To be a great leader, one doesn’t have to be born with great leadership skills–they can be developed through study and learning. In the corporate environment, learning occurs in 2 ways: experience and observation, and enterprise learning.
Experience and observation occur every day, all around us. Enterprise learning, on the other hand, should be planned and sequenced to provide learning experiences immediately when needed. Such enterprise learning requires a great deal of hard work to accomplish successfully. The objective of enterprise learning is to provide a meaningful experience that will cause the learner to conduct business differently.
The following 5 principles only scratch the surface to the science of learning, but assuming your objective is not to get an advanced degree in adult learning, these 5 may help you improve what you do today.
Principle #1: Learning means changing behavior.
Too many “training” sessions involve putting people in a room and flashing PowerPoint presentations at them. This is unlikely to cause a lasting change in behavior. When I’m invited to watch a PowerPoint, the only behavior it’s likely to invoke is using the time to read the mail I bring with me.
Will a PowerPoint presentation cause a change in the way you do business? Will it cause you to behave and do things differently? Very rarely. This type of learning is not stimulating and brains don’t learn this way. Adults have to be involved to process new information and know what to do with it when they get back to work. So, if a PowerPoint won’t work, what will?
In their book, Telling Ain’t Training, Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps debunk the old model of an effective presentation: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Stolovitch and Keeps write: “It makes learners aware … it’s the receptive model of training. It’s telling. It sure ain’t training.”
Good training is an interactive experience where one has learned the concept from experiencing the training. Here are the key factors that I believe make a positive training experience:
? The learning objectives are clear. “When you finish this training experience you should know/be able to do the following things.”
? The experience is interactive and facilitative. The facilitator is asking questions and through those questions guiding the learner through the content.
? Various methods are used to involve the learner: questions and facilitation, exercises, small group projects, reports, etc.
? There is a test at the end of the experience. If it’s worth training, it’s worth testing to see if participants actually learned anything.
Principle #2: “Shining Stars” are generally not good trainers.
Hearing successful colleagues share how they accomplished their great success is interesting, often entertaining and, if done well, very motivational–but it’s not training. Featuring a “Bright and Shining Star” (BASS) may earn you great reviews from your audience, but it probably won’t achieve the desired results. If your learners could do what the BASS does just by hearing about it, they would be doing it already. This is not learning from the masters and mentors. That takes repeated sessions carefully watching the master in action. This is asking the number one sales person to tell all the other sales people how to do it his/her way.
BASS presentations are not the place to teach new content or to reinforce knowledge that you need to get across to a group of learners. Your learners may not have the skills to implement the systems and processes that the BASS has taken years of hard work to build.
BASS presentations do have a place. Where a BASS can work well is as a platform presentation to disseminate some information to the large group. Then they are broken into smaller groups where a facilitator works the group through a series of questions to allow the group to process through what they can actually do differently based on what they heard from the BASS.
As for training a group on specific content, it requires a good instructional design implemented by a trained facilitator possibly with the assistance of a Subject Matter Expert (SME). This is the good facilitated training as described in “Telling Ain’t Training.”
Principle #3: Adults learn by doing.
To again cite Stolovitch and Keeps, “The more the learner does and contributes, the more the learner learns.” If your objective is to have a group learn new information or, even more important, a new skill, the participants must participate: interact with questions and discussion, write answers to thought-provoking questions, create something that they will need to use, play a game (especially effective with competitive sorts such as sales people), discuss the topic with other learners in small groups, take a test, practice with feedback–the possibilities are endless.
Of course, some adults push back against such exercises and involvement techniques. You may have to work a little harder to get them involved somehow and once they get past the push-back stage they love it. They may feel they’ve outgrown such techniques. Or, more than likely, they just don’t want to make the effort. It’s hard work. Do you remember how tired you were after a day of training during which you really learned a new set of skills? Your brain and your body are tired.
Principle #4: Keep it brief.
For any training event, there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to the length of the intervention. In an effort to keep costs down, it’s tempting to compress a multi-day training workshop into a daylong session. But what looks like a cost savings is actually a waste of time and money. After 3 or 4 hours of a real training experience, most adults are exhausted. They need time to rest and internalize what they’ve learned.
Learning occurs “inside out.” That means adults have to internalize the experience and think through how it applies to them in the real world. That cannot be done when they are in another training session, supposedly learning about something else.
As adults, most do the best internalizing of information by talking it over with others who have gone through the same training. That’s why some of the best learning can take place over meals, in the lounge, or around the pool after a training event–anywhere the learners can talk informally about the practical application of what they learned. So, offering a place and time for learners to internalize information is key.
Principle #5: Adults learn in many different ways.
Those who rise through the ranks to top levels of senior management are generally quick learners. I’ve seen senior executives pick up the handouts for a presentation and within minutes they have internalized the content and they are truly 10 pages ahead of the presenter. While most of the audience is on slide #3, they’ve grasped all the important concepts and arrived at the right conclusion for the organization.
That’s great for those people who have that ability. The problem arises when the belief is that everyone can learn in the same way and at the same pace. News flash: Most people don’t learn at this rapid pace. So training should not be designed to suit the way senior managers learn when working with the general population. And, keep in mind, when developing learning for senior management, do not design training the way you would for the general population. It has to be fast, they have to be involved, and it has to include more content.
Also, learning should be made available through different vehicles. One person might not take the time to sit in a daylong class, but will go carefully through a Web-based training course. Another won’t touch a computer, but will listen to peers discuss how to apply a new concept. Others won’t do any of the above, but they’ll spend an hour talking to someone who is considered an expert in a particular area. To create a real change in behavior, use different training methods. (That’s a whole principle unto itself!)
These 5 principles are just the beginning
Is this everything you need to know about learning? Of course it isn’t. I can think of about 20 more concepts I’d like to share, and you can no doubt think of some that haven’t even occurred to me. But understanding these 5 principles will help us get more effective and efficient training for every dollar spent.
R. Morris Sims, CLU, ChFC, is vice president and chief learning officer of the Agency Department at New York Life Insurance Co., New York, N.Y. You may e-mail him at