note to self: play bigger

It’s difficult to get to middle age without learning a few things. Of course, I often forget the lessons and sometimes have to learn them over (and over) again. Now is one of those times and I find myself (re)learning several things at once. Maybe you can relate.

First is a growing sense of mortality. Though I’ve yet to die, evidence suggests that I will at some point and time is precious. Anything I’m wanting to contribute to the world before shuffling off the ol’ mortal coil better get done sooner than later.

Second, is that comfort zones are complete and insidious [FILL IN YOUR OWN FAVORITE NSFW DESCRIPTOR HERE]. Our brains are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain and there’re a whole lot of ancient mental circuitry dedicated to preventing physical or psychological discomfort. That’s good when it prevents us from doing something potentially fatal. The problem is, the deep down scared-of-lightening-and-loud-noises part of the brain can’t distinguish between true threats to our well-being and the risk, discomfort, and pain required to learn and improve.

My most important lesson has been simply this:…

Read the whole post over at Performance I Create.

What a 9 Year Old Can Teach Us About L&D

SWEET! I wiped out! They should make pads for your butt!

Five minutes into his first ride on his first skateboard and my son was bouncing up off the ground, getting his board out of the shrubbery, and jumping right back on.Skating There were no tentative “baby steps”, no hesitation. It was full force, hop on and go enthusiasm. That brief moment contained the most important aspect of successful training.


What is the most important aspect of successful training? Today, I’m guest blogging over at Performance I CreateRead the rest of this post here .

is learning about performance?

Sukh Pabial (@sukhpabial) over at Thinking About Learning (he writes good stuff – check him out) raised an important question the other day: Is learning about performance? As one who continually states that increasing performance is the only purpose of training, learning and development, etc. I liked his question. I say it so often and am so convinced of it that his question made me stop and think a bit about my own beliefs.

I do believe the immediate purpose of training is to either create additional skills or knowledge OR to help a person better use the skills and knowledge they already have. Why? Why take time away from the job to learn? Why spend the money, time, and energy? Why pour resources into learning? Because we expect the additional skills and knowledge will help people do a better job and get better results. Technical skills improve performance with tasks and soft skills improve performance with other humans (highly relevant for everyone who’s not a hermit). Even compliance training – safety, anti-harassment, regulations, etc. – aims to improve performance or at least prevent performance from dropping (death, dismemberment, lawsuits, or imprisonment all tend to have a negative effect on individual and company performance).

Put another way: if learning and development doesn’t increase performance through increased or better use of knowledge and skills, then what is the purpose?

When we develop learning events or provide learning resources we work hard to make the information as understandable, relevant, and real-world as possible. We design in the best ways for participants retain and integrate the ideas into their lives and jobs. Why? The more they retain and use, the more they can use on the job, and the better their performance. If knowledge retention and use didn’t lead to better on the job performance why would we spend time worrying about it? Deeper knowledge for the sake of deeper knowledge is nice but doesn’t help the individual excel in their job and doesn’t drive the company forward. I, like many, simply love to learn new things. Learning is a huge value for me and I could happily drain many a day on google, Wikipedia, and in the library. As an employee, my company cares most about the learning that might help me in my job (versus, say, mountain biking), BUT it has a huge interest in me being knowledgeable, competent, and continually improving in my role.

The good news is that I can help others improve their performance across a wide variety of jobs and even industries. I don’t know much about most jobs or industries, but unless I’m training technical skills, I don’t have to. I just have to know enough to be able to apply real world context. For example, with only slight changes, a class on conflict resolution could apply to a manager, customer services representative, sales person, negotiator, line worker, etc. It’s really hard to imagine a job where conflict resolution (or any important soft skill) wouldn’t improve performance – even if that person isn’t directly evaluated on conflict resolution.

It is the manager’s (and employee’s) job to evaluate performance – I can’t do that for them. But when they identify areas that need to be improved either because of low performance or to increase performance as a part of their career path I can help provide the resources and learning experiences that help them develop and use the necessary skills and knowledge. Just as I’m not involved in evaluating their on the job performance, I also can learn and implement it for them. The sole purpose of training and development is to increase performance but the employee and manager play a massive role in it.

I’ll take the discussion a step further. Not only do I deeply believe that the purpose of development is to improve performance (however that’s defined), but I believe development is a source of ongoing competitive advantage.

