Sandpaper and Learning

You didn’t ask, but I’ll give you the answer anyway: the reason my site has a sandpaper background is to honor the role that woodworking played in my professional development.

Some background: when I was in junior high school, I was required to take a class called Industrial Arts, otherwise known as “Shop Class.” I was terrible at it and my teacher never missed an opportunity to remind me how bad I was at using tools. Except for this one class, I loved school. And yet I got into a habit of faking illness to avoid the weekly torture of Industrial Arts.

When our youngest was born, some 21 years ago, I was in between teaching jobs so I spent most of a year as a stay-at-home dad. It was a great year in many ways, though I still cringe at the sound of certain children’s songs. Aside from the benefits of spending so much time with our children, the best thing that happened that year was that I chose to teach myself woodworking.

I’d wanted a challenge, and nothing seemed like more of a challenge than to teach myself a craft that I had feared as a youngster. And, being a natural cheapskate, the prospect of making (seemingly) inexpensive gifts for others was attractive. Also attractive was the idea of observing my progress in learning to work wood and paying attention to what worked and didn’t work. It satisfied my inner scientist.

The result of all this observation was that I clarified and strengthened a few core beliefs about how learning works. They are:

  • Motivation matters. It matters a lot, in fact.
  • Paying attention to your learning pays off exponentially.
  • Engaging yourself in as many learning modes as possible (visual, verbal, kinesthetic, etc.) also pays off exponentially.

A year or so after I started working wood, I moved on from teaching in school to starting my career as a training consultant. And for all of the twenty years since I’ve been working in the training field, I’ve pushed myself and my clients to follow the principles I listed above. They really, really do work.


A Gentle Reminder

It’s the eighth day of the new year. Do you know where your training and learning goals are?

Just about everyone who writes about human performance reminds us that having specific goals almost always improves performance. And since learning and training are important means to achieving greater performance, it only makes sense to set goals for learning and training.

So what are your learning and training goals for 2013?


New Year’s Resolutions That Work

Shortly after the last bit of confetti settles to the floor and the noisemakers stop making noise, many people begin the task of living up to their New Year’s resolutions. I don’t have any statistics on how many people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions (somebody probably keeps track of this – much of life is now recorded in statistics the way only baseball used to be), but I’m sure the percentage is high. I think I know why. Most New Year’s resolutions break all the rules for successful life change.

Many New Year’s resolutions are vague. You the type: I’ll get into better shape. I’ll keep a neater office. What does it really look like to act on these resolutions? Will you (or others) recognize that you have kept your resolution?

How do you know when you’ve truly kept your resolution? How do you know that you have really gotten into shape? Is it when you can bench press your weight? Is it when you lose three inches from your waist? Is it when the bullies no longer kick sand in your face at the beach? Is it when you can see your shoes without leaning over? How do you know when you’ve reached your goal?

Are you beginning to see the problem? But there’s more.

Some resolutions go to extremes. They might be too easy so we ignore them, while others are almost completely unattainable. We’ve all heard people resolve to lose five pounds. They think they’re doing themselves a favor by taking on an easy target, but it’s very easy to procrastinate (and ultimately ignore) a goal that doesn’t require much effort. Other resolutions, such as, “I’m going to publish a novel.” could be completely out of reach.

Just as some resolutions are vague, others focus on intangibles. I resolve to be a better husband. I resolve to keep my sense of humor, even when things get tough. How would you know where to begin on something like this?

On the other hand, the New Year’s resolutions that we keep are a lot like good business and personal goals, they are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-based

You’ve probably seen the term “SMART Goals” before. It’s a concept that’s been in wide use for quite a while for a good reason: the acronym is easy to remember and the concept works.

Let’s rework some of these resolutions above into SMART goals.

Specific: I’ll join the health club and work out for an hour three days each week. It’s easy to see what this goal looks like now.

Measurable: My first fitness goal is to be able to run a mile in 10 minutes. You can time a mile run with a stopwatch. It’s impossible to measure “get fit.” Now you’ll be able to tell when you’ve reached this goal.

Attainable: I’m going to lose enough weight so my body fat composition drops from 35% to 25%. This much change will take some attention and effort. It will keep you occupied and challenged long enough to be and feel like a real achievement.

Realistic: I will complete my novel and submit it to an appropriate publisher by the end of the year. It’s absolutely necessary to have control over the actions that go into reaching your goal. A writer must rely on an editor’s decision to public a new book. No control there. But a writer can control the writing of the book.

