Trainers as Leaders: Spontaneity, Learning, and Leadership

July 12, 2011

A colleague once suggested that trainer-teacher-learners need to be careful that they don’t lose control of their learning environments and “let the inmates run the asylum.”

Co-facilitating the second meeting of the ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Trainers as Business Leaders @Mt.Diablo ASTD special interest group with Diane Fleck last month helped me realize that there are times when the “asylum” does very well with the collaboration of the “inmates.”

Members of that rapidly-growing training and leadership group—which is sponsored by the ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter and is open free of charge to workplace learning and performance professionals throughout the San Francisco Bay Area—began our June meeting with a broad-based discussion of the characteristics and behavioral patterns we observe in great leaders. The comments captured much of what comes out of any discussion on leadership: a willingness to give associates autonomy to make decisions; an ability to inspire others and display the sense of inner authority that inspires trust; an ability to connect with and bring out the best abilities in the people being led; knowing how and when to listen; and a willingness to engage in the decision-making process to shape those decisions.

What happened next was far from routine. Group and chapter member Steven Cerri built upon the conversation by describing a workshop exercise he often facilitates to help others become comfortable with themselves so they are more comfortable and effective in leading others. The exercise came out of neuroscientific and neuro-linguistic programming ideas about connections between mindset and physiology.

“There are actually ways you can affect the physiology and change the mindset,” Steven explained. What he does with his learners, he continued, is designed to help us quickly achieve “that comfortable state where you have the sense that you’re moving through the world comfortably, and, in that state, you have much more access to your full capability. Imagine what it would be like to act as a leader from that state. Once you get this really nailed down, you can access it no matter where you are. It’s just that ability to notice. Why not move that way through the world? Why pick anything else?”

Which, of course, raised the obvious question: “Can you run us through that exercise now?”  And which then produced a much-appreciated response: Steven’s agreement to do exactly that in what was a beautifully effective spur-of-the-moment example of delivering just-in-time learning to a group of his own peers.

What Steven did, in the space of a few minutes, was to encourage his eight peers to sit in comfortable positions, relax, and quietly observe what was contributing to that state of being in the world comfortably. Noting our own individual positions—whether we were sitting forward or leaning back, for example. And then thinking about how we might quickly slip into that physical posture at moments when we most needed that sense of being centered to respond to the needs of those we are leading.

The learning continued as we debriefed the experience to note what Steven had produced among all of us: an increased ability to observe ourselves in ways we rarely do; an appreciation for the already strong spirit of cohesiveness among members of the group that made it possible for us to fully engage, spontaneously, in the learning opportunity Steven provided; and an awareness of the strength of this group of leaders in development—our willingness to work as peers in ways that quickly move us from theoretical to practical and personal engagement in whatever topic we are exploring.

“Really effective leaders know how to adjust in real time to what is going on in the room,” Steven observed as the conversation was drawing to a close, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the example he provided will be one that sticks with us and serves us well in the months and years to come.

N.B.—This is the second in an ongoing series about the ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter Trainers as Business Leaders group; for information about upcoming meetings, please visit the Chapter website at http://mtdiabloastd.org.


Trainers as Leaders: Thoughts, Words, Actions, and Congruence

June 16, 2011

“Congruence,” the contributors to Wikipedia remind us, “is the state achieved by coming together, the state of agreement,” and that proved to be a tremendously fruitful theme to explore at the initial meeting of Trainers as Business Leaders @Mt. Diablo ASTD recently.

The Trainers as Business Leaders special interest group, sponsored by one of the two remaining chapters of ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) here in the San Francisco Bay Area—there are nearly 130 chapters across the United States—is built upon a firm foundation of helping Chapter members and supporters develop and hone their leadership skills in ways that serve the larger workplace learning and performance community.

And while our initial discussion around the importance of congruence in leadership may not have resulted in complete agreement—after all, have any of us ever seen a group of trainers engage in a conversation where the resulting product was complete agreement?—the exchanges did produce immediate results.

