Three ways to get learning into your bones

Forty eight percent of employees say they receive no formal training. You’re thinking, “That’s not good. But taking in the big picture, it’s conceivable.” So what?

First, get pragmatic. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting formal training at work. Ask for it. Seek it out. Find programs outside the company and ask for funding. But don’t blame the company (or any “them”) if it’s not going to happen. And don’t hold a grudge.

You can build your own curriculum. Dorie Clark has offered some great ideas for DIY professional development. Shout out to her for pointing me to the Accenture study in which the opening data point is found.

Some learning is more challenging, though. You could call it the adaptive challenge of learning. We need to change our minds, but also ourselves. Some learning has to be chewed slowly and patiently if we’re going to really digest it and use all its nutrients.

Put hindsight to work and test it with foresight

Start holding your own regular after-action review. I call it reflection-in-action. Schedule it least once a week. Look back over the week, pick its high point and low point, and take a wider view of events.

The after-action review (AAR) comes out of military training. It’s designed to provide a well-rounded picture of what happened. The first step: review without blame or prejudice. Start with you.carrying a leg

Notice that the AAR focuses on what happened in the concrete world of objects and actions. You can go one better by adding what you thought, intended, felt, experienced. Mindset drives the choices we have and the choices we make. What can you see now, or imagine might be true, that you could not see then?

You can’t know what others thought or felt. But you can develop a hypothesis about what they were trying to achieve and why. Here’s where foresight helps. Set up a test of your hypothesis. Ask questions. Or plan to try a different approach in a similar situation. This is a test, so stay open to new data.

Bundle the learning with peers

You are not alone. Whatever you find challenging, others are struggling over it now. Others need to know what you want to learn.

Find some friends or people you trust. Decide on a a method for a small group peer coaching. (Here’s one good example from Marshall Goldsmith.) Start meeting regularly. For a small investment, you could even hire a coach to teach you a peer coaching method. In a couple of hours you will know the process and have seen how it works.

The kind of learning that gets into our bones will make us (very) uncomfortable from time to time. You want to work with peers who will both support you and keep you honest. If you don’t find a dream team immediately, don’t give up.

Get expert help but share the cost

I know that people get great value out of working with a coach individually, but you might say I have a bias. If you can enlist a few people with similar challenges and intentions, hire a coach for the group. It’s more economical and you’ll still get some individual attention. The big benefit in group coaching is that you don’t need to run the meeting. You can focus on the slow and steady digesting of learning and change. The coach will be responsible for focus, facilitation, and creating a productive discussion for learning.

What have you done to digest deep learning or big change and get it into your bones?

Fixing a fixed mindset: Failure is an option

“Failure is not an option.” For some people, this is how they say they’ve got grit and persistence. But others live it without recognizing that they’re working as hard as possible to avoid failure in many ways, big and small. “If I don’t do well, what’s become of my skills, talents, abilities? Doesn’t it call them into question?” If this is one of your worries, you may be operating in the fixed mindset.

If we can’t allow ourselves to consider the possibility of failure, we have locked ourselves into a cell with only one way out. And we’ve foreclosed the chance to learn. We make it difficult to course-correct. We make it more difficult to accept help, new ideas, and the inevitable developments that don’t go as planned. Worst, we make it almost impossible to notice what’s developing while we drive for our fore-ordained goal.

Circumstances sometimes go against us. Opponents may best us. Or, apparent opponents may prove to be allies as new developments take shape. Even if we do succeed on our own terms, we will not have learned how to respond to circumstance and change. We will only have found a way to manhandle events the way we have done in the past.

How to start fixing the fixed mindset

First, notice when success is the only option. Take responsibility for your part in feeding that mindset. Did you sign up for the assignment because it would confirm your string of successes? Did you sell yourself short and take on a sure thing? Are you blaming others for things that neither you nor they can control?

Second, use self reflection: What will I lose if I fail? Job? Maybe, but not likely. Not many of us will lose our jobs over a one-time fail. Respect, yes, for a while. Will you lose the fond idea of yourself as a success, and brilliant, and next in line for [whatever you think you want next]? If you think you can’t handle losing those, you may be noticing the fixed mindset.