Time-based: I’ll lose five pounds by the end of March. Putting a deadline on meeting your goal does two good things. First, it puts pressure on you to start immediately. Second, having a deadline makes it easy to measure your progress. By the end of January, I should be about one-third of my way to my goal. So now it’s February 1: am I a third of the way to losing 5 pounds?

Now, where do you stand on making resolutions for your business? Have you set learning targets for this year? If you have, do your goals meet the SMART test? Do your employees know what the goals are? Do you have concrete plans for reaching your goals? It’s still early in January and there’s plenty of time to make corrections and set a worthy course for the year. Just make sure your goals are SMART and you’re well on your way.


Learning from the White Elephant

One of the more charming features of the holiday season is the White Elephant gift exchange. The idea is simple: wrap up something you don’t want and exchange it for something that someone else doesn’t want. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as friends and colleagues gift each other with thing they’d be ashamed to put out at a yard sale. I think I still have a set of cowboy-themed mustard and ketchup dispensers somewhere that I received in such an exchange a few years ago. Still, folks seem to enjoy these exchanges, perhaps because they’re inherently unpredictable.

And unpredictability can be fun, don’t get me wrong. But it shouldn’t be a hallmark of our training.

Some years ago I had a client who operated a small chain of retail stores. When I visited the stores to do some research for a training project, I saw that every store had its own ways of doing things. Each had its own preferred way to greet customers, sell products, and deal with returns. Now, a certain amount of flexibility is a good thing, but there’s a limit. Individual differences between operating units should not go so far as to become differences in policy. But that’s what happened in this case, and customers were having very different experiences, depending on which store they visited.

How did this happen? Easy: from a practice of letting the store managers control nearly all the training that happened in their stores. Over time, individual differences morphed into policy differences. Soon the result was not so much a chain of well-run stores but a set of very different stores that shared a common name.

The answer was simple: set up a common training curriculum for new employees. We also put together a refresher-style course for current employees to put some common standards into place. Those white elephant gifts can be fun, but you don’t want that same lack of predictability to affect your business.


Resistance is Futile, Part Deux

Earlier, I wrote a post in which I shared my initial reaction to an announcement that I was going to be participating in a training exercise. I was initially put off by the announcement even though I generally like learning new things, and finished the post by suggesting that we trainers could learn a few things from the people in sales and marketing. Certainly our marketing could be better if we want training participants to invest their time and energy in our programs – and if we want them to actually change their behaviors based on our programs.

Today, I’m here to report that the training itself was actually better than I expected. Much better. Now, to be fair, I knew in advance that the session would be well presented. The presenter is a friend who I know to be a very good trainer. My concern was more about the topic, which involved the DISC communication styles model and team dynamics. I was, in a word, skeptical. And I imagined that some of my team would be far more skeptical – and resistant – than I was. Especially Peter, who is all about the practical. He’s much more of a doer than a thinker and while I’m grateful to have his skills on my team, I figured that Peter would lead the charge of revolt.

I was wrong.

By the end of our session, Peter was asking the presenter if he could borrow some of her materials to learn more about the model. Because he thought it was, in his words, immensely useful. What’s that expression, you could have knocked me over with a feather? Well, pretty much.

Here’s another useful expression: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’m guilty as charged. So where do we go from here?

I see two lessons here. For trainers (and others promoting a training program), be careful to sell your programs in terms of how they will benefit the participants. And for participants, give teaching a chance. For the same reason that we trainers want to market to our participants’ desires, let’s hope that we can set examples for being open-minded about training that we’re required to take.

Because “Do as I say and not as I do” is a losing idea.


Before you Lecture, Think About your Options

I know how tempting it can be to set up a training session as a lecture. I know all the reasons we tell ourselves that lecture is the best method, too: there’s way too much material to present it any other way, this is what I know how to do, they won’t know what’s really important unless I tell them, they just won’t learn it any other way. In fact, just the other day I faced this same temptation.

This weekend, with a friend, I’ll be presenting a breakout session at the Chicago District 30 Toastmasters Leadership Institute. We’re presenting tips for conducting great speech contests and, at first, it seemed as if there was just too much information that I wanted to pass on to do anything but a lecture with perhaps a bit of discussion. But then I realized what was wrong with lecture in this case: most of the participants will likely already have had quite a bit of experience with contests. There will be quite a bit of knowledge in that room, and most of it won’t be standing at the front of the room.

