Lessons From Learning Leaders: An Interview With Marie Pettingill

This is the second in my “Learning Leader” series; last month’s interview with Rick Brandon, is here.

This month’s conversation is with Marie Pettingill. I’ve known Marie for at least 20 years. Even so, she still surprised me in our conversation, thinking like a marketer to reach an audience on a large scale and actually change the culture of her organization. She also has some interesting thoughts on the challenge of developing high-level leaders. I’m still thinking about how to address the issues she raises.

I hope you enjoy learning from Marie as much as I do.


What’s an L&D project or initiative that you’re proud of? What made it special?

I do a lot of facilitation and coaching in my role; I also design tools. The initiative that’s probably had the biggest reach was a development planning tool I created. We’ve got 250,000 people in our organization and trying to build something that scales can be pretty intense. For this project, I adapted our competency model, and created a website where people could go and create a development plan. It probably had a thousand different development ideas, and a process for how they could have a discussion about their plans. We started with something we used in traditional training that was only available to managers and we democratized it. It was a great supplement for people who had gone through the class, and it gave those managers the opportunity to teach others. I’m a great believer in the “hundredth monkey“ theory—you teach one monkey who then teaches another monkey who then teaches another monkey and eventually you get it into the culture.


That’s amazing. How were you able to get it to scale?

You have to build a system where people start to teach each other. As a facilitator, that’s when the magic happens—when they start talking amongst themselves and coaching each other and I can step back. That’s what I was going for. In this case we came at it from multiple directions—it was a sustainability tool for managers who had gone through the class. They could then coach their employees in using it. And HR kept on reinforcing it in our work as an easy and effective development tool. There were a lot of people involved, and it started to spread organically. At that point it took on a life of its own.


You really caught lightning in a bottle with that project. Are there any replicable “success secrets” you can point to?

I thought of this project more like an ad campaign than a learning process. I started with, “where do I have influence in the organization, how do I support them in using it, how can they teach it to someone else?”

Also, the thing you’re putting out there has to be simple enough and user-friendly enough that people can adopt it when they have a problem. Like the listening skills Ridge teaches—those are skills you can use in multiple contexts because it’s simple enough where people can see how to use it. But give people a complicated thing that’s hard to use and no one else is using it or even cares about it… Sadly we do that too much in our profession.


How about a project that didn’t go well? What happened and what did you learn?

In a couple of places I’ve worked, what we’ve done with our executives hasn’t been good. We send them to Harvard and Wharton, but when it comes to internal leadership development, we in L&D don’t understand their challenges. We take middle-manger techniques we’re familiar with and give them to executives. Well, they were already great at middle management which is how they got to be executives. Now they’ve got different issues.

Understanding their challenges and creating a way for them to feel safe to learn from each other is a big deal. That’s tricky because they have to put on a good face and look competent and of course there’s internal competition, too. But to help them create a community with others like them, also facing these incredible challenges, and know they can use each other to work through what they’re dealing with—that would be a real service.


Any ideas on how to do that?

I think you have to develop a culture of vulnerability, where it’s okay to be vulnerable, so that the current belief system stops. I’ve been banging my head on that problem for the last few years. If you have any ideas let me know.


Are you familiar with the research on psychological safety?

That’s actually another big problem. When people aren’t feeling safe, which is often, you’re really stuck because they keep doing the same old things when we need them to try something different.

The only place I see real change with that one is when people get one-on-one coaches, when they get someone really listening to them playing back to them what they’re saying so they can get beyond their routine ways of thinking and responding. That is so powerful when it happens. I don’t know if you’re seeing this in other companies, but people are so hungry for someone to just be with them and listen to them.

That’s at the individual level. I’d love to figure out a way do something that scales at the organizational level.


So let me ask you this: If you could distill your philosophy or some wisdom you’d like to impart to others into a few words or phrases and put those on a billboard for others to learn from, what would be on your billboard?

It would say something like, People Learn Through Stories, and They Learn When They Can Find Their Own Story. And the more you can facilitate them sharing stories and get them thinking about how their experiences shape them, the more learning cements.

Right now I’m trying to get beyond classic instructional design to the research around behavior change at a neuroscience level. That’s why stories are so powerful. How can I as a facilitator, or when I am creating something like the website, make it user-friendly, encourage people to tell stories and make connections, and have them teach each other so it wires into their brains and their behavior? Ridge’s training does that—you practice and practice and practice a skill and it wires in. As a profession, we throw a lot of stuff at people and hope something sticks. But brain science validates it won’t. I wish we were able be more strategic, focus on a few critical things that will make an impact, and wire those in before adding more.


Thanks for a rich conversation, Marie.

Thanks Jim.

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