What we believe about ourselves is pretty important to us. Think about it: it’s pretty important to you to be seen as a success, or as kind, or collaborative, or creative, even visionary. But you will not die without it. You may have to take my word on this. But from here on, watch and see if not getting everything right the first time inflicts a mortal wound. Oh, it will hurt. But you’ll come back from it stronger.

Third, keep an eye on yourself. Pay attention to when you insist that success is the only option. Learn to recognize the urge to take on the sure thing, the thing that proves you are who you think you are. See if you can name what you are really trying to get out of it. We’re usually reinforcing something that makes us feel very good; nothing is more natural. So don’t give yourself a hard time. It’s going to take some practice to learn to recognize this habit.

Last, try something like this. “I’m not positive how to [decide, select, present, evaluate, your verb here]. Here’s what I’ve learned about our situation so far, and that makes me think [this]. What do you make of the situation? What are we learning from this situation right now?”

It can be really challenging to do this. How old are you? That’s how many years you’ve been reinforcing the mindset you have. You can change it. It will take some time. It may take some help.

Step back when you are able. See yourself as the project. Ask, “What am I learning from this project so far?”

Coaching Manager: What kind of coaching are you doing?

You’re already a coaching manager. You’re using your best instinct, experience, and training and that means you maybe sending mixed signals.

What’s this Coaching Manager doing?

For each of the questions below, get a read on whether you rely more on performance coaching or developmental coaching by deciding whether each is typically true or false for you.

My first objective is to communicate my faith in their abilities.
I’m interested in discovering the limits of their talent.
My goal is to get them to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.
We may have more than one conversation before my team members identifies a goal.
I have a clear idea of the outcome they need to produce.
My experience is a necessary ingredient in helping them become more skilled.
I sometimes feel that I’m not doing much. I ask a lot of questions.

Check your answers below.

Be clear

All coaching is founded on a relationship between at least two people: the coach and the person being coached. (Sometimes an interested, mostly-supportive third party sponsors the relationship.) And both people know who’s doing what. The coach can also coach a team. It’s true in sports and it’s true of executive coaches and leadership teams.

You will find many similar definitions of coaching in the wide world. Because performance coaching is so common and familiar, here are the definitions I’m using.

Performance coaching

Performance coaching is expert, often real-time support about how to do the right thing in the right way at the the right time. The focus is ability.

What that means is that the skill, the outcome, and the manner of doing it right are well known. If you’re performance coaching, folks need your expertise to recognize how their performance can be improved, including how it’s falling short. And everyone can tell when the person is doing it right because it’s having the intended effect. It involves telling people how to improve.

Pause here for a moment. You may be thinking, “That’s what I do. That’s my job. That’s my role. And that is what I should be doing.” You may be right. But seriously. Pause for a moment. When do you use it? When does it not work? What do you do instead?

Managers rely heavily on expertise. It’s what got us where we are. As you and your career develop, expertise is not the most important part of your role. Developing others and making sure that they develop themselves grows in importance as “managing” matures.

Developmental coaching

Developmental coaching broadens and deepens people’s repertoire of abilities. The focus is capability. The person is developing capability for doing something new in practically unique situations using resources and skills in new combinations. It involves raising the person’s awareness of their abilities, resources, and tendencies so that they can practice having a positive impact in ambiguous and uncertain conditions. It’s about learning at the edge of our comfort zone.

The person being coached is responsible for the pace and outcomes. With help, she identifies objectives that inspire her. Developmental coaching makes work a learning lab and company goals the context for individual goals. The coach’s role is companion, ally, and supportive observer. The results include greater self awareness, responsibility, perspective-taking ability, and capacity for reflection.

There are real challenges built into coaching team members and direct reports. But they’re worth it. Next time, I’ll review those issues and suggest tactics for addressing them.

Now you know

If you found that you’re using performance coaching more than developmental coaching, that’s not a failing grade. It may be the right way to support some or all of your people. Choosing between those two will be influenced by timing and context. Now you know that expanding your repertoire to include developmental coaching skills may be part of your learning plan as a manager and leader.

Using a model to guide the conversation will help you stay oriented when it feels like you’re not doing much. I’ll describe a conversation model for Becoming the Coaching Manager in an upcoming post.

