After you Train, Engage and Empower

The best coaching lesson I ever received in my career life went something like this. It was probably day two of my job in my first large organization. My boss at the time (and business coach to this day) sat me down and drew a simple graph on the white board. He wrote the words ENGAGE and EMPOWER on this graph along the X and Y axis points. He drew a line diagonally up showing a direct relationship between the two. He told me this was the key to managing performance and don’t ever forget it.

I have indeed never forgotten that lesson. I have many contacts who work as consultants to troubleshoot issues in the workplace with complex models and high price tags. I’ve seen well intentioned and highly intelligent leaders pour thousands of dollars into training to help get their workforce to the next level, only to see these individuals walk out with the skills once trained, or refuse to apply. I’ve seen leaders recycle staff at a rapid fire pace thinking the next one will perform better, wait the next one, no this time really the next one. One word in my opinion sums up why all the efforts, great and small, fail to lead to performance. Control.

I have learned that when I want to get the most out of my team, both those I manage directly and those that I functionally influence, I have had to step back from control. It is hard for me because I’m a controlling person by nature. But this poison zaps the effectiveness of efforts to develop the workforce and get them to the next level. This is because controlling environments send a power message. We (management) don’t trust. We (management) are better than you. We (management) are more powerful than you, and typically enjoy that power. We (management) set the rules and won’t be challenged. We (management) are insecure and do not want to let our employees come up with better ideas than us. The human spirit was designed to flourish under care and nurture, not control. The crux of all civil rights movements have direct ties to this same root cause. One group clings to control and wants to usurp their right to have this control over the other. Whether in the realm of nations or in the realm of companies, control will ruin the recipe for success.

So what does it mean exactly to engage and empower? Engaging means capturing the mind and spirit in my book. It means I listen until I understand and I show (and mean) that I care. People tune in when they realize you are really listening and care. Now this engaging and tuning in is then evidenced through action and letting the person go forth and act on their unique ideas and opinions. That is where the empowering comes in. The proof of the pudding is that I then step back, let go the the reins, and let the employee make personal choices in his or her business methods and decisions. In other words, I step back from control.

I think of when my boss who gave me this advice applied this very thing on me. I had operated in a small (mostly one state) operation. When I joined his team I suddenly picked up over 25 states that I had to support. My HR hats had to multiply overnight. I went from recruiting maybe 5-10 a year to recruiting 50-100 staff members in about a year, many tied directly to the success of a critical government demonstration project on the east coast that was driving future operational models for a FORTUNE Company. I didn’t think I could do it. And that’s where my coach showed to me how this formula worked. He provided me the tools I needed with lots of training from the corporate office on HR, legal support, direct recruiting tools and more. When I came back from the training with a new process and opinion he let me apply it. He made himself available all the time. When I’d go to his office and tell him that I was about to crack because staffing up at the level demand was about to kill me, he’d pump me up and set me loose again. Eventually I did it but only because he captured my attention, motivated me, gave me the tools to succeed and empowered me. I only had this boss with me for four months but it was the most critical four months of business coaching I’ve ever had in my life. I taught me how powerful the human spirit is if respected and trusted and motivated. This coach engaged and empowered me.

When it comes to the development side of training and development, this simple formula of “engage plus empower” is the absolute lynchpin. People need a chance to apply themselves on their own. Now of course if the tools and equipment (training helps here) are missing the employee will flounder and fail. Management is fully accountable to provide the right tools. For example, training on the systems and policies and practices with resources to rely on where there are questions. Or, providing training dollars to support outside learning needed to keep up on business acumen. Wise managers will also make themselves readily available, but not forcefully omnipresent. Accountability (eg setting clear targets one must meet and be measured by) are also essential. Engaging and empowering is not a shortcut to allow sloppy workforce performance. Quite the opposite. It is sending the message that you are capable and I trust you, so go forth and do great things!

I thank my business coach all the time for this simple but powerful lesson learned. I hope that I can apply this lesson in all my endeavors.

Does Generational Style Impact Learning?

While the field of HRD spends a good deal of time breaking down the components and concepts of learning, and building best practice curriculum, there is one area that is sometimes overlooked. This is the differences in learning that the generations bring.

The breakdown in generations by year of birth can vary. Generally the Traditionalists are from the World War era. They were born into the 1940s (most say the cut off is 1945). Think about this generation as defined by formality, serious times with war and depression, less technology in their prime, and so forth. When educating this older generation one must remember what learning was like in their day. Classrooms were more traditional and rigid. Technology was hardly existent, as least compared to today’s tools. The culture was generally more conservative. When educating a member of the Traditionalist generation, the educator should take on a more authoritative tone. This can be in terms of knowledge of the topic and tone set in the classroom. I think of when I worked in the long-term care field. The learning opportunities we had, from Chapel to Art Classes, were slow and even keeled and the instructors were more formal.

