Real Life Learning

Developing Team Leaders

When people move into their first management role it is big shift into a role where their expertise is no longer their technical skills but in their ability to work with others. Christine with Group final
I have observed that some team leaders just hope that the team will look after itself and get on with their technical work. This is often one of the causes of complaints from team members about their team leader not listening or caring.

Traditionally a short “Introduction to Team Leading” course might be offered but the difficulty was this was the although the course was enjoyable the learning was rarely reinforced. This is why it helps to create some blended learning options that will combine input of new skills and knowledge with practical work tasks.

Blended Learning OverviewThis simple diagram shows how three elements can sit together to provide a richness of learning. The final design is often a bit more complex than this because it can involve on-line elements, self assessment and peer assessment.

It is a real benefit to bring a group of team leaders together to work on a learning programme. By sharing their experiences with each other they discover that they are not alone in finding it a challenge to make the transition into management.

It is sad that so much more investment is provided for senior leadership development when the people who often have more day-to-day contact with employees get neglected!



When approaching team leader development these are some of the main areas you need to build into your development programmes:

  • opportunities to share the experiences of being a team leaders with peers
  • create honest and open feedback between the team leader, their manager and their peers
  • focus on the topics of current concern to your team leaders in your business – ask them what they want to cover, don’t just accept a standard menu of items.
  • different ways of learning will appeal to different people, create a richer mix of options including using your on-line resources
  • set expectations about implementing the learning by creating assessed work tasks
  • offer opportunities for reflections – both with peers and via a coach or mentor
  • make sure your senior management team are role modelling the behaviour they want from the team leaders!

You can follow-up this article by reading an outline proposal for a blended learning programme.



Mentoring a Win Win

Four months ago in the middle of a really full intense period of work I was asked by another member of Otley Cycle Club  to be her mentor to support her to develop her own training business.  I wondered how I would find the time and agreed to do in exchange for tea and cake and on an informal basis because I really liked her and wanted to help. At the time my main focus was about what I could offer as a mentor and whether I would have the time and relevant insights to support someone else. I did not really see it as something that would benefit me.


Mentoring Session One

After just two mentoring sessions I have realised that this is far from another burden.  A’s business is only a year old, mine is 10 years old. A is excited by all the diversity of the freelance role, she is enjoying the breadth of experience she is getting. I see her getting inspired by seeing one of my tweets from my work in Vienna to go and chase opportunities to deliver her training abroad via the UK Trades and Investment team (UKTI). She has all this energy and passion to just have a go, explore opportunities and find ways of marketing her products to others. It makes me realise how much I too still value these aspects of running my own business. Inevitably after 10 years you become a lot more ground down by the realities of navigating a business through the recession into recovery, you start to take for granted some of the aspects of owning a business that are so great. I sometimes take for granted all the learning I get from my international assignments and focus instead of how tiring it can be to manage the logistics of working abroad including missing luggage, cancelled flights and airport foods. Another insight has been comparing our home offices, this has made me realise that 10 years on mine is due for a makeover .  I could use that as a metaphor to describe the whole impact on me of mentoring someone who is a very different stage of their business development. You become immune to your surroundings and situation and hearing another perspective is such a valuable learning tool. When I have developed mentoring programmes I have often said “of course you as a mentor get benefits from this too”  as this great video which A was involved in but I am not sure I really understood what those benefits are. What I am learning is if you want to get something from being a mentor:

  1. Choose who you work with – I genuinely enjoy spending time with A so when the mentoring appointment pops up on my diary reminder I find myself looking forward to the appointment. Liking the person you are mentoring just makes the whole thing so much easier.
  2. Focus on Listening First – this is so easy with A, she talks me through all the latest projects she is involved in and I find it is so much better for me to pick out the themes at the end and not to force an agenda on the conversation.
  3. Share Experiences not Solutions – I avoid telling A what she should do but I do share my experiences of similar concerns and how I have dealt with this. One experience was about planning work and holidays into the diary so that you take time away from the business. I shared an experience of my worst holiday/work conflict  and my learning from this. A took that away and develop a solution that she felt would help her avoid the same problem.
  4.  Make Your Own Action Plans – usually the focus is on what actions the person who is being mentored will take but as a change why not think about what you are going to do. I have made a note of a number of actions I intend to take, including to stop moaning about the demands of international work and embrace the experience again!

So if someone asks you to consider mentoring them and you like them, say yes. The time you invest will be returned to you with profit!

