Leadership Challenge #1 – The Customer Service Fail

customer serviceYou are the owner/manager of a retail department store. Your store is busy so high sales volume also means a lot of returns. One of the new employees is tasked with handling the checkout register and for restocking items as they are returned when checkout traffic permits. The employee has gone through the company’s orientation and training but has been working the floor only for a few weeks.

You are working the floor, walking the many departments to watch for problems, help where needed, and answering questions. You see a customer browsing the rack of trousers in the men’s wear department. The customer has focused in on one garment and has pushed surrounding garments aside so he can look more closely.

The new employee approaches with an arm load of clothes to restock. She approaches the customer looking at trousers and says, “Excuse me.” Then without waiting for a response from the customer, she pushes the trousers he was looking at back together, spreads others apart, inserts the ones she is carrying, and walks off.

You see the customer’s look of surprise. As the employee walks away, the customer turns and leaves too without selecting a garment for purchase or even looking further.

What would you do? And most importantly, Why?

I will answer this on Thursday and I want to hear from you. I’ll select from the answers I receive and post them along with mine. This is NOT a test so there are no right or wrong answers. It is an exercise in leadership training and discussion is the name of the game. Send your answers to me at Jack@ThePracticalLeader.com

Competence #4 – Ambitious learning

YogiBerraPlaying almost his entire 19 year long career at the New York Yankees, Lawrence Peter Berra, whom we know as Yogi, has become a classic example of colorful management. On the field he was a catcher and an outfielder. Off the field his career as a manager has yielded some of baseball’s and American culture’s most colorful quotes. Many of them directly apply to the field of leadership. Consider:

“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Good advice for decision-making and decision makers.

“If you don’t know where you’re going you might end up someplace else.”  Visionaries know how true that is.

And the one that directly applies to my topic today, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

I’ve been discussing the personal competencies of a superlative leader. I spent some time on the subject of purpose and drive, on demonstrating ethics and integrity, and on serving as a symbol. This is number 4, ambitious learning.

4 things to know about ambitious learners

Superlative leaders are never content to know what they know, they want to know what they don’t know. Theirs is a forward and outward look, scanning the horizon and the setting for information that can yield insights into the way their associates work, into the forces that shape the marketplace, and how to be ready for tomorrow and the day after that.

They are students of human nature and human motivation. I’ve said before and it bears repeating here, that there is almost never a motivation issue but there is often a leadership issue. Effective, superlative leaders know who they work with and why those people do what they do. Superlative leaders never assume, never classify people too quickly, and always are sensitive to keys and clues about who does what and why they do it.

Possess a keen sense of observation. How quickly do you pick up on things? Can you spot the dynamics that are at play in the group you work with? Are you even looking for them? I am assuming here that you are not emotionally insecure and are not always scanning for reassurance. I am also assuming that you want to maximize your influence without being overbearing and demanding. If you do, then a keen sense of observation is critical. Clues to what’s going on are everywhere if you can spot them. Yogi Berra is correct, you can observe a lot by just watching.

Finally, superlative leaders are big buyers of non-fiction. They know how the game is played, but they want to know what others have learned about how the game is played. They study their field of work and they study general works on leadership and management. They know that learning did not cease when the diploma was bestowed upon them.

Competence is not a state of ignorance. It is the exact opposite. You don’t stumble into positions of responsibility and remain there for long if you are not a learner.

9 characteristics of an effective learner:

