The Self Made Man and the Future Of Learning

This week I have been preparing to speak to the sponsors of a single mom’s ministry and educational program geared to help empower young women to get to a place where they can make self-sustaining choices and, eventually, be vocationally set to stand on their own two feet.  My part of this program is to create a fall course to teach principles of career selection, learning and development and goal setting.  This experience has been one of great renewal and has made me thankful and self-reflective in ways that have probably blessed me more in the process than I will ever be able to give back and bless others through my training.  Certainly it is better to give than to receive, as always.

But more than anything this journey this year as I am building the curriculum, has changed my perspective on learning and development as a field.  I have sprinkled bits of the field of HRD into many of my career choices.  Never full time but enough to appreciate the field and motivate me to earn a master’s degree in training. Several years back my team installed a learning management system and bolstered the company corporate university, in order to achieve the board requested goal that this company double training and take strides to become a true learning organization. In two organizations I built leadership coursework and material to train managers and supervisors to lead / motivate / develop all talent, from high performers to those struggling, to the person dead center of the nine box.  The thing is, in all of my professional endeavors to train and develop employees, I have neglected to emphasize as richly one singular and engagement catalyzing principle that I am learning in my program with these single moms.  And that principle is one of motivation and ownership (of the learner/achiever) in their learning journey.  All too often I think in Corporate America we fall into the trap of training, but never achieving organizational changing learning. This I honestly think is why training is one of the most under funded parts of businesses today.

I was unbelievably moved last Monday night when I attended a graduation celebration for three ladies who are graduating from this above mentioned single mom’s program.  Some of the students got up in front of the group and shared a piece of artwork they created that showcased their learning and achievement and life goals they set out to attain as they joined this program.  One of the ladies put me in tears as she shared her journey to obtain her bachelor’s degree, and her part in authoring a book that will tell her story of overcoming domestic violence.  Wow.  Talk about motivation.  The children of these ladies listened to their moms and clapped and cheered.  Man I thought.  I have never felt this kind of fulfillment after finishing a series on leadership training and giving each one of the managers on my team a book to read to keep up the journey of good management. Or after printing out the coursework for one of the students who finished the LMS certificate program when I set up my learning center at the healthcare organization.  Why I thought?  Simple.  When the learning was just about mandatory training to satisfy the employer’s requirement, there wasn’t much engagement in that equation. It was a monotonous task.  Contrast that with a motivated woman who is earning the path to success and turning the page in her family’s life fate by working hard and getting the education that will buy her a ticket to a good paying job. Nothing monotonous here. Rather, she was passionate. She was engaged. She was all in, all the way, no going back.

Flash back to American History class.  Remember reading about Frederick Douglass’ famous speech about the self-made man?  The story of breaking through and grabbing life and fate and fighting to overcome and win.  The story of Americans creating a future and carving out a destiny covered with success and freedom and blessing.  Many people have achieved great things when they had something that lit a fire light inside them. Something inspiring.  But that motivation comes from within.

So how about the day to day learning that happens in Corporate America?  Is it possible to make a stretch assignment exciting?  To build a Corporate University that is actually dynamic and engaging? This almost seems silly even drawing a comparison, don’t you think?  With many “learning and development  programs” being no more than a series of cheesy online classes on how to avoid harassment and deal with conflict (typically with bad actors), how can we actually make people get motivated about learning at work?  It seems comedic, right?

Well, there is probably not going to be the kind of passion and fire light as in a single mom earning a ticket out of poverty and abuse.  But what I think we can learn from this is that if there is not compelling motivation of some type embedded in the Corporate University and the development planning process, there will probably not be a whole lot of return on the learning investment.  It is critical linchpin to be able to engage employees in the process of crafting their learning journey.  I have seen success in this when I have had an employee who really wanted to earn a promotion.  Or who had a dream to break into some area of the field never touched before. I then joined them there.  We built a personalized IDP (individual development plan) that showed them the connection between learning and achieving.  If you take this communication and organizational class series, I will let you apply in this stretch assignment. If you succeed in this stretch assignment and begin to influence the organization I can then recommend you for this promotion, that assignment, etc.  The message being, there is not ever a cookie cutter approach to learning. Outside of obligatory training to keep regulations pacified (which is not learning but merely training), there is frankly little fruit to be gleaned from any learning and development program that is cookie cutter and the same for all.  So, take a risk.  Ask your employees to share a couple of vocation dreams with you.  Meet them there and invest in them. Draw a connection between their dreams, your company needs, and the learning plan can can connect the two. If we had a few more “self-made men” (and women!) in Frederick Douglass style, we just might see more break through ideas and engagement in the workplace!

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