the same team have quite different interpretations of the meanings of words such as ‘feedback’ or ‘quality’. 


There are huge benefits to be gained from continually seeking out our own and others’ incorrect assumptions. Firstly, it makes us better listeners, and it is for this reason I’m a great believer that ‘dialogue’ trumps ‘monologue’.  As one leader, that I particularly admire, ‘the key to my job is making sure that every interaction I have with my team, whether it is a one-to-one or with a larger group, prompts everyone to think more deeply about what we do, why we do it and how we can do it better.’

Follow and connect with Mark