Many years ago, a colleague and I found ourselves in a conversation with a competitor in the professional leadership training market. The goal of the meeting was to explore how we might collaborate in the future. We had very similar training programs (content-wise) and increasingly found ourselves competing in a specific region of the country.
Early in the conversation it was clear that there wasn’t going to be much collaboration going forward. Our competitor went on-and-on about how he offered deep and transformative experiences to leaders, which in some ways was true. This was also a subtle way to say to my colleague and I that he felt our program was much less “deep” than his. In fact, he ended his self-evaluation by saying that his program was so special and transformative, “…that only about 15% percent of the participants really ‘get it’” and can integrate what he teaches.
Without missing a beat, my colleague responded, “Well, I believe you that only 15% of your students ‘get it’. I just don’t think the problem is them.”
Needless-to-say, we didn’t collaborate. Incidentally, our program which focused on the full arc of change and evaluated its success on the progress made by the middle group of earnest but not readily eager leaders, grew into a large and dynamic international learning platform. Twenty years later, the other program is the same size, doing the same things, in the same region. It never grew or spread its impact. You can find a few raving fans in the 15% that ‘got it’ over two decades. However, that should be seen as an abysmal success rate. To put it bluntly, the other program never grew because they didn’t really know what was required to produce change in most participants – not just among a few exceptionally driven outliers.
Here’s a basic map, learned through lots of trial and error, for structuring a professional development program that produces real change and not just interesting experiences:
Avoid Over-Reliance on the Conversation/Action Loop:
Interactive conversations are useful and certainly better than one-way lecturing. They promote active engagement with content, but they do not (in-and-of themselves) reliably push most people beyond the “contemplation” stage of change. This is why after a great interactive conversation people say, “This was great! I’m going to seriously consider doing/using this.”
Often, education programs then skip to asking people to “take action” and perhaps report back. Again, not a bad request and certainly better than no request for a commitment to action, but it’s insufficient. Typically, in a group of five – maybe one or two come back having put serious effort into “taking action”. The rest are understandably… still considering. They thought about it but didn’t do much. Maybe the other three tried a few things, but nothing particularly intensive or risky. However, there’s a vast middle set of intermediary needs (prep for change, live practice of the new behavior, and practicing under realistic conditions with expert feedback) that are usually either skipped or glossed over by most training programs.
These often-skipped stages are harder to do well and most trainers don’t know how, or are uncomfortable leading participants through these stages – because this is where the honeymoon-phase ends between teacher and student. If we are truly doing our job as facilitators in these phases, there will be times when our students feel uncomfortable and/or do not “like” us or the group. This is where people must freely choose to be pushed outside their comfort zone, learn, fail, recover, and improve with others watching. This is when the ego will battle with the humility required to learn any new skill.
No one looks cool or competent the first time they put on ice skates. Trying out new leadership skills is no different.
When time and energy in a program is mainly devoted to awareness raising and imparting knowledge the instructor feels smart and useful. The student feels grateful and happy. Win/win, right? Not really. Raising awareness and moving right to “now go try some stuff”, doesn’t reliably produce durable new habits or behavior change aside from a few outliers in a group. Those outliers, as in the story above, are then cited as success stories and the cycle, the belief that the program works but only some “get it” or “are ready for it”, is reinforced. All the while, the percentage of people for whom the program is actually working is in decline. This is true of internal staff development programs and externally marketed ones as well.
When asked to evaluate a training program, I don’t focus on the high-flying achievers. Some people will make the most of nearly any program – their innate or developed learning mindset assures it. Instead, I focus on the arc of progress of the “reasonable middle” – those people who when confronted with new useful information are likely to consider making a substantial change in their behavior but require structured mentoring, supportive pressure, and practice to do so. How well a training program produces results with this group is the only truly useful measure of success. That middle group is most people.
And training programs that don’t produce results with most people… don’t work.