  1. Curiosity – you want to know what you don’t know when you become aware that there is something you don’t know and you are often curious to know if there is something else you should know even if you don’t know what it might be. Well, you get the idea.
  2. Diligence – attention to detail and persistent effort mark effective learners. They dig and dig deeply.
  3. Work – they have fun and enjoy their careers, but they know that learning is not always fun. Sometimes it’s just plain work, especially when the learning curve is steep.
  4. Logic – they can put 2 and 2 together and come up with four. They understand implications, usually without explanations. They get it and get it readily.
  5. Persistence – failure happens but superlative leaders who are ambitious learners never go just so far and stop because they were embarrassed or burned by a past experience. They keep going and they keep learning.
  6. Adaptability – one major leader says that “Shift happens.” He knows that what he once knew may not always hold up under what he now knows.
  7. Personalization – they internalize and apply what they learn. They put it into their context. They extract principles from one setting and apply those principles in their setting.
  8. Mentoring – superlative leaders bring others along. They share what they’ve learned with others. The best students are almost always effective teachers.
  9. A listening ear, inquiring mind, and a closed mouth – knowledge comes from seeing and hearing, not by talking. Most leaders love to hear themselves talk, and to be fair, much of leadership manifests itself by what we say, but learners know when to look and listen, too.

I’m halfway through my 64th orbit around the sun and I know less now than I ever. But I also know that I know more than I used to. So do you.

Keeper Trait #13 – Learn-ability

BrailleLife teaches us a lot of lessons. Some people learn slowly. Some not at all.

It’s a sad fact that the majority of us never learn much of anything new after leaving the structure of formal education. This is not to say we don’t acquire a new skill or deepen existing ones, but the broadening experience of learning happens too seldom.

Learning should be a lifetime pursuit and for some it is – not in the formal sense but in the deepening, broadening, enlightening sense. In the context of business and organizational management and leadership, the times are changing at a much faster pace than ever and it is imperative that we keep up.

Our competitors will. When I worked at a major home improvement center, the corporate suits launched the company into a brave new world (for them) of technology because they “learned” that their customers were moving into different modes of buying. And they were losing market share to their competitors, among them Amazon.com.

Organizations, like people, soon discover that no plan, no strategy, no intent ever survives contact with the real world without alteration, major or minor, because the plan, the strategy, the intent is subject to unforeseen events and the independent will of others. Others, in this context, are either your constituents who demand new or better products and new or easier ways to buy them, or your competitors who will certainly be creative and ambitious.

Apple made their price control strategy work because they have a unique project available nowhere else. When a former Apple exec tried the same strategy at JC Penney, it was a disaster! Why? Different constituents and different competitors.

So keepers are those associates and employees who can read the ground, learn what it says, and respond appropriately.

On a smaller scale, the second principle applies. The employees of that major home improvement center were captive constituents. I mean that in a positive sense. They worked within the corporation but they live in the real world. They own homes, rent apartments, have families, and buy stuff. They also embrace technology and contemporary means of shopping by using I-phones, I-pads, and on-line search engines. Brand loyalty and store loyalty is foreign to them as it is in the marketplace. No longer do people shop at Sears because they or their parents did. They look for the best at the cheapest price and will readily buy it.

I myself shop a great deal on Amazon, just bought a new garbage disposal to replace our leaking old one. Within 2 miles there is a Home Depot and a Lowes. I could have bought from either because I drive by them a few times every week. Why Amazon? Because the price was less and because it was over $25, Amazon shipped it at no charge. It comes to me; I do not have to go to it.

I have learned the best way to acquire a new product.

Ok, so let’s bring this home to the keepers in your organization or company. There are skills, attitudes, and insight that will accelerate your company’s profit margins, your organizations viability. Those skills, attitudes, and insight will need to cover tasks and processes within the company or organization and they will need to cover the changing landscape inhabited by your constituents and competitors.

We often use the term “learning curve” to describe the process of acquiring a new skill. For many, perhaps most tasks, skills, attitudes, or abilities the learning curve can be a challenge.

Therefore a learn-able associate will possess these attributes:

Stamina – the capacity of endurance to see a process through. Some people just give up, keepers don’t.

Adaptability – the capacity of pivoting when necessary, of making immediate changes to facilitate ultimate objectives.

Courage – the bravery to leave the comfort of familiar processes and systems to embrace new ones. Analysts tell us as many as 70% do not have this attribute.

Problem-solving skills – the ability to find a way when there seems to be none. Since I’ve discussed this elsewhere I will not belabor the point here.

