Conversation as the Pathway to Learning

July 1, 2013

This is the first instance of my new commitment to share ideas about the future of work on a more frequent basis. I can’t promise I will be “on the air” every week, but my modest goal for the near future is to offer many more – but much briefer – comments about both the future of work and the “today” of work.

At the moment I’m enjoying the fact that so many of you took the time to write to me directly or to comment online in response to my “rant” in last week’s newsletter. Thank you for your engagement, and for your insights.

And it’s that near-real-time extended conversation that triggers today’s brief commentary.

My idea today is a simple one, but it’s been a consistent theme for me for over forty years (that’s a awfully long time to hold on to an idea, isn’t it?).

Shortly after graduating from business school I was hired as the very first Manager of Training and Development for a publishing company in Chicago. The organization was filled with very smart, highly educated people. But it had been privately-owned and family-managed for most of its history, and no one had paid much attention at all to the company’s management processes and practices.

My boss, the VP of Human Resources, was also a relative outsider; he had been there less than a year when he brought me on board. Although he had a clear vision of what he wanted me to do, no one else quite knew what to do with me, or why I was there.

But as an ambitious youngster eager to make a difference, I tried to jump in quickly with several ideas for formal training courses. I wrote up several draft programs for sales training, for supervisory skills, for managing change, and for several other more industry-specific programs. I was chomping at the bit to get in the classroom and begin teaching.

However, my boss (also named Jim, by the way) was much older and wiser. In fact, in hindsight I can easily say that he was not only a mentor but a genuine role model for me, because over several years he molded my understanding of how you “really” change an organization (especially one whose leadership team didn’t have a clue how badly change was needed; but that’s another story).

Soon after he reviewed my ambitious training program design Jim Z, as I’ll call him, invited me into his office, complimented on me on the broad, sweeping goals of my draft program, and then said,

You’ve got to remember that telling isn’t teaching. We can always develop a program that lets the CEO brag about all the classroom hours the company is offering, but frankly I care a whole lot more about actually changing the way we operate. And that’s not going to happen in a formal training program.

With that, Jim Z sent me back to the proverbial drawing board, asking me to focus less on formal courses and much more on engaging with the company’s senior managers one-on-one so I could learn more about what they wanted (in contrast to what I wanted).

I rather quickly discovered that it was in those individual conversations that true learning and growth occurred. It was there that the managers could think out loud with me, sorting out what was going on day-to-day and what kinds of changes they needed to introduce into their work flows, their measurement systems, and their team leadership behaviors.

In hindsight I believe that those conversations, most of which lasted on and off for several years, accomplished far more “training” than we ever could have achieved with formal, structured courses. I came to be seen not as an “instructor” but as a trusted ally who helped my “clients” think through the challenges they were facing on an ongoing basis.

I also believe that my relatively young age actually helped. I wasn’t seen as any kind of threat, and for some executives I wasn’t even recognized as having any expertise other than being a good listener (although it didn’t hurt that I was essentially the only MBA graduate in the company; that did give me some instant credibility).

I think my role back then would be described today as “executive coaching,” but that term was unheard of at the time. And I’m frankly happy I wasn’t known as a Coach, because that concept carries a lot of baggage about presumed experience and expertise. I was just a young guy who asked a lot of provocative questions (to help me learn), and then offered some ideas to consider. But I never tried to take credit for them. And of course it was up to the individual managers to decide whether to implement any of the things we talked about.

Yet I believe to this day that I was able to have a meaningful impact on the way my company was managed. And I’ve come to believe far more in the power of conversations and collaborative problem-solving for driving change than in any formal instructor-led training programs.

William Greider (national affairs correspondent for The Nation) perhaps said it best:

Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community or an organization may make in renewal is to begin talking with other people as though the answers mattered.

Meaningful learning and change takes place when two (or a few) people sit down to explore a problem together within a context of mutual respect, with a willingness to listen to each other and a readiness to move beyond “mere” words. Ask questions, and listen as if the answers matter. Because they do.

In Summary: Five simple ways to make a difference

  1. Engage in conversations with decision-makers and influencers
  2. Ask questions to understand the way they see the world
  3. Listen for insight, emotion, and meaning
  4. Hold off on offering “solutions” – rather, focus on finding common goals and interests
  5. Offer ideas, suggestions, different ways of perceiving things – but don’t tell anyone what to do; that’s their responsibility.

Please add your comments and questions below.


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