The small group of initial members agreed to hold monthly rather than quarterly meetings. The broad-based discussion around the role trainers play as leaders within the organizations we serve created a short list of books that we expressed interest in exploring on themes of leadership, collaboration, and even Neuro-Linguistic Programming. (Titles included Lead with LUV, by Ken Blanchard; NLP [Neuro-Linguistic Programming] at Work: The Difference that Makes a Difference at Work, by Sue Knight; and Thinking for a Change, by John Maxwell.) Participants walked away with a short list of ideas they could use in their own workplaces the day after that initial meeting took place. And participants even used a challenging situation one attendee summarized as a case study in how effective leaders might find creative and positive solutions to vexing workplace problems.

What felt most promising about this gathering of workplace learning and performance professionals exploring and sharing thoughts and proposed actions on leadership was the way these current and prospective leaders modeled the very behavior they were promoting. One participant’s suggestion that “if you are defending a position, you are not hearing another one” reflected the overall openness of group members to exchanging ideas without displaying any inclination to debating those thoughts to score points at a colleague’s expense.

The suggestion that “sometimes you don’t want to shut down people that you think are wrong” continued that theme of inspiring positive actions through collaboration rather than complete reliance on confrontation, and there wasn’t a word uttered during the 90-minute session that would have led to those with conflicting points of view hindering the conversation that took place.

And the theme of seeking congruence between ourselves and the situations in which we work not only served as a foundation for positive interactions among the group’s members, but also became one of the themes that members proposed to explore within their own workplace settings in the days and weeks that followed that initial meeting.

As the discussion drew to a close, individual group members listed some of the actions they would take as a result of their participation in the Trainers as Business Leaders group: working toward establishing congruence within their own work settings; striving to remain in “investigative mode” by listening rather than simply diving in with solutions for each workplace challenge they encounter; seeking to find a few advocates for positive change within their organizations rather than being overwhelmed by the amount of opposition change sometimes inspires; and “putting ourselves in the shoes of the executives instead of acting from our own agendas.”

All of which suggests that members of this dynamic group of trainer-teacher-learners are well on the way to creating wonderful learning opportunities for a larger set of colleagues while modeling the behavior they are promoting.

N.B.—This is the first in an ongoing series about the ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter Trainers as Business Leaders group. Information about upcoming monthly meetings is available on the ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter website at http://mtdiabloastd.org.


When Trainers Lead: To Market We Go

July 23, 2010

Because trainers and those who use their services often ask what tangible results they produce, it’s a pleasure to note the continuing successes one group—board members of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) Mt. Diablo Chapter—is achieving.

While the adoption this week of a Chapter marketing and communications plan might sound about as exciting as watching gopher holes under construction in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (where do people find time to make and post these videos?), it actually serves as another example of what happens when trainers assume leadership positions.

The plan, like the strategic plan Board members adopted earlier this year after more than 14 months of work, is notable for several reasons. It fills an obvious need: helping Chapter leaders, other members, and an evolving group of business partners, collaborate to better serve the organization’s core constituency of workplace learning and performance professionals throughout the San Francisco East Bay Area. It is part of a larger organizational development effort since it is interwoven with the strategic plan and has, as its foundation, a commitment to implementing the Chapter’s mission, vision, and value statements. It was developed relatively quickly and in a way that generated enthusiasm rather than boredom; all that was required were three intensely focused and very productive conference calls lasting less than 75 minutes each and easy-to-accomplish between-meeting activities on the part of a Chapter marketing and communications task force—all in response to a clearly defined mandate with a definitive set of deadlines.

Best of all, it was far from the work of a small group of insiders who were simply egging each other on to produce a document that would gather dust instead of producing worthwhile results. The plan draws from the expertise of current Board members; other Chapter members with marketing, writing, and editing skills; and a successful and respected business partner—Diane Fleck, Founder and CEO of The Learning Café—who had not, until recently, had a formal affiliation with the Chapter in more than five years even though she had served as Chapter President nearly 10 years ago. Flecks’ participation in shaping and now moving quickly to implement the plan provided expertise and a simultaneous opportunity to revive that long-dormant relationship; it also offers the additional benefit of providing a template for additional business partnerships to strengthen the Chapter’s ability to meet and exceed its members’ needs and expectations. Not bad for a process that was originally designed to provide a roadmap for organizational growth and development through better communication with its constituency.