I suppose I should ask if the other leaders and managers in your organization possess learn-ability. It can be a trap to feel secure inside your comfort-zone and rest on your successes. If I may, just look at Sears, JC Penny, and soon-to-be gone Best Buy.  All of them once vibrant, now all on life support. For car buffs, look at the mighty Packard and Studebaker car companies. Their demise now readily understood as the result of an incapacity to learn. But we all know that corporations, companies, and organizations are not robotic entities possessing artificial intelligence. They are comprised of people who make the decisions based on what they know and should be learning every day.

Helping your associates grow

I want a staff entirely populated by trusted associates. Everyone does but hardly anyone has a staff who function at that level all the time. Someone somewhere at some time is unaware, that is to say, they are unconsciously incompetent.

You’ve probably seen this chart but I’ve put it in for a visual reference. Louis, the intern mentioned in the two previous posts, functioned more at that level that at any other, but was blissfully unaware of his incompetence. The operative word here is “blissfully”. Louis was incompetent, did not know he was incompetent, but had never been put up against visible, measureable, cognitive standards of awareness and performance to the point that he could grasp his incompetence.

He didn’t know that he didn’t know and, in that happy state of foggy standards, had appraised himself to be above average.

Effective leaders cyclically expose followers to concepts, skills, ideas, and tasks they don’t already know. This is called growth.

Notice I said cyclically. I did not say continually or regularly. To do so regularly or continually will provoke frustration, anger, fatigue, dismay, and deflation. People need positive reinforcement and a sense of accomplishment if they are to remain motivated.

But, they also need to be challenged if they are to avoid arrogance and self-righteousness. So, don’t nag, it works against you.

If you have people in your staff at the lowest level – forced laborer, (See the chart here) you should consider either finding a place for them to function somewhere else, or hand them off to a subordinate who can manage them thus freeing you to lead the others.

At the other three levels you can by and large leave people alone to do their jobs unless and until your direct intervention is called for. You, as leader, are monitoring and measuring two critical components – competence and confidence.

What are you looking for? You are looking for the teachable moment, that point when the person you are leading becomes aware that either they are ignorant of a required skill, attitude, aptitude, or insight and need to be instructed or they know of it but need coaching to integrate the skill, attitude, or aptitude.

If you try to intervene when a person is confident and competent your intervention will be regarded as interference and provoke resentment. If you try to intervene when the person is unconsciously incompetent, you will confound them.

I am not suggesting that you simply leave people alone to flounder around until they get so frustrated they ask for help. I am suggesting that you lead, not ignore. Remember the three essential skills of effective leadership?

  1. Understand what’s going on all the time everywhere.
  2. Know what needs to be done.
  3. The ability to influence those you lead to follow your leadership.

So, your role is to:

  1. Know where you want to go with the person you’re working with.
  2. Know where you are.
  3. Know what steps to take to get from where you are to where you want to go.
  4. Do that over and over.

The function of development is cyclical. It should get easier along the way because you build confidence within the person(s) you are leading and you strengthen their confidence between you and them so they more comfortably respond to your leadership. They develop confidence in your competence while they deepen confidence in their own competence too.

Barrier #2 – We Can Do Many Things, But Not Everything

busyIn the previous post I defined Barrier #1 – We Have Limited Time. Today I will define barrier #2 – We can do many things but we cannot do everything. (Hint – this is a longer article than I normally like to post but I am confident you will find it worthwhile.)

So then, what talents do you have? By this time in life, you probably know. But can you list them? Maybe not.

Many people just do certain things and avoid others without considering why. What do you do for a hobby? Of the many tasks that confront you every day, what tasks do you perform first? What bores you? What do you put off as long as you can? If the schedule gets tight, what falls through the cracks? What do you do when no one is paying you to do it? What do others consistently ask you to do?