When do we know it is time to learn new tricks?

In some of the recent commentary about the sacking of Martin O’Neil from Sunderland Football Club a theme seemed to be that the methods he had always successfully used were no longer working and did not have the same impact.

This has made me reflect on how easy it is as we get older and more experienced in our careers to continue using the skills that worked before. Most professionals will find a method that works in most situations and we are employed for our experience in the past of successfully using that method.

But what happens when it no longer works as well? Do we notice the change? Do we blame circumstances in our context for the lack of result or do we take a big step back and review whether we need to completely overhaul our approach?

This weekend I was at the MOL CIPD tutor conference and another tutor asked me what I thought about Smart Boards. I was fairly negative about their usefulness but the real answer is that I don’t know much about them!  I have never needed to get to grips with them. My old and familiar methods work well, and most of my corporate clients do not have rooms equipped with anything smarter than a projector and a flip-chart. This is a classic example where we can deny that we might need to learn new tricks!

Tips for Refreshing Your Skills

  1.  Be honest about your own evaluation of your practice. Ask yourself if you are getting the same good results as you got a year/a decade ago and be open to exploring the answer.
  2. Do a review of other people in your profession and find out what they are doing and identify any tips from this.
  3. Watch out for all those things you automatically dismiss and revisit those reactions with an open mind. I did a course on Twitter two years ago after dismissing Twitter as unnecessary to my profession, it was a revelation to me. I can see I am going to need to do a similar U Turn on Whiteboards!
  4. Try to make small differences in your existing practices, they might not work but you will find the experience of designing, implementing and reflecting on these changes will make you more consciously competent.
  5. Spend time with children. My nephew is 9 and provides me with valuable insights on the future generation of learners.

What other tips can you add to the top five? How do you keep on top of your skills and keep learning new tricks to future proof your career?

Adult Learners and Choice – the Snow Question

Any trainer will tell you that when snow starts to fall in the UK your training plans are likely to get put under strain.
Initially there are the messages checking that the course is still running or telling you about delays expected to journeys. Once having got people to the session the next challenge is to keep people focused on the content and not on the snow outside.
One of the things that constantly amuses my European colleagues, particularly in places like Austria and Ukraine, is how a few centimetres of snow can put the entire country into a severe state of emergency. Holding a training session in this context can be a real challenge.
I was faced with this situation in two sessions recently during the January Big Snow event. My client had left it up to me to decide on whether to continue or not as the snow continued to fall outside. I decided to give my groups choices. I explained that I was able to stay until the scheduled close time and was happy to do so but that I knew some of the group would be worried about getting home. I explained what we were going to cover in the course and how they might catch up on this content in other ways. I then simply handed them the choice. They could check in on the transport advice on their phones at breaks and make their own decisions about when they wanted to leave.
I was really conscious that if you are stressing about your journey home you are unlikely to be learning so I explained to the group that I did not want them to feel stressed but equally I did not want them to miss out on the learning from this session. I made it clear that it would be ok if they needed to leave and that this was a choice that they could make for themselves at any point during the day.
On both days the sessions finished at the normal time with the whole group present. Our groups left the building in eerie silence as it seems we were the only groups who took this choice to stay. In other sessions in this period the various organisers made the decision for the group and announced an early finish. This could have been of course because the organisers needed to get home but I wondered how much of it is because we feel we need to “look after” our learners and forget that the principles of adult learning is about giving the learner responsibility for their decisions. Our role is to support, encourage but not to take over. The snow example showed me that learners can often surprise you when you pass over responsibility to them. I really didn’t expect that all the learners would choose to stay. That they choose to stay reinforced how valuable these group sessions are to the learners.

Bradley Wiggins and the Power of the Why Question

Over the Christmas break I have been reading the autobiography of Bradley Wiggins “My Time” which charts his year of winning the Tour de France and the Olympic Time Trial. This has been a brilliant read for me as I love following road and track cycling but I as I reflect on the book I realise there are some great insights for my organisation work.

One of the powerful influences within British Cycling has been the sports scientist Tim Kerrison. He joined the cycling team from a background in performance swimming and had “revolutionised training in Australian swimming” (p.35) As a newcomer to the sport Tim spent a year just observing the cyclists as they went about their training and their racing. Only at the end of the year did he start to set out his training programmes. To create these programmes he asked a lot of Why questions. A big question was why road cyclists do not “cool down” at the end of their races, like other professional sports people would normally do. What became apparent is that there was no real reason apart from no one did it! The Sky team started to introduce “cool downs” and the other professional racing teams have started to follow their lead.