  • A company must have talent. It can choose to buy talent or develop talent or both. But it does need talent.
  • High performing people are required to create a high performing company. It’s hard to imagine any situation where we could create exceptional results far and above the competition using indifferent, unskilled people who lack the necessary knowledge.
  • We cannot improve a company’s performance without first improving individual performance. Sure, we can slash costs, buy new technology, acquire other companies, but those tend to be short term gains (measured very narrowly) or impossible to do without dealing with the messy human side of it (bringing us back to development).
  • We often struggle to measure the dollar benefit of development and spend much time discussing the ROI of training. Training is an easy cost to cut and is often the first to go when times get tough. Which is funny because I doubt any professional sports teams spend much time discussing the ROI of practice, training, and developing their players. Would a low performing team ever decide that the best way to improve their performance is to STOP coaching and improving their players? Put another way, we can easily measure the cost of training and tend to focus on that because it is difficult to measure the total benefits of development. The problem is we can’t measure the costs of NOT training. (Hat tip to Zig Ziglar for that thought.) And as the old saying goes: The only thing worse than training someone and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.

Is learning about performance? In my mind, absolutely. There are many, many side benefits to learning and development, but if we’re not helping people create the knowledge and skills they need to do better at their jobs and if we’re not helping the company perform better by helping individuals and teams perform better, what are we doing?

What thinks you?

time to talk

I am a big believer in leadership development classes, workshops, and seminars. I’ve witnessed (and experienced) so many of those “light bulb moments” where there is suddenly a huge shift in thinking that changes a leader’s approach, and results.

BUT. I wonder how much of it is the content of the class and how much of it is something else. Good content is important, yet the magic happens in the spaces between the tools and concepts. The class provides crucial time to think, reflect, and discuss. It gives time away from phones, email, customers, and employees and becomes a catalyst for dialog and insight that doesn’t happen on its own.

The class gets people together and gives them space and time to talk. The information, theories, tools, and approaches gives context and content for reflection, dialog, and sharing. The conversation lets people know that they are not alone in their challenges, and leading is sometimes difficult and lonely and sometimes a bit scary for everyone, and there are solutions.

It’s amazing what happens when leaders drop the charade of invulnerable infallibility and get human. Suddenly, there’s so much to teach and so much to learn. Building trust, exploring ideas, sharing and learning from each other’s joy and heartache doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time before the conversation gets deep enough and rich enough to matter.

Time that no one thinks they have – until they take it.

What thinks you?


rock and roll presentation skills

A side effect of being a presenter and facilitator is that I cannot attend any training, speech, or event without mentally taking note of what they are doing well and what I could do to improve my own skills.20130205_234003

The other night I saw a concert with two local opening bands and a European headlining act on a world tour. A middle of the week show, in club with maybe 100 people, this was clearly not going to make the band rich – it was likely more of a chance to make some gas money to get to the weekend at a much bigger venue.

The local bands were good. For local bands. But there was a big contrast between the presentation skills of those who had day jobs and were musicians on the side and those who were full-time musicians. Lots to learn for anyone who gets up in front of others:

1. Engage the crowd. Connect with as many people as possible on as individual of level as possible. The headlining singer continually referred to the crowd as “friends”, pointed out people in the audience, brought signs people were holding up onto the stage to show them off, gave the audience a choice of what song they’d play next, repeatedly told the crowd how crazy/enthusiastic/loud they were being, and thanked the audience for coming out on a weeknight. Sound obvious? The local bands did none of this. What are the obvious things to connect with my audiences and classes that I’m not doing enough or at all?

2. Recognize ALL presentations matter. Whether in a stadium or a small bar, all shows matter. The headlining band had played 200 shows around the world in the past 10 months – that’s a show two nights out of every three. Yet, they showed no signs of boredom, exhaustion, or the sense that it was just one more gig. They played as though it were the most important show on the tour. Full out, completely committed, pouring sweat, not an ounce of energy held back. The local bands showed up and played as though it were just another show. Compared to the headliners, they were restrained, half-hearted, and holding back. As a presenter and facilitator it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking I’ll just wing it, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a little presentation.

3. Make it about the audience, not the presenter. The local bands kept mentioning the CDs they had for sale in the back, that you could download them on iTunes, blah, blah, blah. Any words between songs were few and really focused on the band. Everything the headliners said – every single word– was focused on audience and how fun and great they were. It was clear the band was thrilled and grateful that everyone had showed up to see them. It would have been easy – almost expected – for the headliners to show up with rock and roll egos completely unchecked and complain, gripe, and moan about the small venue, small crowd, lack of attention they get, etc. This is a subtle, but really powerful difference. Our words reveal our focus – is the concern for the audience and participants or for ourselves? As a presenter I have the choice to punish the few that are fully engaged OR be thankful and build their commitment even further – guess which one leads to success and which one leads to rapid obscurity.