Focus on Impact Not Information:
Speaking is where a natural presenter gets to work their magic. Inspire. Motivate. Get people excited about your topic and its relevance to their work. Help people realize that they and their professional practice (whatever that may be) can be more than it is now. This helps people move from the “pre-contemplation” to contemplation stage of change. Check out the “motivational interviewing” work of Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick for more depth here.
Here, a little lecturing at the outset is fine – especially if you’re particularly good at it. However, in a world where information is everywhere and often free, people are paying for impact not information from a learning program. Better yet, record any lectures as short clips and encourage participants to check them out asynchronously before learning sessions. Spend nearly all the time together as a group (i.e. synchronous time) on interaction and practice. Whenever we are tempted to lecture as facilitators, we should ask ourselves, “Could I have given them this ahead of time?”
Instead of using group time for facilitator performances, use that precious time to translate ideas into action. They need more practice in the agenda, not more stuff.
Guide Preparation for Change:
In the story I shared above, there’s a key missing detail. My colleague and I were not smarter than our competitor. And he was right, in some ways we probably weren’t as intellectually “deep”. However, we both shared some key formative experiences early in our careers that made us both “deep” experts in helping resistant and ambivalent people change. We had both worked in the field of addictions and delinquency in very intensive treatment programs. Want to learn how to lead conversations about change while under duress? Spend a few years helping surly adults or teenagers decide to end a life-threatening addiction. It was a masterclass experience in helping others make change in real life conditions with very high stakes. There are certainly other ways to learn these competencies, but that was ours – and now that we were professional leadership trainers, it was a huge competitive advantage.
The good news is that those skills can be taught. Like I said, we didn’t get results because we were geniuses. We got results because we did the things that actually worked for most people in the real and messy world – not just the things that fed our egos or made people like us.
Preparing someone for change, starts with an acknowledgment that all change is risky – even for seemingly minor behaviors. Humans prefer and seek stasis. Even if the status quo isn’t working, we are all wired to resist change. When business leaders continue in behaviors that are obviously not working, it’s not because they’re “crazy”, it’s because they’re human.
To get over this hump, requires focused contemplation and planning. Some useful areas to explore:
- “Just how serious am I about this potential change?”
- “What will I gain if the change is successful?”
- “What will I risk?”
- “What will I lose?” (All real change necessitates some loss: of old habits, behaviors, relationships, etc. Every definitive choice for something is a choice against something else.)
- “What will I replace that loss with that is better and more valuable to me?”
- “If I could be just one degree better in this area, what would that look like?”
- “What first steps will I take that would help make me just one degree better in this area?”
That kind of granular focus is precisely what is needed to produce lasting change – not just a few action-experiments while taking an interesting professional development course. It’s not sexy. It’s not always fun. It can get “gritty” when a facilitator and the group make it clear that real commitments and honesty are going to be required. This ends the presenter/participant “honeymoon”. However, this stage can still be fun.
It doesn’t require becoming a drill sergeant, but it does require being comfortable with other people being uncomfortable. That discomfort is a sign that there are now real change-stakes on the table.
I once provided intensive coaching to a vice president in charge of corporate relationships and culture on how to be more transparent with colleagues. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand what she needed to do, she was simply afraid. And the reality was, even though she was in-charge of corporate culture, it was an unsafe environment. She didn’t need a lecture on the components of a quality “feeling statement”. Instead, she needed practice in delivering those statements in a less than hospitable environment – which is most environments. In short, she needed an opportunity to practice under realistic conditions.
Offer Practice Under Realistic Conditions:
Next, learners need an opportunity to practice new skills under realistic but semi-controlled conditions. This allows learners to practice under (more-or-less) psychologically safe parameters. Think of this as the training wheels phase. Practice sessions should be predictable and contain few surprises or “gotchas”. They should know what skill or competency they are being asked to practice and what success looks like.