A Year to Observe

What got me thinking was how in organisations I have never known someone to have a year to observe, see the patterns and trends, and ask questions before they start to be expected to deliver the goods. When I have worked with some organisations on developing their induction and have explored how to support senior managers joining I have often shared the useful “Your First 90 Days” with senior teams and the reaction is often that 90 days of observation is too long! So imagine how a year of observation would go down! Yet without that year some of his observations would not be rooted in discernible patterns and trends, it could just be randomly observed events.

Asking Why

It was by asking why that Tim Kerrison was able to find out which of the observations he had made had a valid reason that perhaps he had not fully grasped and which observations were just because “that’s how we have always done it”. How often do we sit back in organisations and observe our normal processes and rituals and ask why we do that particular task in that particular way? I often use the 5 Why’s Technique when I facilitate team events on innovation. It is a technique that people really seem to struggle with and can often get really frustrated about the process. This tells me that we are not that experienced in asking why enough. If only we did what might we uncover.

Being Open to Change

The final aspect that needed to happen was that Bradley Wiggins himself needed to be open to change. He was candid enough to acknowledge that in the past when given a training programme he would adapt it to his own needs based on the belief that he knew better than others what would work. This time he said to Shane Sutton and Tim Kerrison that he would trust them to get his body ready for the challenge ahead “get this machine working for next July”. Often when I work with managers they get frustrated because their efforts to support an employee to improve their performance does not result in the desired end point. This insight shows us that without both parties actively engaged change is not going to happen because individuals can so easily sabotage their own chances of success, often without even realising what they doing. The critical change was that there was trust between both partners and this made it possible to make the type of incremental small changes which are the critical path to the overall success of the British cycling team.

So my learning to take into 2013 for my next management development sessions is:

  • Take Time to Observe
  • Ask Why and challenge the “way we always do things round here” attitude
  • Create a climate of trust so that your employees know that you are acting in their best interests and work with you in partnership.

Engaging Learners with On Line Learning

One of my many different freelance roles is a tutor for MOL who is the partner for the CIPD’s Flexi Plus Learning System. This learning programme is designed to offer students a blended learning experience, combining face to face workshops with workbooks and then an on line environment.

Over the last two years I have been developing ways to support my students to become more engaged with on line learning as I have grown to recognise that it is the learning facilitator and not the technology that determines engagement.

These are my main learning points:

Be Pro-active

As a tutor I need to be pro-active in the use of the various elements involved in the learning process. If I want a discussion to be started relating to one of our workshops then I will not only set the question but I will often supply an example of practice to demonstrate the point.

Don’t be a Lurker

I encourage the participants to comment as well as reading entries and I role model this by making comments on the discussion boards and the on line blogs. I do more of this at the beginning and then let the participants take over. I combine this with advice to the participants to participate and “don’t be a lurker”

Set Expectations

By the end of two months of the programme beginning I have set an expectation that I expect each participant to have written their personal learning blog, added a comment on the suggestion box/or made a suggestion and made a comment on the discussion board. I brief students on this commitment and then track them against this commitment and remind them about it during a telephone tutorial before the end of this two month period. This ensures that everyone has written something on both the private and public parts of the learning environment.

Be Passionate

I express enthusiasm for the element of the programme that will be conducted on line, I encourage the students to embrace this as an opportunity to learn and share on best practice outside of the classroom environment.

Provide a Learning Reason

In addition to the benefits of on line learning from their peers I also suggest to the participants that they will learn about elearning by personal experience. They will be much better able to contribute to discussions in their organisation about the use of virtual learning environments from the users’ perspective if they have had more than just a theoretical experience. I make a benefit of the slightly clunky nature of the Blackboard backend to our virtual classroom because this will make them better purchasers of any system, they can ask better questions of the technology providers.

I have now got a tipping point with my groups on the Certificate programme; they are now driving the virtual learning environment forward without loads of effort from me. I am starting to notice comments from them about this being a valuable part of the blended programme. I am looking forward to developing and involving them even further as my own skills and experience develop. I would love to hear about other tips of how you have got engagement in the virtual world.