Watch for still more on Becoming the Coaching Manager at, and on Twitter at @johndroberts and #coachingmanager.

Keep up the good work. Incorporating coaching into your repertoire, helps you practice coaching skills, helps create new expectations in your people, and moves the team toward superior results.

Coaching quiz: Best answers

My first objective is to communicate my faith in their abilities.

Best answer: True

If true, you may be performance coaching OR developmental coaching. Genuine faith in your people’s ability, and expressing it, helps them muster motivation for the learning ahead.

I’m interested in discovering the limits of their talent.

Best answer: False

If you’re evaluating the person, you may be engaged in performance management. Or you may believe that “talent” is a fixed commodity in people. If you do, pause here and consider whether you believe others can change, grow, or develop? Do you believe that you can develop and grow?

My goal is to get them to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re doing performance coaching. If the route from unskilled to skilled is direct and can be accelerated, you are performance coaching. Developmental coaching almost always includes some uncertainty about what the person will learn when she tries new behaviors on the job.

We may have more than one conversation before my team members identifies a goal.

Best answer: True

If true, you’re doing developmental coaching. If you and they are committed to identifying clear and motivating goals, it may take a while to home in on them.

I have a clear idea of the outcome they need to produce.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re performance coaching. When the outcome is clear and the aim is to help the other person produce it, you are performance coaching. Or you may be doing training. So, if you’re development coaching, the opportunties for learning will become clearer through discussion and the outcomes will emerge through realistic experiments in which team members try new approaches.

My experience is a necessary ingredient in helping them become more skilled.

Best answer: False

If true, you’re performance coaching. When you’re recommending that the person do what you did and expecting them to use your mental model of what works, you’re performance coaching. Developmental coaching may lead to experiments in new behavior that you have not completely mastered.

I sometimes feel that I’m not doing much. I ask a lot of questions.

Best answer: True

If true, you’re probably developmental coaching. Most managers are in the habit of answering questions and solving problems. Initially, developmental coaching feels as though you’re not doing much. But you’re doing just fine.

Becoming the Coaching Manager: The Hard Way

Are you a Coaching Manager?

Research points to managers (and leaders) being the cause of up to 30 percent difference in financial results. (Hay Group). Let me emphasize the point. Managers can influence results by up to 30 percent – increase or decrease – using the right leadership style at the right time.

Personal experience tells me that’s not easy. At one organization, my efforts to develop a high performing team were messy. I’m sure that the people on that team have even more colorful descriptions of it, and of me. I meant well. Still…

Managers imitate their models

It’s normal to try to become a manager like inspiring managers we have worked for. I believed in my vision, strove to set an example, and coached my people, just like my favorite boss. But I was not her. I would have to learn how to do it my own way using my own inner resources and learn new skills. I thought that coaching could set me apart from managers around me. That seemed important at the time.

By coaching, though, I mean that I talked with team members about what we, and they, needed to do. I taught, trained, supported, challenged, and encouraged them. How does that sound? It seems like a rough and ready definition of how to coach our people, right. I can see now that I expected them to do what I wanted. Often, I expected them to do it my way.

Cause and effect: Oops

The effect was that they had a shrinking definition of their success. They were right to resist and challenge me. Eventually I got help, thanks to my manager. But it required me to admit reluctantly that my efforts to be a certain kind of manager had created a stalemate with team members. It was the opposite of my intention.It took some figuring

I can see now that I was so not coaching. I would have said that I saw untapped potential in my people. But in fact, I had a hard time valuing what they brought to the team. It was different and didn’t look like my own abilities. I could not see the narrowness of my expectations. They saw what I did as an encroachment on their role and responsibilities as qualified professionals and adults at work. It would be great if they read this: I apologize.

As a starting point, I was muddled about what I was doing. No matter how talented you are, you can’t do everything and you can’t do it all at once.

What about you?

Are you doing performance coaching or developmental coaching? Or maybe it’s not coaching at all?

What effect is your coaching having on your people? Are you noticing whether it’s having an impact?

In my next post, I’ll describe the difference between performance coaching and developmental coaching. You’ll also learn how to set expectations about the two kinds of coaching so that you and they are clear about your roles.