We typically gravitate toward tasks and responsibilities that employ our innate gifts and away from those that don’t. While knowledge may be acquired and skills developed, talents are what come naturally and easily to you. Talents, when put into action, make us feel good about ourselves and what we have done. We employ them precisely because they are comfortable. Tasks and responsibilities outside our natural deposit of talents make us feel stressed, anxious, or unsatisfied.

Talents show up everywhere – at home, at work, in recreation. If we have a talent for planning, we plan everything. Even the routine of planning is planned. If we are visionaries, we see the future with excitement and anticipation. If we are organizers, we organize everything and everyone who will let us. But as much as talents are natural and show up everywhere, they are invisible.

When do others get annoyed with you? This question is so often the best clue of your talent. Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness because we overuse our talents, especially when we don’t know what our talents are. Unrecognized talents are dangerous. We rely on our talent even when it’s not needed. For instance, a skillful planner ignores creative input because she’s too logical. A take-charge manager unwittingly discourages others from sharing his ideas. A research scientist continues to gather data long after it’s time for a decision. An entrepreneur takes unnecessary risks when it’s critical to play it safe. There’s an old saying: To someone with only a hammer everything looks like a nail. When we know our talents, we can optimize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.

Want to find out what your talents are? Complete this sentence:

I am _____________________________________.

  • Don’t respond with a job title. This exercise is not about your career, it’s about you as a person. Respond with adjectives that describe the unique qualities you bring to any situation (innovative, creative, determined, easygoing…).
  • Respond with nouns that define the roles you most often, most comfortably play (leader, follower, number-two person, planner, organizer, motivator, problem-solver, etc.).
  • Insert the word “that” and complete the sentence with words describing the benefit others receive from your presence and participation ( resolves conflict, gets things going, builds coalitions, etc.).

When you’re finished it should look something like this: “I am a focused, creative visionary that gets things going.”

Below is a list of fifteen possible talents. Identify several talents that are easy for you. Remember, talents are natural, knowledge is acquired, skills are developed. Which of these possible talents jump out and attach themselves naturally to you?

I am a Creator – I love to innovate.

I take abstract ideas and turn them into concrete projects (or timelines, products or services) that others can use. However, once the idea or project is fleshed out, I lose interest.

Implementer – I am action-oriented.

I know how to get things done. I often don’t come up with the original idea, but I know how to make things happen. Just tell me what’s needed and turn me loose. Everything starts moving when I’m involved.

Facilitator – I keep the process moving.

I make sure that people are getting along and focusing on what needs to be done. I see the value of different views and help people appreciate other perspectives.

Visionary – I see what can be.

I see where we need to go in the future. My ideas are ahead of their time. I can imagine what does not yet exist. I see new possibilities. It takes others a while to see what I’m trying to describe.

Analyzer – I see the factors at work in situations.

I can take in large amounts of data and identify trends. When something goes wrong, I can sort through the facts and get to the bottom of it. I use a rational, logical approach to solving problems.

Planner – I put things in sequence.

I anticipate what’s needed. I can see where problems might arise and what we need to do to have everything work out well. I lay out what needs to be done and if people follow my plan, things go smoothly.

Coordinator – I join this to that.

I like to orchestrate events. I bring people together and coordinate a host of details in order to pull off a project or event. I can keep track of a million details and bring it all together in the end.

Mentor – people look to me for advice, direction, input.

I enjoy developing people. I am often a coach or a sponsor for individuals or initiatives. I like to teach or advise individuals and I take an interest in them.

Promoter – I talk things up, get people involved.

I get others interested in new ideas, products or services. I generate enthusiasm by talking to lots of people and bring attention to new ideas, projects and possibilities.

Integrator – I fit things and people in.

I bring people and ideas together. I see the interrelationships between ideas or tasks and connect them to achieve a common purpose.

Improver – I’m not critical, I simply see flaws easily.

I quickly see problems inherent in a new design or document or plan. I quickly find the mistakes and flaws. If you don’t like criticism, don’t run your ideas by me. I like to improve an idea and make it better.

Developer – I build something where there was nothing.

