When Trainers Lead: Planning and Learning Strategically

Talking with colleagues confirms that those involved in workplace learning and performance efforts are often in a position of implementing what others plan and mandate rather than being part of the group at the decision-making table.

The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) remains an organization where trainers serve as members as well as leaders, and member-leaders of the organization’s award-winning Mt. Diablo Chapter in San Francisco’s East Bay area are continuing to learn and lead and collaborate in ways many of us might not otherwise have experienced.

What’s interesting about the way the group operates is that it’s far from hierarchical. We actually function as the sort of organization which Ralph Kilmann—a writer, consultant, and former professor of organization and management—describes in his book Quantum Organizations: A New Paradigm for Achieving Organizational Success and Personal Meaning.

The group also, over the past few years, has managed to avoid the sort of cliquishness which organizations can fall into once leaders become comfortable an ensconced in their positions. With value propositions which include striving “to create a professional, caring, supportive, and fun environment which is rewarding to everyone involved” and a commitment to serving “a cutting-edge model community of learners valuing and promoting training, professional development, and workplace learning in partnership with national ASTD and other chapters,” the shared vision is as explicit as it is flexible. Which, of course, means, that it provides shared values while allowing the organization to evolve as the faces on the Chapter Board change over time.

Board members, with a commitment to having meetings serve as learning opportunities at the same time that they serve as opportunities to conduct Chapter business, last month experimented with a form of dialogue and decision-making adapted from an entirely different context. In that process, we picked up a new tool we can use in other contexts. We met again this week and brought more than a year of work to what appears to be a successful conclusion by adopting and beginning to implement the Chapter’s first three-year strategic plan.

The effort was far from easy, and it wasn’t always seamless. Initial work on the strategic plan  began during a Board retreat facilitated by a former Board member in January 2009, after a year during which basic elements such as the Chapter bylaws were heavily revised to streamline and facilitate the way we operate. The process continued as a few Board members who had completed their terms were replaced by colleagues elected to newly established two-year terms. A four-member strategic planning committee stepped up to the plate—two current Board members; the former Board member who had been inactive in the Chapter’s activities for several years; and a new and energetic volunteer whose level of engagement was so high that, by the end of the year, she had been chosen by Chapter members to serve as the incoming President-Elect (2010)/President (2011).

Strategic Planning Committee members returned to the full Board in June 2009 for a mid-year review of a draft-in-progress. We then continued working well into autumn 2009 to produce a completed document before the end of the year. When that report finally reached the Board for approval, outgoing members joined with those who were continuing into the second of their two-year terms to delay adoption of the draft until the newly elected members who would be responsible for implementation began their own two-year terms of office.

The 2010 Board began its year with a facilitated retreat which introduced incoming members to the Committee’s work. We reviewed and fine-tuned the draft-in-progress. We agreed that the rolling three-year plan would be updated on an annual basis so it continues to reflect the changing circumstances the Chapter and its members will face. Best of all, we had already begun implementing some of the goals and objectives documented—rather than established—in the plan. Which, as is probably obvious, suggests that as we learned how to effectively create a strategic plan shaped by two consecutive groups of Board members, we also took the most important step of all: we learned that planning and implementation can and should occur side by side rather than being treated as artificially separated parts of a cohesive, sustainable process.

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