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4 Ways Leaders Make Learning Stick

 May 20, 2021   By John Rutkiewicz


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Mother’s Day and LeadershipRecently, I was meeting with the executive team at a large distribution company. We were discussing current training I was conducting with the company’s 60 leaders. The training was focused on coaching skills.

“This coaching thing – will it be like everything else?” said Ian, out of the blue. Ian is the VP of technology.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“How long till it sticks?”

Ian went on to explain his recent frustrations with the leaders in his department. “Every one of them has special project goals this year. I’m constantly checking in to get status reports. They’re supposed to do quarterly performance reviews with their teams. I have to remind them to get those done, too. How will this training be any different? When will it just stick?”

I could feel Ian’s exasperation. He was tired of having to remind his people of their important priorities.

Other execs in the group stepped in. “I find any time we’re trying to do something new, I experience the same thing,” said Shawn, the VP of operations. “It takes diligent effort on my part – and patience. I have to keep my leaders focused on what we’re trying to do, what we expect. It goes on for months sometimes.”

Another VP asked Ian a question, not aggressively, but gently: “Ian, how long do you think change should take?”

Ian sat quietly for a moment. “I don’t know. When we make a change, I expect them to just do it.”

Learning is 1% Training, 99% Reminders

In organizations – and everywhere in life – learning doesn’t happen overnight.

By learning, I’m not talking only about training initiatives like the coaching program I teach at Ian’s company. Ian’s implementation of project goals for his leaders is also about learning; prior to Ian joining the company as a VP, his leaders never had project goals as part of their job descriptions. The idea of project goals was new to them. It was a change.

Quarterly performance reviews were also new to them. In the past, they only had to do one review at the end of the year. Just a few years back, they didn’t do any reviews at all. Now they were being asked to carve out time each quarter to sit down with their people and review progress. This, too, was new.

Changes of any kind – training programs, new initiatives, new standards or approaches – take time to gel and integrate before they become the fabric for how we do things. New behaviors and habits take time to get established. Learning is a process. We all know this.

But like Ian, sometimes we forget.

A wise man once said, “Learning is 1% training and 99% reminders.” Training is just the starting point. Learning happens over time, and “reminders” show up in a variety of ways. To make learning stick involves repetition, practice, trial and error. And for those who are learning, their leaders need to provide support and resources, remove obstacles, follow up on progress, and yes – sometimes simply remind.

Still, so many leaders I’ve worked with through the years, like Ian, don’t think it should be this way. They get frustrated when people don’t simply “get it” and “just do it.”

Ian Finds the Answers

Soon after the session with the execs, Ian and I met for a one-on-one coaching session. He wanted to unpack the challenge he was having with his team and their struggles to integrate what he wanted them to learn and do.

In coaching Ian, I asked him a variety of questions to help him look at the challenge from different perspectives, and we brainstormed possible solutions.

Here are four of Ian’s key insights:

  1. Think like an advertiser. If you watch TV, you know the advertisers who are hitting us up all the time. Geico. McDonald’s. Progressive. Amazon. We see their commercials constantly. Over and over.

It’s a cornerstone of advertising: Repetition builds mindshare. Advertisers get in our heads -- drip, drip, drip. They leak their way into our awareness, our consciousness. Their brands and their products become top of mind through repetition.

The same is true for us as leaders. Ask yourself: What needs to stay top of mind for my people? What’s most important? Then how can I bang that drum – slowly, routinely, rhythmically, over time – to keep certain things front and center and build the team’s awareness?

  1. Get clear on priorities – then communicate them. If you’re not clear about what’s most important for your team in their work, they can’t be clear either. In effect, you’ve set them up to fail.

Start by writing a list of your top priorities for your team, then rank them. This exercise helps you get clear in a variety of ways – you might just see where priorities conflict, where certain priorities aren’t as important as you thought they were, or how the list itself might be overwhelming you and your team.

Once the list is clarified and organized, share it with the team. Talk about it. Get their reactions. Answer their questions. Talk about obstacles you can help them overcome, resources they need you to provide. Through dialogue, discussion, and mutual exploration, you build their clarity and buy-in.

  1. Set expectations for follow-up. Remember back to the executive meeting, where Ian commented that he had to ask his leaders for status reports on their project goals? My question to him in coaching was: “How is it your leaders don’t know they need to report on their goals?”

Ian looked blankly at me, then he said, quietly, “I guess because I didn’t tell them.”

We can avoid a lot of frustration as leaders if we’re simply clearer with people about their responsibilities for reporting out, circling back, and giving updates on progress. We often assume people should just do this, but we don’t simply ask them to do it and set a cadence for how often it should happen.

It’s a simple fix. If you have routine one-on-ones with each team member or regular meetings with the whole team, build their check-ins into the process. Let people know they should come prepared to report.

Not only does this step get you the information you need – it routinely sends a signal about the things that are most important.

  1. Practice “positive reinforcement” of new behaviors. Like it or not, appreciation, recognition, and gratitude go a long way.

When people demonstrate new behaviors that are important, start by saying thank you. Then, acknowledge their good work and share with them the positive impact their actions and behaviors bring to the team.

Such appreciation injects positive energy into your people – and it once again reinforces what’s valued and important, so you’re likely to get more it.

Armed with these ideas, Ian is now making his way. He has a starting point and a game plan, and as we continue our coaching sessions, we’ll keep working on this and moving it forward.

It’ll be a process for Ian. Learning anything is a process. That’s true for his people, and it’s true for Ian, who is learning how to be a more effective leader.



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