I like to develop new ideas, projects or businesses and make them successful. I can take a small project or idea and develop it into a large, successful project, prototype or business that has value and that others want.

Investigator – I sniff out information.

I like to research the facts. I gather data from many sources and synthesize what I find. I search out new information from diverse sources. I never have enough data. If it requires research, let me do it.

Broker – I network this person with that one.

I like to put people in touch with one another. I have a broad network of friends and associates that I connect with each other. Others come to me to find valuable resources they need for projects.

Communicator – I like being the one in the know and letting others in on what’s happening.

I like to communicate what’s going on. I am often in the know about things. People come to me to find out what’s happening.


Knowing what I’m good at is one-third the equation.

We also need to know what we’re not good at. If I do some things well, I do other things not so well and I do some things poorly. If I want to extend my reach, multiply my effectiveness, divide my work, and quicken my pace I can use help in those things I don’t do so well and absolutely must have help for those things I do badly. But there is a final element that threatens both of the first two.

Because you are effective as the result of your unique talents, you probably think that others should be like you. It is hard for planners to understand why others can’t, or won’t plan. If you broker people together, you might not have much patience with someone who prefers to work alone. Trying to make everyone like yourself, or even assuming they should be, is a fatal mistake.

Without doubt, you have discovered that your talents have yielded a certain degree of success, maybe even a great degree of it. And you probably consider your particular talents to be more valuable and worthy than those manifested by others. Most humans do even if they won’t or can’t admit it.

The reality is they aren’t.

There are reaches of your circle of concern that are out of reach for you as you are. And if you are out of touch with yourself, your strengths, and your weaknesses, they will remain elusive. Discover who you are, what you are good at, what you are not so good at, and what talents you need to fill the gap.

Further, it isn’t a good idea to add someone too much like yourself to the mix because of inevitable conflict.

Two planners will battle over whose plans will be used. Two promoters will vie for the loudest voice. Two visionaries, perhaps the most dangerous marriage, lead to the most threatening condition – two visions, which is division. So while you are likely most comfortable with someone of like mind and ability, and you will be stretched to make room for someone whose strengths do not match your own, it is a good tension. For example, if you’re an innovator, you might feel someone who is an analyzer is slowing you down. Just remember that you select the talent you need. You don’t need and shouldn’t try to add every other major talent to your strategic partnership of assistants. Pick people whose talents, knowledge, and skill further your own in the dimensions of concern that are uniquely and particularly yours.

Inasmuch as you are naturally gifted and talented, you are as uniquely developed as a personality. Your genes provided the basic mix of traits that make you, well, you. Your childhood molded and shaped them further. The sum of personal experiences, good and bad, produced the person living inside your skin at this moment. That personality causes you to relate to others, and consequently provokes them to respond to you, in a manner both beneficial and detrimental.

On Thursday, I will define barrier #3 – We have preferences because of our personality.

3 immutable laws of leadership – Part 1

 width=Part and parcel with the three essential skills of effective leadership – 1) Understand the times, 2) Know what to do, 3) Command action, are three immutable laws. Skills and laws are built around and support each other.

Immutable Law #1. A=A, a thing is what it is independent of the perceiver. (There is another condition which arises in the exercise of leadership that must consider the perceptions of those you are leading, but that is another story for another post). For more than a generation the prevailing philosphy has been towards subjectivism. Subjectivism is a label used to denote the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience.” Metaphysical subjectivism holds that Metaphysical subjectivism is the theory that reality is what we perceive to be real, and that there is no underlying true reality that exists independently of perception.

“Hold on!”, you may be thinking, “I thought this blog was about PRACTICAL leadership not conceptual stuff.” Well, it is. I define subjectivism because it is a widely held point of view. I am not a subjectivist. The feelings, ideas, opinions, and perspectives of others must be taken into account, but they are not reality.

Reality is reality. Objectivists like myself often quote Ayn Rand:

  • Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  • Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

She adds two more tenets which deal with moral intent and political philosophy and are not germaine to our discussion of leadership here. If you’re interested you can read them by going here.

