Action-learning

A Plethora of Models — Why so many and how do you choose?

Choose any training topic — leadership, coaching skills, performance management, etc., etc., and you will find any number of books, articles, training programs, and consultants with their own “unique” approach, guaranteed to be the “definitive model.”

Back in the 1980s, when I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), I was involved with the company’s engineering and manufacturing organizations around the topic of Quality.  At the time, there were three major experts identified with the quality movement, each with books, training programs, consulting engagements, and large followings across many industries.  DEC had a unique culture, where people were encouraged to experiment with different approaches and find the solution that worked for them.  In the quality arena, there were adherents to all three of these approaches, and the people who belonged to each school of thought had their own success stories and an almost xenophobic dislike for the adherents of the other approaches.  Because the culture would not allow any one person to mandate that one of the three approaches would be implemented company-wide, more time was wasted arguing over the “best” approach than in implementing any approach.

Which approach was the best?  I didn’t have the answer then, and I don’t have it now.  Each of the approaches had its adherents and its wonderful success stories.  But the one thing that the success stories from all three approaches had in common was that a company selected a single approach and implemented it across the company.  And it was the dedication to a single approach and the alignment of the entire organization to that approach that made the difference.

When I first came to the American Management Association (AMA) to lead the design and development of its programs, I did a quick analysis of all the programs in its catalog that were targeted at first-line managers.   There were more than half-a-dozen, and each of them included some instruction on coaching skills.  And each, ranging from one hour to several days of instruction on the topic, had its own model — a 3-step model, a 5-step model, a 9-step model, etc.  The models were all different, but they were really all the same.  The biggest difference in the models was how detailed each model was in its explanation.  I argued for my entire 4 years at the AMA (without much success) that we should have a single model that could be used across all programs.

In a previous job, where I was the one-person director of employee development, I got certified to teach a particular coaching skills program and taught that program to hundreds of managers across the company. Was the program I chose the “best in the field?”  I don’t know — I guess it depends of what you are looking for and what criteria you use to evaluate the many programs out there in the marketplace.  Why did I choose this particular program?  Because it was the right length for my audience, it covered the subject matter well, and it included a lot of in-class practice to help people master the skills it taught.  Could I have been as successful if I had chosen to adopt some other program?  Sure — as long as it met my evaluation criteria.  I chose this one because the training certification program for it was being given locally, was reasonably priced, and was offered when I was looking to start the program.

So, why are there so many different coaching models, so many different approaches, so many books on coaching skills, so many training programs?  The answer is pretty simple.  If I am a consultant or a trainer and I go to a potential client and say “Bob Smith has a terrific 4-step coaching model that I teach in my classes,” the client would (or should) start thinking: “If Bob Smith’s model is so great, maybe we should hire Bob Smith to come teach it to our people.”  That’s what I would do.  So, if I want to get this potential client signed up, what do I say to make my case?  “You know, Bob Smith has a very well-known and successful 4-step model for coaching skills.  But I have found that by adding two more steps to the model, I can make it even better.  Therefore, you should hire me to teach my 6-step model and your people will get the best solution in the marketplace.”  Is my 6-step model really better than Bob Smith’s 4-step model (or better than every other model out there)?  Probably not.  But only by differentiating my product from the others in the marketplace can I distinguish what I am selling.

This is not to say that there are not different approaches to teaching coaching skills and there are some real differences between these different approaches, just as there were three different approaches to implementing a quality program.  What is important is not to get overwhelmed by the plethora of models and programs being offered.  Study the field.  Look at the major approaches and select the one model that you think will work best in your culture.  Once you have selected a model, look at the alternative training programs being offered that use that model and choose one.  Don’t get overwhelmed by the plethora of choices.  Don’t get stuck in “analysis paralysis” model.  If you want to be successful in introducing coaching skills (or quality or any other program) to your organization, choose an approach — one approach — and implement it across the organization so that people are getting the same training, using the same skills, using a common vocabulary — these will be major factors in your success.

I’m back!

Please pardon my absence from blogging for a while.  Early this year I had an unfortunate heart attack that sidelined me for several months.  Now, with three stents in my coronary arteries, and completing a multi-month course of cardiac rehab, I am now in good health and feeling good.

In my 40+ years in the training/learning field, I have been fortunate to have a number of managers who allowed me to try new ideas which, for the most part, resulted in very successful programs.  While I have written 7 books on corporate and individual learning strategies, I still have many stories to tell.  I plan now to write a long series of blogs and articles to help transfer some of my experience to others.