Time Management Tips in Practice

One of my least favourite courses to run has always been Time Management. At the beginning of my career I tried to meet this request by running a one day course and it was always a disappointment to me and the participants. This does not mean that time management is not an issue but just that imposing a standardised solution on people fails to meet the high expectations people have about training.

These days I focus on individualised approaches to time management. For many people what is needed is a fundamental look at their priorities and approach to time, this requires an understanding of psychology beyond the “if you think you can do you will” approach.

Other people need to consider tips and techniques, to have time to try these out and to reflect on the usefulness of these approaches. This means I am always alert to new time management tips and some of these I try out myself. Here are the two most recent tips I have been testing out:

Weekly Planner

My work involves a lot of planning and I used a to do list to keep track of the tasks. I have now supplemented this with a white board with the next 5 working days in a table format. I can then write on the board the events/meetings that I have in my diary and schedule time to plan for these and also to plan for other projects.

It is a simple visual idea which helps me to see ahead into my immediate future and ensures that I am meeting all my deadlines effectively. I like the focus that it gives me and the way it helps to reduce my panic when I am about to move into a busy delivery phase.

Don’t Switch on your Email

The idea of switching off your email is something I have incorporated into my practice for many years. I have often switched the email off when concentrating on particular tasks to avoid distracting my creative flow. The new tip I am focusing on is to do a task first before switching on the email. This is a great tip because it means you have achieved a task before taking on lots of new urgent tasks generated by your email. This works for me because it keeps me focused on the important but not necessary urgent tasks and avoids me getting sucked into my email at the cost of other things.

As I said at the beginning, time management is such an individualised subject that these tips may be of no use to you because of the unique challenges you face in your role. So it would be great to share some thoughts here:

  • what tips work for you?
  • What ideas have you taken from others and incorporated into your daily routines?
  • Why do these ideas work for you?

Making and Influencing Change: Beyond the Shiny Things Approach

One of the disappointing aspects of my profession as a trainer is how so many in our profession (and I include myself at times) get excited by new shiny techniques that promise us to fix one of the big problems in organisations…how do you get people to change behaviour? We seek out techniques that will work quickly and fix the problem so that our organisations can run more smoothly. From an initial pilot study a project can quickly be picked up and implemented across a whole organisation and then a few years later it is forgotten about as the desired change in behaviour has not happened.

It was in this context that I picked up Timothy Wilson’s book “Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change”

The book is a really detailed but readable overview of some of the latest research on various group and individual interventions designed to create positive change. Wilson outlines why many of these interventions have failed, even though they seem at first to make perfect sense.

An example which stood out for me was the “Free Book” project. The idea is that children get rewarded for reading by having a prize that they will get once they have read a certain number of books. For children who were not keen on reading this had a desired effect. Whilst the reward was in place they did read more. But once the reward system stopped their reading went back down to previous levels. The really scary thing was that for children who already did plenty of reading the scheme did not increase their rate of reading but when the scheme was over their level of reading dropped right off! By putting a reward system in place the children had started seeing reading as something that they had to be motivated to do by external rewards and no longer something that they valued themselves.

I reflected on this in terms of the myriad of performance bonus systems that I have seen implemented in the various organisations I have worked in. Many managers I work with love these incentive schemes as they feel that they are able to reward good behaviour with a positive outcome. If you scratch the surface then you quickly realise that all these schemes are doing is introducing a mechanical way of getting us to “do the right thing”. Once the reward changes (and how many incentive schemes are ever that good in a recession?) then the motivation to do the right thing is no longer there.

The key solution that was recommended from the research was something that individuals could easily implement themselves – the story editing techniques. These are defined by Wilson as “a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narrative about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behaviour” (p.11, 2011).

You can read more about the story editing technique in this interview with Timothy Wilson

If you are a trainer or change consultant who is bored of the shiny things you might find the book as useful as I did in promoting a more reflective and research based approach to intervening to influence change in organisations.

How to Engage your team without footballing millions!

I am a fan of Guiseley AFC a team that plays in the UniBond First Division. The players turn up for traning and to play games for an amazing sum of £100 a week! Their manager is not able to engage by huge bonus payments or by a complicated internal promotion system. What seems to engage the players is the quality of the manager and the team environment which is created.

At a club like Guiseley it is going to be the little things that will make a difference and sometimes this gets lost in some of the work on engaging employees. What interests me is not big bold employee engagement programmes produced by an organisational development consultant but the tiny things that managers do day to day with their teams to create an environment which is engaging and supportive.