Global themes in talent management


Feedback failure can affect results

Research shows that local department or team culture – think “climate” – is driven by the leader’s ability to provide high, balanced levels of flexibility, responsibility, standards, rewards, clarity, and team commitment. Feedback clarifies what leaders expect of their people.

Unclear expectations undercut productivity, team engagement

“Half of all respondents [to a survey of Federal Agency leaders] ranked their continuous feedback process as below where it should be, with 15 percent calling their efforts flatly unsuccessful.” *

What can you do this month to review the expectations of team members, discover areas of ambiguity or uncertainty, and work together to clarify expectations? Once the pattern is established, continue using the process that led to greater clarity. Because expectations change over time, keep the dialogue alive. Capture agreements in a place where you and they can easily refer to them.


“How we do things around here” doesn’t work

To me, culture always sounds diffuse, blousey, and evolutionary, which means that it may change but it will take generations. In layman’s shorthand, it’s “how we do things around here.”  Ed Schein calls it, in part, “..a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by  a group … which has worked well enough to be considered valid….” (What a lot of us experience is that culture does not work well enough for us any more.

“…Eight in ten respondents cite the culture of their agencies as the biggest barrier, other than budget, to creating positive change and reaching their talent management and performance goals.”

Global talent management

Rapid change and volatility plagues leaders

Hong Kong companies’ leadership challenges have a familiar ring: “…managing a multi-generational workforce, high talent mobility, and critical talent scarcity.”

What can you to do create opportunities for potential hires and your company to experience working together for a time before making a long term commitment?

What stands in the way of creating lower barriers to leaving and rejoining your organization more often?

Building capability in supply chain managers for today and tomorrow is a key concern of global businesses dependent on emerging markets.

“The Institute for Supply Management recently released a statement that urged all businesses to become more aggressive in their procurement of skilled professionals who can handle more complex and volatile situations.”

How is your supply chain organization setting up processes to harvest what it learns and instill it in others and the organization itself?

Diversity, inclusion, equity

Factor age into diversity and inclusion talent management strategy

“Whereas Millennials’ number one priority is flexible work conditions, companies believe it is employee development. Organisations also underestimate the extent that Generation X and Baby Boomers value training, coaching, and feedback.” See a couple more surprising preferences of the generations here.

If different strategies are needed for developing, retaining, motivating, and engaging the generations at work, how do you develop managers to adapt their approach to generations and individuals?

Set the diversity and inclusion agenda through strategic talent management

A great summary of considerations and actions by a former colleague of mine, Marjorie Derven.

How to Use Fixed Mindset to Discover What Matters Most

If you’ve ever had a 4:00 a.m. thought about something you’ve done and you cringe, you may be experiencing the “fixed mindset.” Maybe it comes back to you as, “I screwed up.” It’s personal. Recalling it brings to life good old-fashioned shame.

For a more than two years, I’ve been recommending Mindset Pencil drawing as illustraion of risks and challenges inbusinessto friends and colleagues. Carol Dweck’s research defines what many people experience: failure calls into question one’s talent, intelligence, and track record. So instead of relishing new encounters, and what we could learn from them, we treat them as pass-fail tests. (I’ll talk more about the fixed-mindset habits and their effect in another post.) I like to think I’m pretty capable, but I saw myself in the symptoms. Understanding the fixed and growth mindsets proved useful.

But I’ve also struggled to help people use the concept. I still recommend the book. The more you pay attention to signs of these mindsets, the more you notice the extent of your habit of proving your talent to yourself and others, or avoiding situations where you may fail.

Still, how do you fix the fixed mindset? What’s become clear to me is that our commitments are where we don’t want to fail. We want to be good parents, ready and able for advancement at work, engaged and active citizens, a good shortstop on the softball team. If we have a fixed mindset, that’s where we will see it at work. And that’s where it will constrict us most, dogging our steps as we try to advance.

Before we fix the fixed mindset, we need to see it. And where we see it, it reveals some commitment that’s important to us. Start from either end. If you are hell-bent to succeed and determined not to fail, that’s the fixed mindset. It’s keeping you boxed in more than you think.