The next generation is the group that came to be as the post-war generation started to rear children. It’s a large generation. They are called the Baby Boomers. The Boomers became a generation that tried many new things. Generally they are individuals born in the mid-1940s up to the mid-1960s. Think about some of the music and new manufacturing and big business booms of this era. This generation was raised to respect authority but then broke away from authority and birthed the new and individualistic way of doing life. This spills over into methods of learning. Generally speaking, the Boomers are going to want to have something meaningful and in it for them in the classroom. They will want to see why the learning is important before they learn. They will expect interaction and stimulation. They may be OK with a little more traditional/authoritative approach than the younger generations just because while their generation broke away from tradition, they didn’t break all tradition.

The next generation is the group born in the later 1960s up to the very late 1970s. This generation is called Generation X. This group became known for a more rebellious and independent streak. This is a self sufficient group most of the time. Technology began to boom in their era. Think of alternative rock and PCs and video games. Think of a generation that was angered by broken homes, think of latch key kids and think of a generation that learned to challenge authority and make their own way. This group of self starters require to be challenged and given a chance to further themselves and their careers in the classroom. They will embrace technology, and be more willing than some other generations to do self study. They will be comfortable questioning the educator, and so the educator show be ready to respond to tough questions and to respect this generational learner.

The last generation is the group born around 1980 and after. This generation is called Generation Y. While they maintained a lot of the individualistic ways of Generation X, there was a greater movement in their time towards world causes, environmentalism, teamwork, open mindedness and a broadened view of personal identity. This group is more inclined to work to live and not live to work. They want feedback. They are used to social networking and connectivity everywhere – technology always has been part of their world. As such, they will embrace interactive and highly technological ways of learning. Groups and teamwork will be effective. Less formality is preferred. And, this groups tends to want a lot of positive affirmation and feedback along the way, so the teacher “coach” approach is preferred.

Now of course no broad stroke picture will apply to all. There are individuals that by no means fit their generational mold. However, the concept is that an educator who is going to be most effective will be aware of and cater to the learning styles of learners best they can. This will include incorporating a blended set of methodology to reach all generations.

To Open Source or Not to Open Source?

I’ve worked with different LMS (learning management system) platforms over the years as I’ve been involved with learning in the workplace. These include Docent, Care2Learn, Upstairs Soluions, Taleo, Spectrum iVantage and HomeTrak. All solid products with good platforms to track and report out on learning. Some custom tailored to a specific industry with canned products plus opportunity to upload new clases. Some better at basic administrative/compliance tracking but not full blown LMS. All have served a purpose that worked in the organization that used them.

The funny thing is that there is this whole world of freebie software floating about in the cloud. It fascinates me. At my house the world of Open Source runs rampant. I don’t use Word but rather Libre Office for my word processing, presentations and spreadsheets. In fact I just finished a twelve page paper for class on Libre Office and saved in Word compatible mode today. It is a beautiful thing! My son uses a graphic editing software that is Open Source. By doing this my family had saves hundreds if not thousands of dollars in software over the years because Open Source is free.

Despite my personal Open Source use for basic applications at home, I have not really seriously contemplated how Open Source impacts the world of learning management systems. Just recently I began to study this world of LMS systems. I have been studying Moodle, which is used by a number of learning institutions and other organizations. Their site is I’m curious to hear from other learning professionals about their experiences with this kind of software.

And if you are a HR person with an itch for taking this even further, try Orange HRM (Open Source HRIS system) or LimeSurvey (Open Source online survey tool). These are fascinating too!

The Business-Embedded Training Model never forgets the Voice of the Customer

While traditional training models can be clean, neat and well adopted by trainers who enjoy following checklists that are static, these models can have a devastating impact on an organization’s ability to compete and survive in today’s marketplace.

The emblem of a traditional training approach is a rigid set of learning requirements that are built around a compliance driven methodology. An example of this is an organization that has a training team living in a silo from the sales, operations and other teams. What occurs is that training may be outdated and based on old policies and practices. Perhaps in this environment there are too many layers to cut through for training to be changed and evolve to meet current demand. The culture in this environment is transaction based and learners are rewarded for following process and completing the training compliance requirements, but not required to achieve application of new learning that drives business results.

In direct contrast to the traditional model is the model that is business-embedded, meaning that the model is dynamic and ever evolving. The foundational strategy of the business-embedded model is that training should never be static. It is directly tied to strategy and supports a learning environment where all employees are expected to continue their learning to whatever degree is required to maintain a competitive advantage. This expectation is baked into the culture and employees are expected to initiate this process and not follow the training team’s lead.

Attaining a business-embedded model means that the training team is constantly engaged in discussion with the rest of operations. Silos are destroyed. SWOT analysis (looking at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) becomes regular practice. The voice of the customer is deeply embedded into the curriculum. This means that the purpose of training is to create material that adds value to the skill sets of employees in a manner that drives new products and enhances competitive advantage. For example, if a company is struggling to find the kind of talent it needs to satisfy a specific kind of skill required to meet new customer/product requirements, they might look to apprenticeship programs or in-house training modeled around this specific skill need. Or, let’s say that an external competitor is achieving higher customer satisfaction scores due to a rock solid inside sales force, leading to higher sales volume in the marketplace than the others. In this case the company may need to bring some high impact phone sales training to the workforce that is current, applicable to the product at hand, and tied to performance systems.