The training goal at this stage is to build confidence and competence through practice, feedback, correction, and repetition. Each of these factors is essential to build greater skill and ongoing commitment to change. For instance, one iteration of practice, feedback, and correction is unlikely to produce change without sufficient repetition. Conversely, plenty of repetition without expert feedback and correction can actually be counterproductive – as practice without feedback can simply ingrain bad habits and skills.
All of the above must be increasingly but gradually more realistic. Be willing to push participants to the edge of their competency, but not so far that they give up or completely lose confidence in themselves. Be sure that anything added for greater “realism” serves the progress of learners and not the egos of the instructors (i.e. a desire to show-off, shame, or diminish participants).
Students should be learning to believe in themselves, not in the instructor.
In pursuit of greater realism, be sure to also account for the actual environment and conditions under which participants will eventually be called to deploy their new skills. Do they work in a bank or a social service agency? A police department or a bakery? What kind of people, habits, and professional culture do they work in every day? Account for the small, but important, differences and challenges that every environment brings. The practice sessions don’t need to offer an exact match to their actual work environment, but they should be analogous.
Craft Implementation Plans:
As discussed above, “awareness” of a need or desire to make a change in professional practice is not sufficient to produce actual change – and neither is training. Even the best training program will not produce behavior change in the field if it’s not matched with planning, commitment, and accountability.
Any practice activity should end with time to plan how, where, when, and with whom participants will be using what they’ve learned. It’s better that these commitments be limited and specific versus sweeping and vague. “Tomorrow, what you will practice? When? Where? With whom?” If the group is meeting in on-going sessions, they should be asked to make public commitments to action and offers of support to others in their group. Make it clear that the next session will include reports back (i.e. accountability) on actions taken, and feedback (i.e. support) on how to improve or adjust.
Don’t shy away from this. We all need pressure to make meaningful change, and group pressure from one’s peers is far more effective than pressure and expectations coming from the instructors alone.
It’s easier to tell the teacher you didn’t do your “homework” than it is to tell your friends you let them down. Use positive group pressure to encourage risk-taking and produce real life action.
Initiate a Reality-Based Development Cycle:
This is the fun part. Kick the students out of the nest to implement their plan in the wild. However, all programs will benefit greatly when learners have ongoing opportunities to report back to the group for support, feedback, advice, and correction. This is easier to implement where ongoing sessions are part of the training plan. In this case, shorter sessions with sufficient time between sessions to practice, are best. If there’s only one primary training session, consider creative ways to allow reporting back and processing – at least with instructors but ideally with the group itself.
One of the hidden benefits of the above is that learners and instructors will know what does and doesn’t work in real life. When students are actually using what is taught, reporting back, and trying again – it quickly becomes clear what works, what doesn’t, and what is interesting but not particularly useful.
This dynamic is how great teams and great “changing programs” are built. Use the iterative experience of students using what they’ve learned, reporting back on what’s working and what’s not, to drive the development of the program itself.
Many programs are rigidly built around one or more well-known best practices or core constructs. When that core was developed by the facilitators themselves, the risk of rigidity is even greater. The danger here is that, even unconsciously, the goal of the program becomes proving that that content works and protecting it from criticism and change. That is precisely what happened to the program discussed above that failed to grow its impact.
A real “changing program” should always be evolving. Creators and facilitators should have a near fanatical devotion to assessing what’s working, what’s not, and how to better serve the participants in front of them today – not last year or a decade ago. And remember, the real measure of success is success in the field, not simply providing a fun session. If there’s anything in the program that’s taking up precious time and space, but not producing results, discard it. Discover that a practice that was effective five years ago is no longer moving the needle? Change it. The mantra should be impact, impact, and more impact.
Perhaps the best news is that this approach to development doesn’t require genius, special degrees, or access to magical IP. It simply requires passion, discipline, and courage from creators and facilitators. After all, those are the precise qualities that those we serve need in order to make change too.
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