With the ink hardly dry on the document, key Chapter trainers as leaders and other volunteers are moving to maximize the impact of the plan. Joe Novosel, Chapter VP, Communications, posted the document on the Chapter’s website so members and guests would have access to it and so it could serve as a resource to other ASTD Chapter leaders throughout the country. Task force and Chapter member Lynda McDaniel—a second newly acquired Chapter business partner and Founder/Director of the Association for Creative Business Writing—is providing much needed assistance in writing and editing marketing and promotional materials for the Chapter. Fleck is reaching out to her extensive network of contacts to provide additional resources for the Chapter. And all of us on the Board are beginning to breathe a little more easily as we see the incredible workload we have been carrying being dispersed a bit into additional obviously qualified hands—one of the many goals we set for ourselves in the Chapter’s strategic plan.

As mentioned in an earlier article, the Chapter—with collaboration from a variety of interested and dedicated volunteers—has been on a long and steady road to recovery from the threat of extinction nearly three years ago. A partially moribund Board was slowly and steadily rebuilt while the Chapter bylaws were rewritten. Board job descriptions were revised to stress the collaborative approach Board members take to conducting Chapter business. And the strategic plan was created through the same sort of process which produced the marketing and communications plan—formation of a task force which included Board members, other Chapter members, and those who had previously been active in the Chapter but had, for a variety of reasons, drifted away over a several-year period.

Facing the final five months of its existence in its current form, the Board (where members serve overlapping two-year terms designed so that half of the Board’s members are up for re-election or replacement every year and half remain to provide continuity from year to year) will aggressively move forward to build on the Chapter’s successes while seeking even more. And always with an eye on what can be done to promote the Chapter as a sustainable organization offering “a professional, caring, supportive, and fun environment” that is rewarding for anyone involved in workplace learning and performance.


When Trainers Lead: Collaboration and Midyear Reviews

June 20, 2010

The trainers-as-leaders who serve as Chapter Board members for the The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) Mt. Diablo Chapter in San Francisco’s East Bay area took another leap forward last week by reestablishing a dormant connection: the Board voted to create a formal partnership with The Learning Café in the San Francisco East Bay Area.

This collaboration, for all involved, looks to be a positive and significant move in many ways. It reunites the Chapter with The Learning Café’s founder and CEO, Diane Fleck, who served as Chapter President nearly 10 years ago and who credits that experience with having inspired her to found her organization for workplace learning and performance professionals and others seeking to improve their business skills. It brings Fleck’s tremendous marketing and training skills to the Chapter at a time when Board and other Chapter members are seeking to increase awareness of the Chapter’s activities and offerings among its current and prospective members. It brings The Learning Café’s many workplace learning and performance opportunities more directly to the attention of those involved in ASTD locally and regionally. And it continues Chapter leaders’ current efforts to mine the Chapter’s past to assure its healthy future by reaching out to those who played key roles in the Chapter’s development over a long period of time before moving on to other endeavors.

Under the terms of the partnership, Fleck will serve as a formal marketing advisor to the Chapter at least through the end of 2010; help finalize and coordinate implementation of the Chapter marketing plan; and provide public relations support by including promotion of Chapter events in the form of notices within The Learning Café weekly online newsletters, which are directed to more than 7,000 people throughout the United States. The Chapter will keep The Learning Café’s logo on Chapter website homepage, promote The Learning Café’s activities and its Advisor Network on the Chapter website, and keep Chapter members aware of learning and professional development opportunities offered by The Learning Café’s through the Chapter’s own publicity efforts.