I enjoyed this article about a creative way that Volkswagon cracked the code on dealing with a shortage of skilled machinists, They said well, if we don’t have the workforce we need, we need to build it! This is a great example of a business-embedded training model.

Relevant training programs are not for the faint of heart. They require constant change and creativity, regular needs assessments and willingness to change up the curriculum and program whenever the business environment demands it.

Heroes in Learning!

Last year I had a very special opportunity to spend a little time doing mock interviews with some individuals who had recently come to the United States due to very difficult circumstances in their home country.  Sponsored for a period of time by a non-profit organization and a number of loving souls who helped them settle into the US, they began a difficult journey to seek permanent employment and make their way in our country. Some knew little to none of our language.  Some had never been in a city as big as Chicago before.  Many had entire families here; many mouths to feed.  All were courageous and bold and heroes in my eyes. All were determined to master and learn all of the skills required to succeed in this journey.

I have to say that this day I volunteered was incredibly moving and as the saying goes I received more personally (by being part of this experience) than I was able to give.  The fierceness of the human spirit to overcome adversity and rise above circumstance was fiercer in the spirit of these brave individuals than in any other human beings I’ve ever met.  Each one of the individuals I met with was seeking to pursue career opportunities and I was honored to spend just a tiny bit of time lending them coaching support and advice as a HR practitioner.

The ripple effect of this one short afternoon has been pretty impactful in my life.  Each time I launch a training initiative in a corporate setting as part of my occupation, and often when I set out to read and write for my own university studies, I think about how simple my personal training and development experience has been compared to the obstacles these heroes I met have faced. If you would like to read a few inspiring stories, check out this website You will see quickly why these are stories of heroes.

I thank all the heroes of the world who have faced adversity and stood their ground, who have stepped up to meet brilliant challenges, who make learning and growing a part of their life calling, and who inspire us with their stories of overcoming.

ROLI (Return on Learning Investment) Requires that Learning is Tied to Strategy

It’s my theory that training and development is the ugly step child of departments like sales, finance, direct labor and other more clearly value add areas of a business. This is because we so often fail to measure things and create a strategic tie with measurable outcomes like these other areas do.  I recently read a frightening statistic that suggested about 90% of training initiatives fail to show a bottom line result.  So how can we be the minority of this statistic?

I have to think that the high level reason for this common problem is that we fail to fully follow the full HRD model that applies the Deming “Plan-Do-Check-Act” approach.  In the HRD world the path is Assess, Design, Implement and Measure. Classic process improvement here.  If you don’t plan it; if you don’t tie it to strategy; if you don’t measure and implement wisely, you fail to deliver.

Why do we fail to apply this well known discipline?  Perhaps because it is a hard thing to do.  It is so much simpler for the Training Department to act as the recordkeeping and reaction team.  We track learning activities (recordkeeping).  And we respond to requests without questioning them (reaction).  So as managers come our way to request Excel training, Tuition Reimbursement, Off Site Seminars, and so forth we respond by playing administrative assistant and lining this training up. This is the simple way to do things and emblematic of very traditional and transactional HRD.

To really undergo a full blown assessment means we need to understand the strategy of the company and plan training out thoroughly.  We need to be in touch and aligned with our executive partners.  If that Excel class will not result in a tangible bottom line learning improvement that will be applied on the job, it may be worthless.  The question to ask is what behaviors need to be changed and what knowledge needs to be added that will translate to outcomes and business impact?

Beyond being part of this strategic discussion, we need to truly understand how to make learning stick.  In the past year I was charged with doubling training for over 300 healthcare workers at a long-term care company.  We did double the training in the course of one short quarter by implementing a very efficient LMS software system.  However, we discovered quickly that many employees were just going through the motions to “check the compliance  box” on the training list so they would not appear on the delinquent report.  This led to a deeper discussion around what classes impacted actual, tangible, behavior and outcomes on the job.  Is it sufficient to merely view a one hour lecture on preventing patient falls?  Or do we need to also have a follow up in person class, provide tools for application to the students and then measure the before and after results in terms of fall prevention (eg last month we had 100 falls, but after training and practice we have 95 falls resulting in a 5% improvement).  This type of measurement discipline needs to be applied to learning in order for it to be worthwhile.

Another fantastic model to study is Fitzpatrick’s learning model.  This is worth a blog unto itself.  The reason I love this model is because it starts with selling your product to the customer.  It asks the question — are my trainees convinced that this training is worth their time?  If not, scratch the project and work on your sales pitch.  Good old fashioned “Sales 101” is something we need to apply to every discipline.  This is because adult learners are not at all like children in school.  They need to be sold on the “why” behind the training before they will be engaged in the process.  Without the why, the mind will not be prepared and engaged to learn and apply.

The point being, training needs to have purpose, vision, strategic buy in and measurement.  Please share your thoughts and ideas – how have you kept training strategic at your organization?