The learner

As early as kindergarten, Donna Rae Smith learned both the joy of learning and the fear of having learning squelched. The first half of that year was spent inside a classroom where the teacher encouraged her budding mind to try new things, speak up, ask questions and share things with others, and Smith loved the excitement of learning.

Then her family moved, and she started at a new school. She was so excited for her first day, and she went bounding into the classroom ready to learn, but she was quickly told to sit still, stay quiet, fold her hands and don’t disrupt the lesson. She went home that day scared and not wanting to return. The rest of the year, she felt like she had to be there instead of wanting to be there.

Therefore, she learned early on that it was far better to encourage people and foster learning than to stifle it, and that’s a lesson that has stayed with her throughout her life and now as founder and chairman of Bright Side Inc., which helps accelerate personal and organizational change.

“It’s the choices that we make that determine how we think, how we believe and how we behave,” Smith says. “At a very young age, I made a decision to embrace the experiences that reinforced and strengthened my curiosity for learning.”

The key to realize is that it truly is a decision. Later in life when Smith was working for a machine tool company, she had another epiphany. The American industry was on top of the world but wasn’t trying to improve, which led to its demise. As the company and industry collapsed around her, she realized that she wasn’t open to learning any more.

“I had become very comfortable following the status quo,” she says. “It was a serious personal and professional experience that opened me up again to why learning is important and why it’s important for us simply on an individual and personal basis but also why it’s important for companies and entire industries.”

At the same time the industry crashed and she lost her job, her marriage also ended, and she became physically ill as a result of the stresses on her. She decided to go to Japan, and there she observed something so different. She got the opportunity to work with some great leaders, including William Edwards Deming, who is often credited with starting the quality movement.

“He really validated what I experienced and what I was working on,” Smith says. “He validated that fear is learned. He validated that fear can be unlearned. That really reinforced my excitement for having insight and turning the insight into action.”

In order to turn learning into action, you have to be focused on what your dream is.

“The goal or the vision is what really energizes the action,” she says. “If I’m really focused on my dream and I am aware that a belief, my thinking, my behavior, is getting in the way, that propels me to stop or to set aside the distraction, the limit, the barrier and take action that will move me closer to reaching my goal.”

Sometimes, though, that can be uncomfortable because it may mean leveraging a strength in a different way or trying something that you never have before.

“It is being an objective observer for the purpose of learning, and then have the commitment to take behavioral action … and doing it on an ongoing basis is what learning is all about,” Smith says.

Once you’re more open to learning, then you can foster learning in your own organization. Recognize that the one thing you know is that you know nothing and communicate that to employees.

“The leader has to be humble in order to demonstrate that he or she does not have all the answers,” she says. “Once the leader does that, then it makes it OK for other people to not have all the answers. It makes it OK for other people to share something that’s different in response to a question or a challenge or a need.”

As you learn, then talk about how specific people helped you see a situation better or taught you something that you didn’t know.

“It’s about the leader knowing and demonstrating that they’re always learning,” Smith says. “It’s the leader always actively seeking out and being intentionally open to diverse views and sources of information, and it’s the leader that’s always challenging and seeking to expand his or her own view of reality.”

How to reach: Bright Side Inc., (440) 543-1800 or