4. Keep it simple. Interestingly, both local bands had bass players with five or six string instruments, using sophisticated techniques to play complex lines. The headlining bass player used a traditional four string bass with a pick and often played just one note repeatedly or used comparatively simple bass lines. As a presenter it’s tempting to show off with technology, complicated materials, fancy language, credentials, etc. But that’s all about the presenter. Complex is the lazy route. Simple is difficult, it takes more time to do, and it feels unprofessional when you’re a novice. What amateur presenters miss is that simple often requires expert level judgment, effort, and refinement. Simple keeps it about the message connecting with the audience.

5. Have fun. It’s easy to get jaded and burnt out and feel like you’re not getting the respect you deserve. It’s hard to show up, connect with the audience, be grateful for any opportunity to get your message out there, and have a blast while doing it. Presenting is the greatest job in the world IF you enjoy it. If you’re not having fun, it’s a private hell. 200+ shows into the current tour and the headliners were smiling, playing, and connecting like there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.

It’s funny how the things that set us apart are often not all that big on the surface. Could the local bands have done all this? Yes. Did they? Not really. They were more than skilled enough, but in the end were no more memorable than the background music the club played over the stereo between the bands.

A nice reminder I need to continually step up my intention, focus, and connection. I need to make sure I’m creating a great user experience and not getting between my message and my audience.

What thinks you?

innovation leads to failure leads to innovation

People tell you that you should be creative and innovate to get ahead of the competition. What they don’t tell you is that creativity and innovation lead to failure. That’s right failure.

Whenever we try something different it is probably not going to work, particularly the first (few) times. It will fail. True innovation comes from learning from that failure and tweaking and experimenting and playing with it until it works.

When developing training programs, the bulk of the work is done in the back office. But the magic happens in front of a group of participants. I rarely have an insight on how to improve wording or flow when sitting at my desk. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have been from failing in the field – forgetting what I was going to say, getting ahead of myself and presenting the sequence out of order, or getting a question that I didn’t anticipate. Getting it wrong, recovering, and seeing how it can be even better leads to huge gains.

Thomas Leonard, considered by many to be the father of personal coaching, used to intentionally overload systems and processes to see what would break first. Then he’d correct that and overload it again. This allowed him to quickly understand what worked, what didn’t, and to create airtight processes.

In the mid 1980’s Suzuki developed a groundbreaking sportbike – the GSX-R. To make the engine lighter than many thought was possible, the engineers would shave weight from a part, test, and shave more weight until it failed. Doing this over and over with each component taught them the lightest reliable weight each part could be.

The problem is that we usually try something new and when it doesn’t work we deem it failure and give up. But each failure holds a lesson that we can use for improvement.

If we’re willing to learn.

all you need to know about training design

When training fails, it is generally because the learners haven’t understood the material on both an intellectual AND an emotional level. Intellectual level training focuses on the “what” and the “how”. What needs to be done and how do I need to do it?

We see this all the time. Where people say they don’t need training because they already know it, but they aren’t doing any of it. They haven’t truly connected with the “why”. Why is it important that I do it? What are the benefits of doing it or the consequences if I don’t?

There are only two reasons that humans do anything: 1) to seek pleasure; and 2) to avoid pain.  These are the same two reasons that humans learn anything. Why do we learn the newest version of Microsoft Office? To do our jobs better (pleasure) and to avoid failing at our jobs (pain). Why do we learn new exercises or diets? To get sexy and delay death.

So, no matter how much we read, research, discuss, and ponder, we never truly learn until we connect with the material at an emotional level. Everyone knows that smoking, drinking, or eating too much will shorten their lives. We know at the intellectual level, but often don’t get it at the emotional level (if we did, we’d stop). Until a person really, really connects with the consequences at an emotional level, intellectual warnings do zero good.

All great training – regardless of topic – teaches the what, how, and the why. And it does it in a way that each participant can individually understand and key into. Experience is the best teacher because it provides the emotional learning.

Will Rogers really understood this principle. He summed up everything important about training design in three sentences: “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

Design and evaluate your training programs accordingly…