It didn’t take long to devise a plan that will use small group work to generate lists of tips and best practices. As presenters, our job will be to facilitate the activities and to encourage sharing of ideas. We’ll capture all of the groups’ work and then send it out by email after our session. So instead of spending hours planning a lecture and preparing PowerPoint slides, our focus is on setting up activities that will engage our participants. We trust them to provide excellent tips from their experience. And any major points that they don’t hit during their activities we can share in the final segment of the workshop. It’s a win for everyone.

Sometimes you might actually have a good reason for doing a lecture. But not very often. Usually there’s a much better reason for using teaching methods that involve your participants and honor their experience and knowledge.



Toastmasters: the Best Outsourced Training Value, Ever!

Sometimes, the best choices are right in front of us. When it comes to developing communication or leadership skills, active participation in a Toastmasters club is probably the best value around. No need to send potential managers to multi-day workshops that cost as much as a good used car. No point in sending them to a community college for a semester-long course where they’ll do three or four speeches for credit and feedback. Instead, consider doing what nearly a hundred firms in the Chicago area have done: form a Toastmasters club on site, exclusively for employees. Kraft Foods, AT&T, Sears, Blue Cross, and many others all have Toastmasters clubs for employees that meet two to four times monthly.

First, let’s talk about effectiveness. The Toastmasters educational program consists of two parallel tracks: communications and leadership. The learning model is simple: learn by doing, with feedback from peers. There are no instructors, only peers. Each member prepares and delivers short (usually 5 to 7 minutes long) speeches at his or her own pace, with guidelines provided in a well-written manual that contains ten speech projects. Each project introduces a new element of speaking (organization, gestures, use of visual aids, using the voice for emotional effect). Similarly, the leadership manual contains a series of projects focused on ten important leadership skills (listening, time management, mentoring). Every speaker gets both written and verbal feedback from a peer shortly after giving the speech. Learning just doesn’t get any simpler or more effective than this. Give an adult control over learning, clear and direct guidance, and immediate feedback and soon you’ll have someone with greater skills.

Hundreds of skilled speakers and leaders have passed through the Toastmasters program, including several politicians and journalists. The ranks of professional speaking include many, many more. All f0r the simple reason that the program works.

Now, let’s talk value. Those workshops run by name-brand institutes can cost as much as several thousand dollars, and yet the students might get to speak only two or three times. Even courses at your local community college will cost a few hundred dollars with equally limited chances for practice and feedback. Toastmasters International charges $20 for the initial set of manuals and a whopping $72 in annual dues. Individual clubs usually tack on another $10 or $15 to cover some incidental expenses like registration for local Toastmasters conferences, but that’s it.

Training money is always tight. Why not spend it as effectively as you can? For my money, Toastmasters membership is the best value in professional development available today.


Tag Team Training

This morning I had to iron a dress shirt and, as I always do, I started with the unseen portion of the collar (to test the heat of the iron) and then proceeded to the sleeves before doing the body of the shirt. I’ve been ironing shirts in this pattern since I was in junior high school. I learned this pattern from my father, who had worked at a dry cleaner’s when he was in high school. I took his word for the why and how of each step because it was clear that he knew what he was doing and because there were good reasons to do things in the ways that he taught.

In business training, sometimes the trainer doesn’t have as much credibility as the participants want. This can be especially true when the topic is technical or highly proprietary in nature. Perhaps the person assigned to do the training is a mid-level manager who happens to have good speaking skills or who recently was given responsibility for the subject being trained. Since credibility is important to the participants and actually increases their learning, what to do when the trainer doesn’t have enough?

The answer is to tag-team the training. Have a second person on hand to provide the needed technical knowledge. This person could present especially challenging parts of the training or run simulations and/or technical practice exercises. What matters is that this expert is in the room and providing needed expertise.

Tag teams. Good enough for pro wrestling, so why not for pro training?


There are two kinds of bloggers in this world…

I gave myself a nearly-impossible assignment this morning and I think it’s time to tell the teacher I need to go to the nurse’s office because I have a headache. I have been trying for a good chunk of the day to find some inspiration for a blog about learning or work performance from the presidential campaign. I struck out – at least, so far.

But let’s not waste the opportunity to enjoy something together. Here’s a terrific video of cuts from a couple dozen movies where a character says a line that almost no one ever says in real life:



And if you’re interested in the answer key, it’s here.


Passion Matters

No matter what you do, passion matters. Whether it’s teaching or public speaking, playing a sport, or playing the drums, while skill is essential, passion turns skill into something transcendent and illuminating. For example, check out the two levels of passion highlighted in this music video from Korea. Pay close attention to the lead singer and the drummer.




Now tell me, if you wanted to learn about lounge singing or playing the drums – would you rather learn from the singer or the drummer? I thought so.