I have been pleasantly surprised throughout my career where I have suggested new approaches that seemed simple to me, but had never occurred to the people I worked with.  In these blogs, I plan to relate many of these stories.  Some of my colleagues may find some of these stories simplistic and obvious, but my hope is that some of these stories may spark an idea for some of my colleagues.  In other blogs, I will share some of my own philosophy of learning and development that I hope at least some of my readers will find useful or, at least, challenge them to rethink how they do things — even if they decide that their current practices fit their situations perfectly, it never hurts to consider other ideas.

I hope that, through this series and through my earlier books, writings, and presentations, I can establish my legacy for the field.

Dan Tobin

Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline

AN EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT MODEL – Part 2-B: Educational Sessions and Action-Learning Projects
The four elements of the leadership development program (LDP) model are as follows:

– Formal Education Sessions
– Action-Learning Projects (ALPs)
– Individual Development Plans (IDPs)
– Mentoring and Coaching

In this blog post, I’ll focus on the first two elements: formal educational sessions and associated action-learning projects. The last two elements will be the focus of a future blog post.

Formal Education Sessions

As mentioned earlier, the topics for these sessions include topics related to not just leadership skills, but also execution skills and business acumen. I am also talking here about a series of education sessions, ideally 8 sessions scheduled quarterly over a two-year period. (Remember that a single session on any topic, no matter how good it is, is unlikely to transform a group of Hi-Pos into instant leaders.) There are dozens of potential topics for these sessions and the LDP should encompass a mix of the three areas, with the exact topics being chosen to match the needs of your Hi-Po group as perceived by the organization’s leadership team.

It is important that the Hi-Po group see the connection between each session topic and the needs of the organization. The best way of ensuring this connection is to get the organization’s leadership team involved in each session. In my book, I have an entire chapter on potential roles for the organization’s leadership to play in the LDP.
Each educational topic will lead to a group or individual action-learning project, as will be discussed below.

Action-Learning Projects

Action-learning projects (ALP) require the LDP participants to immediately start applying what they learned in each educational session. A lot of research has shown that retention of educational material increases dramatically when people start using the content immediately.
With education sessions scheduled once a quarter, this allows a three-month window for each ALP. Some of these projects should be assigned to teams of participants, with each team chosen for diversity of business unit, function, and geography, and some to individual participants. I suggest that the first several projects be team projects to help participants build ties with other participants.

What types of ALPs should be assigned? There are several considerations here. First, remember that the participants will be working on the ALPs in addition to their regular jobs. We generally set the expectation that the LDP will require participants to invest an additional 10% to 15% of their time, over and above their regular jobs, to the program, so we’re talking about 4 to 6 hours per week. Second, participants will be required to report back on their projects at the start of the next educational session. With quarterly sessions, this means that they will have about 13 weeks to work on the ALP.

The next consideration is what types of projects should be assigned and who should choose the topics for the projects. The ALPs should NOT be mission-critical assignments – if there is a mission-critical project that the organization needs done, it should put together the best possible team from the entire organization, not just a group of untested Hi-Pos. Better to assign what we’ll call “nice-to-have” projects – projects that will contribute to the success of the organization, but which are not mission-critical. Remember that the LDP is designed to develop AND test the capabilities of the Hi-Pos, and not every project will necessarily be successful.

My favorite source of action-learning projects comes from the meeting minutes of the organization’s leadership team. If you review these minutes over a period of a few years, you will find that there are many ideas that have been discussed and found of interest to executives, but have never been deemed so important that the organization actually assigns staff to implement. For example, in a group I once worked in, we had examined the meeting minutes over a 5-year period and found that there were issues discussed 5 years earlier that were still being discussed. It wasn’t that these issues were unimportant, but that they never were given a high-enough priority to assign people and resources to their resolution. These are ideal ALPs – if the ALPs on these issues are successful, everyone will welcome the solution to these longstanding issues, and if the ALPs are NOT successful, the issues just remain unresolved, e.g., maintain the status quo.

The fact that the LDP participants know that they will have to report their results to a panel of organizational executives at the start of the next program is generally all the motivation they will need to do a good job. And if they do not do a good job, it’s better know this before they get promoted to a more senior position in the organization.
In my book, Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline, I present a lot more information on choosing action-learning projects. The appendix to the book also describes a dozen potential educational topics for the LDP and suggests the types of ALPs that might be attached to each topic.

In the next blog post, I’ll discuss the final two elements of the LDP model.

As always, your comments and feedback are more than welcomed.