Expert Advice on Bringing Out Employee Greatness

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

This interview with Phil Geldart of Eagle's Flight discusses what separates excellent, meaningful employee training from the merely...

Sometimes, a team is more than the sum of its parts. When this happens, it's like magic: The group of otherwise-ordinary players astounds everyone with their winning record and cohesive dedication to greatness.

If you run a business, you naturally want your team to be something greater than the sum of its parts, and perhaps you have considered corporate training programs to help facilitate this. But choosing the right training program isn't easy. If your employees don't put what they learned into practice, what good is a training program? Business.com recently spoke with Phil Geldart of Eagle's Flight, a leader in experiential learning for corporate teams in just about every industry imaginable and in numerous countries around the world. Here's what he had to say about making the magic happen in the workplace.

Q. Sometimes employees see they've been scheduled for corporate training and their first reaction is, "Hooray! Two days I get paid for playing silly trust games!" How do you disabuse people of the idea that corporate training is a meaningless exercise and help them understand what they can really do with their training experience?

A. How we perform is as a direct result of what we've learned to do. As we continue to learn, we're able to do things differently and better, and so we can perform better. This rationale applies equally to coaches, professors and apprentice plumbers. Clearly, if you also apply this principle in corporations - to teach employees to work more efficiently and effectively - then corporate training is a worthwhile goal.

The challenge is to make the corporate training as effective as possible. Since people learn best by doing, if you can blend learning and doing, then training is optimally effective. "Silly trust games" don't do this, but disciplined experiential learning programs do.

Q. Eagle's Flight emphasizes that training initiatives should not be seen as an end in themselves. How do you help your programs "stick" with people so that once they're back in their same old office they are able to transfer what they've learned into their daily work life?

A. For real learning to occur, you need not only an understanding of the content, but you also need the personal conviction that applying the content will be beneficial. It's this conviction that is the catalyst that converts learning into behavioral change.

One of the reasons for Eagle's Flight's longevity and success is that our experiential learning approach builds conviction, as well as skill.

Q. How does "experiential learning" help us learn what our blind spots are in terms of our abilities and practices? Sometimes the people with the biggest blind spots have the biggest egos, so how can you help people understand their own shortcomings without being confrontational or aggressive?

A. The power of a mirror is that it reflects reality. Of course, this is only a two-dimensional version of reality, but that reflection is honest and non-judgmental. It just is. By looking dispassionately at that accurate reflection, the viewer can objectively assess what they see and immediately make two decisions.

First: "If I don't like that reflection, should I change something I'm doing?" Then: "What do I have to change to get a reflection that gives me the outcome I want?"

World-class, experiential learning events act in exactly the same way as a clear mirror. It only takes 2 to 3 hours - the length of a typical session - for participants to get an accurate reflection of the way they behave on the job, day in and day out. The experiential learning event isn't the same as being at work, but it does serve as an accurate mirror that reflects the critical aspects of the job and how people behave while doing them.

A professional debrief after the experiential event brings the reflection into sharper focus and allows participants to address the two decisions. During this phase, the participant is challenged to ask if something should be changed to improve performance back on the job and, if so, what? The facilitator can then build upon this new awareness, and the desire to improve that the experiential learning event created (a look in the mirror) and guide participants on how to make the desired change.

Q. If my employees and I have just returned from a training initiative, what can I as a supervisor do to prevent the "learning decay" that sets in once we're away from the training environment and back to dealing with day-to-day business life?

A. The single greatest influence on an employee, on a day-to-day basis, is their immediate supervisor. That supervisor's behavior, attitudes and interactions show what the company's values, culture, policies and procedures mean in practice. That supervisor provides not only direct leadership, but also an example of what the organization wants from its employees - hence the need for great leadership training and a focus on building superb leadership skills at every level.

Because of this, any training - whether experiential learning, technical, theoretical, etc. - will only achieve its full potential to change behavior when it is reinforced by an individual's line manager or supervisor on a day-to-day basis. This means that supervisors must both understand what has been taught and be genuinely convinced about its value when applied on the job.

At Eagle's Flight, we teach this concept in one of our leadership programs, and summarize it as: "Good, effective leaders must Model, Coach and Require the behaviors they wish to see in their subordinates."

Q. It makes sense that we learn better from things we experience rather than from things we only see or hear. How can training initiatives inject that element of experience into training that is necessary, but which may be tedious (like incorporating new federal rules or understanding a new organized labor contract)?

A. In the particular instance where the training has to address something that is necessary, but is also tedious, experiential learning is one of the few ways to generate engagement and an understanding of that new learning.

For example, to present federal rules or the details of a labor contract within the context of an experiential learning event, we would create an experience that would put participants in a situation where success in the "adventure" (the experiential learning session) was dependent upon their correct understanding and application of the rules or contract clauses. In this way, the participant works repeatedly with the material that has to be learned, sees the implications of getting it right or not, and, by the end of the experience, has acquired mastery of the content and its appropriate application in their work environment.

Clearly this is an example of a tailor-made experience, designed for that particular situation, rather than one that teaches a more generic principle, such as partnerships in sales. However, it does illustrate the flexibility and potential for highly-specific customization of experiential learning, no matter what the content.

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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