Or, think about what’s important to you. Where do you strive hardest to succeed? In what areas do you protect yourself from even small failures? Underneath the good intention and the effort, there’s a commitment that represents an important element of your identity. Notice these and you’ll start to see them show up in new settings. Don’t worry. The fixed mindset is more typical than you might think.

Take time to get used to your mindsets and where they appear. They’re clues to the most important things you believe. And if you’re noticing them, you’re also feeling an impulse to move beyond their limits.

Parting: Lessons from Leaving

A few weeks ago, I stepped out of a group that I’ve belonged to for about eighteen months. It was not easy make the decision. I was nervous as I made the announcement. The group includes coaches and consultants striving to learn and serve our clients better. I did learn a great deal, but I did more than acquire knowledge. I learned to appreciate other’s points of view. And my own.adieu

With this group, I came to see more clearly that my point of view was limited. And while that’s obvious, working with and being challenged by others who see the world differently gave me pause. I stopped and listened. It was uncomfortable. It took real effort. I believe I’ve learned that a wider view is the best place to start most things. That openness is also the mindset to adopt when facing ambiguity and confusion.

But I also came to recognize that my own point of view is a solid home base. I don’t mean that my view is simply where I’m most comfortable. I didn’t conclude that I had been right all along. I found that I could trust my self as a learner, a coach, a teacher, and a consultant. As I write this now, I wonder how you’ll hear that.

Think of times when you felt at ease and could listen without busily working out what to say next. Think of the times when you felt your feet solidly underneath you and felt ready to move at any moment. That’s something of what it feels like to know your home base. If a memory of home base experience comes to mind, hold it there, notice how it feels in your body. That’s a footing to step onto when you’re feeling blown around.

I recognize that I owe those colleagues a great thank-you for their generosity. They challenged me to listen, most often by their example. And in turn they listened to me. When people really hear us, we recognize the sound of our own voice.

These are all lessons learned in parting. Not leaving exactly. I’ll be hanging with these folks in other ways for years, I hope. But the lessons of membership are different from the lessons of parting. It is a sweet sorrow because it is leaving and also pressing on, a future vision clearer every day. Marking these parting lessons is one way to bow in respect to the time and attention of those who were members with us. Imagine me bowing low and long.

Days x X = Life

 The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.

– Annie Dillard

 What you are is what you have been, and what you will be is what you do now.

– The Buddha

Leaders listen to feedback from all sources

“Whatever it is that’s happening in your life, that goes into the voice. And it becomes your instrument.”
– Cassandra Wilson

When we operate from the neck up at work, we’re missing a lot of data. In a meeting recently, I noticed that I was hunching. It was a good meeting. I didn’t notice my posture right away. But I began to wonder why I might be tight or anxious. What was muscle memory telling me and what did hunching express? It may reflect a story, a dimly remembered experience, a pattern of expectations and assumptions, a thought. It definitely carries some meaning. It confirms the principle that our experience is stored in the body as reactions and states.

When Cassandra Wilson says, “Whatever is happening in your life, that goes into the voice,” she’s stating a fact. Experience shapes us. But she’s also describing a purposeful practice she engages in: I shape experience. She goes on to say, “I’m just singing my life.” This is a great goal, rather than to have found at last that our lives have sung us.

Imagine the impression people were getting of me. My face is telling one story: I’m alert, interested, and comfortable. My posture says I’m anxious. Objectively, I didn’t have a care. But enough familiar conditions came together and I hunched. It’s the effect of some cause. It’s worth saying again: our habitual reactions are coded into physical responses and stored in the body. I didn’t think about hunching, I did it.zlata_contortionist_8

A lot of leadership advice might focus on managing anxiety and leadership presence. For straightforward impression management, that may do the trick. But developing tactics may be solving a problem we only partly recognize. My aim as a coach is to help people recognize the settings in which our response is a habit and a different one is needed. The more we notice the clues, the more options we have. They’re the key to real, intrinsic change. And for most of us, the discovery alone is liberating. It takes a lot of energy to maintain habits like the one I’ve been describing.

It also takes a lot of energy to manage them when they take over. Think of times when you’ve been exhausted by what seemed like little real effort. It may be that the effort lay in some version of controlling yourself while the body was seized by low-level fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Think of what you could do with that energy if you weren’t investing it in reactions that don’t serve your purpose.

Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.