I've spent over a decade training leaders. I facilitate a host of courses and have taught them across the nation. Here's what I know about effective training and when it works.
Before I get to the secret sauce of what works in training, let me share a very common conversation between trainers and leaders. It sounds something like this.
Leader: "Did you teach Employee X (we will call them X because it doesn't matter the age, sex, title, etc)
Me: "Yes, Employee X was in my course."
Leader: "Did Employee X participate? Were they late? Did they show up?"
Me: "Yes, I remember that Employee X seemed really interested and participated in the role plays and offered lots of comments during the course" Leader: "Well, I don't think the training was effective because Employee X is not using any of what you teach."
Me: Sigh inside.......
Leaders often identify a behavior that needs some correction and will offer or mandate training for the employee. Some leaders will take great care to discuss with the employee the behaviors they would like to see changed. On the opposite end of the spectrum are leaders who simply send the employee to training without any discussion. In either case, I call these 'hostage learners'. They are in training because they've been told something is wrong that they need to fix. Usually the learner will suppose what's wrong is them and for the learner, it becomes an identity issue.
There are other types of learners. There's the Vacationing Learner. The organization sends them to a conference or a training in another location. Sometimes, not always, the learner uses it literally as a vacation. They might go out the night before and therefore are tired in the classroom setting. Or their mind is checked out and therefore they are not gaining the full benefit of the training. They literally might as well be on the beach because they are not fully present.
The other type of learner who shows up are the Explorer/Applier who are in a state and belief of continuous learning and applying nuggets to their leadership as it fits.
In 2016, Harvard Business Review published an article called Why Leadership Training Fails - and what to do about it. In this article they validate my experiences in training leaders. I train them and send them back to their department or organization. In either case, they are on their now to implement what they've learned. The article identifies the need for the organization to have fertile soil for the leader to use their newly learned skills. I like analogizing it to gardening. You take a seed (leader) and place it in fertile soil (organization). You water it (giving feed forward) and give it sunshine (opportunities to use the new skills) and the seed will grow into a beautiful plant with flourishing fruit.
I know training is important. I know training offers an opportunity for the learner to change the way they think about leadership. I know the content is good and I know it makes an impact. So, why on earth is it so ineffective at long term change?
Enter your brain.
Our brain is really cool. Like really. Back in the cave days our brain was always on the look out to help keep us safe from predators. Truth is, our brain still does that. While we are in a training class, our brain pathways are open and we can learn new skills. Cool. Even if we are a hostage learner or vacation learner, we can learn once our brain realizes the trainer/facilitator isn't a predator.
So why is it that when we get back to work and try to implement the new skills we've learned it's so darned hard? Why do we revert back to the old ways?
Well, remember that really cool brain we have? That's why. Our brain is trying to protect us. Protect us from WHAT? Hang with me for just a minute.
Remember that Harvard Business Review article I cited above? This is why training doesn't work. In order for training to work, organizations and the leadership must be clear about the culture they want. They must be clear about expectations of leaders. They must be supportive and offer the fertile soil where learning can be applied and flourish.
Often, not always, leaders return from training with excitement and resolve to try new techniques and skills. At first push back from a system that says "That's not what we do here", our brain protects us. Our brain says, RUN! Our brain says, THIS ISN'T SAFE! Our brain says THE PREDATOR IS TRYING TO GET YOU! So we shift back to comfort. We shift back to our old ways.
The very brain that took in new knowledge, that enlightened us to new techniques and skills has seemingly turned against us when the rubber meets the road. How can we then calm our brain down? How can we say to our brain, yes this change might be hard but on the other side of this change, I will be a better leader.
Enter the coach. This is the secret sauce to make training work. Teams normally have coaches. Little league all the way up to professional sports have coaches. I know those who want to lose weight who have hired coaches. Why would a company invest in coaches for their leaders? Or for their staff?
Awhile back, I went to achieve my coaching certification because I could see the value of working one on one with a leader to help them change their brains. You might wonder, "How on earth can a coach change someone's brain?" Well, the answer is easy.
As a coach, my job is to work with the leader during and after the training. It is critical during implementation of new skills. The coach is a non-biased person who can challenge the leader (and their brain) while working through the fight or flight protection of their brain. As a coach, I offer a systematic process where the leader can evaluate truth from feelings as they rewire their brain.
Making training work so that individuals, teams and organizations can be effective and flourish is a multi prong approach. The first prong is the organization. Evaluate how you offer training. Be clear in the culture you want. Be clear in expectations of your leaders. Offer top notch training for your leaders.
The second prong is the leader themselves. Be open to new learning. Be willing to try new techniques as they fit. Be courageous as you work through your own habits and rewire your brain.
The third prong is the coach. Organizations should hire coaches for all of their leaders, not just the C-Suite. Honestly, I believe organizations should hire coaches for all of their staff but that's another article. Give your leaders coaches for a minimum of 6 months to a year. Rewiring your brain and becoming better is a gradual process.
Make your training work and develop great leaders. It's worth it!