Coach Your Learners

Coach Your Learners to Prevent “Snap-Back”

A general manager sent several of his managers to a leadership training series which included a 360 degree feedback assessment and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to learn about themselves and others. After the series ended he and I were discussing how to provide ongoing development for his charges to continue their growth into their leadership roles. The general manager said, “After they completed the training series, I watched and waited to see what Jim (one of the participants) would do. It’s been over a month, and I haven’t seen much change yet.”

“Hmmm”, I thought, “Had it been you, would I have seen you apply your learning and leap up the growth curve? I think not!” At ease, I did not say that, but I did think it. By the time a month had passed, the learning has already faded and the chances of successful application have become remote. Maybe I should have said it!

Why don’t leaders coach and develop their people? Perhaps they believe they do; kind of a ‘sink or swim’ paradigm. But the proof is in the pudding. In this series of intensive leadership sessions the Savage Leader 360’s showed that participants consistently fell short with the competency ‘coaching and developing others’. This result was across the board without regard to the industry, age or gender of the leader. Would you be surprised to learn that the managers of these learners had not provided (nor modeled) coaching and development for them!

Why this dearth of ‘coaching and development’. Here are four common reasons.

  1. No expectation for coaching exists in the organization.
  2. The supervisor has never learned to coach from prior experiences or education.
  3. She has natural patterns and habits which favor activities other than coaching (e.g. planning, analysis, problem solving). Many of these leaders had Type preferences for INTJ or ISTJ (on the MBTI).
  4. He believes that employees should ‘just do it’ (“just like I did”).

Any one of these could stop a person from coaching another. More often, two, three, or all four combine to firmly prevent coaching from occurring.

There are a few people who jump to apply what they’ve learned at an educational event, but they are the exception, not the rule. The truth is that we hesitate to try new things, even when we have just invested time and money to learn them. Even after we sweat out a workshop for which we volunteered (or were sent to), we ‘snap-back’ to our preexisting habits.

Millions of shelves are lined with a billion 3-ring binders of good learning that gather dust. We’ve all heard of the comfort zone, and spend our time there when we can. Even those who courageously apply what they’ve learned often snap-back, after their initial attempt leads to disappointing results. (You may remember the last time you tried out a new skill for the first time, did you end up snapping-back to your old ways?)

Most people need help to apply their new learning on the job in their natural environment. Without help, they ‘snap-back’ to their previous habits, and the learning is extinguished. For the learner and the organization to reap the harvest of new learning, the leader needs to help close the gap to support the learner in developing their new skills and confidence. A leader needs to get out of her comfort zone, and put on the coaching hat to help the learner(s) apply and capture learning.

How to engage, utilize and integrate new learning? Here are three tips to support your learners:

  1. Negotiate your support role. Before he goes to a learning event, offer your help to the learner. Acknowledge that people learn better with support from a coach (you). Let the learner identify how he would like you to help. Offer your own ideas as options he can choose. Come to agreement on how you will help.
  2. Consider the three 3 P’s: Plan, Practice, Perform. You can help your learner plan when and how to use the new skills and knowledge. You can suggest that she practice or help her practice (e.g. role play a conversation). With your help in preparation, the learner will be more ready and more confident in performing while using the new abilities.
  3. Invite follow-up. Once the learner has completed the program and/or tried out the new skills, offer a conversation to debrief what happened. Ask how it went, what she thought went well, and what she might do differently next time. Listen fully (yes you can do this) and respond thoughtfully.  Reinforce success and failure, as that is part of the learning process.

In today’s world, keeping your people growing is not a nice-to-have option, it is a competitive requirement. And, for the training and development program to have an impact, follow-up and reinforcement are necessary. As a result the learner and company will enjoy maximum benefits from the investment in training.

You can’t see what you haven’t seen…

The times wore heavily on Tim’s face. Like many of us, he feels trapped. He is happy to have a paycheck in this tough economic year. However, his spirit is sapped by the limits placed upon him by the organization. A senior manager, he’s been told, in not so subtle ways, that he needs to pull back his goals. His ideas for improvement are not welcomed at this time and this place.

Given Tim’s significant experience, training and talent, I suggested that other organizations would welcome his creativity and drive, and that he might want to start ‘looking around’. Perhaps a place that is younger, smaller, not so set in its ways. There must be a company that really seeks to evolve, to get to the front of the pack, to build its culture in a pro-active and profitable direction.

“This is the only corporate experience I’ve known,” he told me. Given his lack of other experience, Tim couldn’t imagine that a business exists that would welcome his talents and vision. He could only see that everywhere was like where he was. I was shocked that he was stuck like this. Over the years we’ve worked together, I’ve developed a great respect for Tim’s abilities. But under the current circumstances, he has lost his ‘mojo’. He is trapped by his view of his circumstances, and the nagging self-doubt that has grown from the steady drumbeat of rejection in the job. It’s as though the company learned too well from Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.”

Tim is the face of a challenge many people, including leaders in organizations are dealing with. In the last six weeks, I’ve heard this pattern from four different people, at various levels, ages, colors and indifferent industries and businesses. When we haven’t seen something else, and haven’t experienced it, we easily fall into a rut. A rut, someone has said, is just a grave with the ends kicked out.

So we give up, and put up, and our talents and excitement wither on the vine. What to do? If you are in this pickle, look for inspiration and encouragement.  Talk to people, get out of your box.  Use the Internet.  In the career management field, we recognize that folks lose sight of their unique gifts, simply because they come easily to them. We forget that there are organizations and people that value what we do, and would be happy to bring us aboard to add competitive advantage to their business. But we forget that.

If you are a leader, you’ll want to pay attention to this phenomenon in your people and find ways to re-engage them. You can ask, “How is our organization throwing a wet blanket on the initiative and creativity of our contributors?” Heck, you can even ask them directly, although they may be shy to answer truthfully. Then work to modify the structures, processes and behaviors that cause the problem.

Is this type of leadership easy? Not always, and not for everyone. Does it pay dividends through increased retention, morale and productivity? You bet it does.