So, let me bring this down to earth and make an application to the practice of practical leadership. Hitchhiking on the skill of understanding the times, an effective leaders must hold the A=A law as absolute. A faddish expression these days is “It is what it is.” And, it is what it is is correct.

The circumstances in which you practice leadership have a set of absolutes that are at play all the time and another set that may vary from event to event and certainly vary from person to person. They vary because reality changes, circumstances change, conditions change, people change. Effective leaders can see them and accept them for what they are.

When you allow subjectivism to gain supremacy, when you elevate tentativeness and uncertainty to reign, leadership begins to crumble. Let me illustrate with two situations.

Some years ago I responded to an ad for a mid-60’s Pontiac for sale. The ad claimed the car was rust free and ready to roll. When I got there, I could plainly see that the entire frame holding the windshiled in was rusted and in more than 75% of the palces, rusted through. “I thought you said this car was rust free?” I pressed the seller. Incredibly, he said, ‘It is! There’s not rust anywhere.”

“What about this?” I pointed to the windshield.

“That’s not rust.” he insisted.

He was either lying, blind, or stupid. In all actuality, subjectivists end up being all three. They are blind to things as they really are, see them but elevate their love of the subjective above reality and blind themselves towards the truth, and sound stupid because anyone can plainly see what’s going on.

When ideology and a subjective philosophy reign paramount, events are re-interpreted to be something other than they are. Three years ago or so, an officer at Ft. Hood opened fire on his fellow officers, shouting Islamist oaths as he fired away. His actions have been officially called workplace violence when we can plainly see it was an act of terror. But the prevailing philosophy is that terror does not happen so that cannot be terror.

In leadership, an accurate and valid assessment of exactly how things are is imperative if you ever hope to find a solution, fix the problem, and move along towards your objectives. Denying reality, relabeling the facts, ignoring the dynamics will guarantee leadership failure.

It is what it is. It is not whatever you want it to be. In my blog JackDunigan.com I addressed the problem of positive thinking and how it gets in the way of finding real solutions to real problems. Denying cancer exists in one’s body or calling it something other than what it is so one remains positive will not move you along to a solution. It only delays the inevitable.

There are two more leadership laws – the law of cause and effect, and the law of influence. Next installment comes on Thursday. See you then.

Laws of leadership – getting to know the ropes

 width=When a new sailor arrived on board, he had to learn how to tie knots and which rope hauled up which sail. After which of course they would know the ropes. It is an expression used in all kinds of settings these days, but the principal applies especially well here.

When I graduated from college, the organization I worked for sent my wife and me to a remote post for the express purpose of assisting the on-sight directors. We arrived there full of hope and enthusiasm.

I remember vividly stepping outside our little home that first morning, looking up into the sky, and saying right out loud, “I have no idea what I am supposed to do.”

My degree hung in a new frame on the wall. My head was filled with information. Most of it proved to be conceptually true but turned out to be practically of little immediate value.

Novices often arrive into positions of responsibility fully educated but poorly acclimated. Education can prepare one by providing information, it is not so successful when it comes to applying that information to a problem or in a position of responsibility.

Here’s why? Knowledge can indeed shape one’s perspective, inform one’s mind of the whats and whys, and expand ones capacities to reason. Isn’t it odd that vocational training does the job of preparing one for a job so much more effectively than do a liberal arts or professional education? I can complete a course as a machinist and, with a little guidance as to the exact procedures of the shop I go to work for and the specs of the project assigned to me, get right to work.

But a professional education like I had did little to prepare me for the actual job. It was my specified role to develop and train Native American leaders who would hold positions of authority in local settings on a Native American Reservation. My course load included the things I would instruct in but nothing about how to instruct. It certainly did not contextualize the information in ways the men and women I taught could apply in their setting. It was theoretical and conceptual but not very practical.

