Thursday, September 23, 2010

From "Knowing" to "Doing" - The Problem with Leadership Training

I once had the pleasure of training all the executives and middle managers of a city government in the basic skills of leadership. I worked hard to design a course that would introduce the basics and give them lots of practice. They loved the program. It was a very satisfying experience.

A couple years later, I returned to see how they were doing. What I learned is that nothing had changed. I was warmly greeted, as if I were an old friend. But they weren't doing what they had learned. I was surprised and disappointed.

Years later, I realized that the problem wasn't with my training. It was that instruction, even the best on planet Earth, isn't enough to change a work habit. People learn how to deal with each other over a lifetime, and the patterns are deeply ingrained. A two-week course isn't enough to change that.

I should have known better. I was introduced to my own listening and group facilitation skills in a six-week course back in 1976. Fortunately, I needed to put what I had learned into practice as soon as I got back. Over a year later, I started to feel comfortable with what I was doing. Without that long-term follow-up, I would never have mastered the skills.

So if you care about developing yourself as a leader, if you want more effective people skills, what should you do? What’s the best approach?

Many well-intentioned managers read books about leadership. There are hundreds in print right now. Many articles and videos are available on the topic, too. You’ll also find quite a few training programs, both online and on-site, and many are extremely well produced.

To help you navigate through all these resources, consider this: there’s a huge difference between KNOWING something and DOING something. In the end, what you know is far less important than what you do with the knowledge. When you’re with people, are you applying what you learned? If you don’t translate knowledge into action, it’s not of much use to you.

But doing what you've learned to do isn't so easy.

Practically speaking, the best books, videos and training programs do a couple things. First, they present a model of effective leadership skills—they show you what you should be doing on the job. The problem is, not all of them do that. They may contain a lot of good information about leadership principles. Hopefully, the treatment is interesting. You may get some self-awareness; it’s always good to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. But what you really need to know is what you should be doing to get the best effort from your people. So ideally, you learn about a model of how to act with people. If the resource doesn’t give you this, you’re probably wasting your time with it.

The problem is this: knowing what to do — having good models for effective leadership skills — is only the beginning.

A training course — even a two-week course, which is rare — isn’t enough to make you so comfortable with the best people skills that you wouldn’t hesitate to use them with people.

The reason is that these courses have a lot of topics to cover and there’s not much time for in-class practice. It takes time to ingrain a skill to the point where you’ll instinctively use it in the real world of work. That’s because the brain cells involved in the skill have to grow connections and form a network that makes the skill efficient and comfortable. If you apply what you learned over and over again, the brain cells will be stimulated to grow, connect and rewire your brain for the skill.

How long? That depends on how many times you apply it. The idea is to make an effective leadership skill a work habit, and that could take months, or as long as a year.

The bottom line - this crucial reinforcement phase cannot take place in the classroom with an instructor. A manager has to facilitate her own learning and development in the real world of work, every day.

That’s how you develop any habit, a skill, or a behavior pattern. There’s no shortcut. You have to do the work. And the only place this can happen is on the job.

When it comes to developing effective leadership skills, experience really is the best teacher. A smart manager takes cues from her interactions with people. For example, someone might say, “I don’t like it when you talk to me that way.” Or something might go wrong in her group. She may be trying things and they’re not working. Each of these instances is an experience from which she can learn.

So when you pick up suggestions about what to do as a leader, try them and learn from the experiences. If you do this, day after day, year after year, you’re going to be involved in the best kind of leadership development program there is.

This article is based on my interview with Meredith Bell on this topic. Would you like to watch the video clip?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

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