The timing for this important step couldn’t have been better. Board members, taking a midyear look back toward the Chapter strategic plan discussed and adopted during the first two months of 2010 after a nearly year-long effort to create the document, confirmed that the overall theme of seeking opportunities to add value to members’ involvement in the Chapter are well underway. Membership remains steady at a time when other ASTD chapters are struggling to attract and retain members, and innovative programming continues to provide what Chapter members seem to value most: learning opportunities which can be used in members’ own workplaces.

Collaboration and building a community of learning have been important elements of what the  Chapter Board set out to do when it was struggling to overcome challenges in 2007 and 2008. Consistent attention to this goal is now beginning to pay off for the organization, and all of us are looking forward to continuing to lead through collaborations for the remainder of the 2010 Chapter Board’s term of office.


When Trainers Lead: Planning and Learning Strategically

February 19, 2010

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.


Training, Creative Leadership, and Tuscan Evening Conversations

January 20, 2010

Trainer-teacher-learners never seem happier than when they are trying something new. Since repetition breeds boredom and boredom kills learning, we thrive on exposure to anything novel that deepens our ability to serve the organizations and clients with which we work.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when you place workplace learning and performance professionals in leadership roles, you’re going to find people who combine their love of producing tangible and sustainable results with a never-ending search for new ways to approach routine challenges. Which is what happened again last night when ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Mt. Diablo Chapter Board members held their first monthly meeting of the new year.

We knew we had to take a series of actions on routine financial and administrative matters, so we blasted through those items within the first 15 or 20 minutes of our time together. We then turned our attention to our continuing efforts to adopt a Chapter strategic plan—a year-long effort which is nearing completion.

But this was not to be a routine discussion conducted by a group of trainers-as-leaders sitting around a table. Because we try to conduct business in a way which provides learning opportunities for us, contributes to our development as a community of learners, and keeps our meetings lively and engaging, we decided to try something new—a way of practicing our ability to deliver elevator speeches (those brief and focused presentations which force presenters to effectively communicate in brief periods of time); we also wanted to be sure that everyone had ample opportunities to contribute to the strategic planning conversation.

The set-up was simple and adapted from something I had seen in an entirely different context: a conversation among long-time friends and neighbors on a warm summer evening in Vagliagli, a small Tuscan village in Italy’s Chianti region, many years ago.  In the original model, two older men sat on a bench directly outside the village caffè while the other men stood in a semicircle around them. Those standing men took turns speaking; when one spoke, he would move forward out of the semi-circle, closer to the two seated men, before making his point and then melting back into the semi-circle. The two in the middle occasionally punctuated this conversation with their own comments, as if to introduce a new theme into the chanting of a Greek chorus, then returned to silence as the others continued their discussion. I could see each man claiming the stage in several ways: the direct act of interruption. Or by stepping forward, closer to their seated friends. Or leaning in toward the center and extending a hand or arm as if to brush some air away to make room for their words. The semi-circle was far from static, and the connections between the speakers also appeared fluid. It was a dynamic version of engaged conversation unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and we decided to bring a variation of that Tuscan conversation to a San Francisco Bay Area meeting room on a stormy winter night.

It worked magnificently with minor modifications.

No one sat on the bench during our conversation or acted as a moderator; we formed a semicircle of equal participants, comfortably took turns—in a completely unchoreographed way—stepping forward into the center whenever we had anything to contribute to the fast-paced conversation. Within 15 minutes—more or less the amount of time we had given ourselves to complete the conversation—we had agreed upon a set of steps designed to produce a final draft of the strategic plan before our next monthly meeting is held. And we had fun in the process.

As we returned from our virtual visit to Tuscany and reseated ourselves around the table in our meeting room, we found ourselves in agreement that the experiment had produced the results we were seeking. It gave us a facilitation tool which we can use with other learners. And it had the added benefit of encouraging us to conduct business in a playful and innovative way where no voice went unheard. Where everyone contributed equally to the overall effort simply by adapting a well-tested method of communication into a setting that inspires us and keeps us engaged at the playful level we all cherish. And continues to help us develop as a group of trainers-as-leaders who depend on collaboration, rather than hierarchical methods, to make decisions on behalf of those we serve.


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