This is where effective principal number 1 comes in. Effective leaders understand the times. This is not easily learned without experience. You just have to be there, and be there for a while to know what’s going on. Why?

Because you have a frame of reference that probably does not align with the frame of reference of the person or persons you are trying to work with and lead. They see things differently than you do. Remember this: They own the territory when you arrive. You will have to buy in.

Take your time. It took me nearly two years because the culture was so different from my own. Most leadership settings are not so divergent.

When my son graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, we were privileged to be there for the ceremonies. We held a small reception for him and his associates to celebrate the event. I remember speaking with one of them, herself graduating at the same time. I asked her how she felt. She said, “I am glad to be finished with the course load, but I have no idea what to do next.” I smiled, and told her my story. Then, I encouraged her, “Don’t worry about it. No one knows when they first begin. But you will. You will.”

So what do you do? Unless it is a crisis, do as little as possible until you know what’s going on. First impressions can be false ones. Leaders need double vision. We have to see where we are going but we must also see where we are so we can know where to begin. Join in, get to know your associates, observe how things are done, you’re newly on board so learn the ropes, see better what’s going on. Then, and only then will you be best able to see what to do next.

How we learn – and what you should do to get the most out of what you need to teach

 width=“How to Light a Fire Under People Without Getting Burned,” one of the seminars I offer, demonstrates the art of multiplying your efforts through others. I sometimes conclude the seminar with a role-playing exercise where each participant must list the tasks he or she presently does that could possibly be done by someone else, then list whom among their associates might possibly be trained to do it. Next I ask them to script how they as trainer would speak to the potential trainee to enlist their help. Finally I ask them to practice the actual interview with another student. The object of the exercise is to put the material I’ve taught into immediate use. Normally, the exercise works very well. However, on one occasion one of the seminar participants surprised me.

A leader of several years’ experience completely froze up when it came to this exercise. He was a very non-technical learner and could not grasp the activity at all. Instead of being a fun event and a practical conclusion to the seminar, it was for him a moment of extreme discomfort. Since a key element of effective learning is that the experience must be fun and non-threatening, he ceased learning at that point.

Effective leaders know how to develop and employ high impact training materials containing these four elements:

  1. The opportunity to be involved and participate.

  2. The capacity to overcome barriers to learning.

  3. The means by which the learner can buy-in to the material, i.e., “WIIFM = What’s in it for me?”

  4. The use of  appealing, non-threatening interactive methods.

A person’s innate, natural, and preferred learning style never changes and mostly depends on whether they are technically or non-technically inclined. Technical learners are those who are most comfortable with mechanics, devices, handwork, and machines performing “hard skills.” Non-technical learners are most comfortable with concepts, ideas, words, and paper, the “soft skills.”  All training materials and the experiences that employ them fit somewhere within and around these three classifications:

  1. Visual – what the student can see.

  2. Aural – what the student can hear.

  3. Kinesthetic – what the student can do.

But learners do not learn equally well between the three classifications. It greatly depends on whether the learner is technical or non-technical. To be most effective, use more than one method to impart information to those you train, remembering that each learns at differing rates and in differing ways. People with hard skills learn best by hands-on training such as practice with a machine or procedure, role-play, or simulation. Soft-skilled people learn best by seeing the information, but poorest kinesthetically. Neither group learns well through only aural means.

How do you find out whether the learner is inclined toward hard or soft skills if you don’t know them very well?

At the beginning of the training session or in an interview prior, ask them what they do for a living and for a hobby. Generally, what people do for fun fits their natural learning style.

What training materials should you use?

To show them, use:

  • boards
  • computers
  • charts
  • videos
  • handouts
  • Powerpoint presentations

To tell them, use:

  • lecture
  • discussion
  • workshop
  • tutorials

To let them, use:

  • buzz groups
  • case studies
  • brainstorming
  • action plan development exercises
  • critiques
  • critical incident analyses
  • field trips
  • games
  • interviews
  • practice exercises
  • project sessions
  • role plays
  • quizzes
  • simulation