This quote always focuses the mind of managers I work with:
“Over 70% of people leave their jobs because of the way they are led.” Norman Drummond, Motivational Speaker

So what can managers do to create a work place that encourages engagement. Recent research by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer collected diary entries of employees in a variety of companies. The diary enteries were used to map the relationship between the individual’s mood and the activities at work. The conclusions were that little things made a big and lasting difference. The small wins were important, these are some small wins that I have observed making a difference in workplaces I have been involved in as an employee or as a freelance trainer.

3 Small Wins for Engagement

Listening to complaints and responding

People moan all the time and as a manager it is easy to dismiss this as “just moaning” but if you really listen you will start to pick up themes about what really irritates people. Right now a big issue is the difference between words and actions. A lot of companies are focusing on keep costs down and have not been doing any wage rises. People get it, but what does not make sense is when they see money being wasted by the top managers on a bonding event at an expensive hotel.

Easter Eggs and Ice-Creams

I can remember being thrilled to find an Easter Egg on my desk from my boss one morning when I got to work. It wasn’t the value of the gift but just the unexpected nature of it. Likewise the ice-creams one of the managers popped out to get one really hot day (and they do happen sometimes in Leeds)

Training, Coaching and Investment

Giving people the chance to develop their skills, and I don’t mean just running a lot of generic training courses. It is about really taking time to find out what people need to learn and finding interesting ways to help them learn it. One of the best customer service training I delivered involved sending people round the shops and services of Leeds for 2 hours and then asking them to present their findings about what they had learnt about customer service to our management team. This bit of training costs nothing, just a bit of imagination from your training team, and the willingness to trust that your employees will use the opportunity wisely.

Banish Boring Training

Banish Boring Training Sessions

One of the areas of my work that I love the most is when I meet a trainer who says that they have a programme to design that is on a really challenging topic which they are finding hard to bring to life. A recent example I am working on is Assessing Credit Risk in Professional Practice. I can tell that you are already looking excited about this topic! You probably want to sign up now for me to run the session for your team. But just in case this topic doesn’t fill you with heart felt joy then read on and see how you might approach a seemingly dull subject like this.

If you are already excited and want to book a place check out my clients website!

The main challenge that the trainer faces is resisting the feeling that face to face sessions must be used to explain the legislation and guidance. Face to face time is too precious to waste by verbalising what would work as a set of hand-outs or a self-explanatory slide show. We have to move away from the idea that we have to verbalise stuff for it to be learning. I can read a lot quicker than you can talk so just let me get on with the reading or give me an audio podcast to listen to. Please don’t just stand there talking at me!

There are ways you can use the time with people in a room so much more effectively than talking at them..

Tip 1: Separate background knowledge from discussion and stimulation

  • Provide in advance a set of self- explanatory Powerpoint slides to work as a slide show. Avoid using lots of bullets, try using different visuals to bring this material to life.
  • Create an attractive detailed written guide to the legislation and guidance.
  • Create on line learning questionnaires to check knowledge before or after.

Tip 2: Engage people with the topic

  • Its about hearts and minds so find reasons for people to listen. I once used real press releases about breaches in data protection to get people to realise how serious it can be when it all goes wrong.
  • Run a face to face group session which encourages participants to discuss a range of different scenarios and to explore the consequences of breaches in the legislation.
  • Work with the group to generate some tips to create a check list to use when assessing risk
  • Create some fact cards using the information in your hand-out pack and get participants to use these cards to assess typical situations they may face. An example I created for the credit management course was selecting the best search to do when your organisation has no budget for credit checking.

Tip 3: Brief Everyone about the Training

  • Make sure everyone in the organisation knows about the training and what you are planning to cover. This will help to ensure that the right people attend and that they know why they are attending the training.
  • In your publicity talk about the benefits of attending the training, in the case of credit management it will save your organisation taking on a client who never pays their bill!

The most important thing is about the commitment of the leadership to the training, leaders can have a big influence on training being seen as more than just a “one hit, big tick” event. Effective leaders will make sure that the training becomes part of the way that things are done and provides a safe place for practice and follow up to happen. The trainer can do wonderful tricks to make most topics come alive but if the training is not taken seriously in the organisation then there is no return on the investment and this must be the most boring message for organisations to get!

If having read this you want to attend a programme on Credit Risk Assessment for Chambers and Law Firms then you can book a place at

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