I’ve been privileged in my career to work with clients who have taught me a lot about training and performance change, individually and organizationally. Rather than hoard these insights, I asked these learning leaders if I could interview them and share our conversations with others. To that end, I’ll be sending out a new interview monthly throughout the year. And while parts of these conversations are specific to Learning and Development or OD professionals, there are lessons that can benefit anyone wanting to get better at developing others and improving performance.
The first interview is with Rick Brandon. Ridge teamed with Rick to create one of the most effective leadership development programs I’ve seen, past or present. In this interview we talk about that success as well as Rick’s pragmatic approach to Learning & Development and OD. For him, it’s ultimately “not about the learning, it’s about the doing.”
I hope you enjoy learning from Rick as much as I do.
What’s an L&D project or initiative that you’re proud of? What made it special?
To this day the Leadership in Action program we did with Ridge while I was working in the insurance industry is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and that I’m most proud of.
I’m honored to hear that! I know there was a lot more to it than just the Ridge training. It was a nine-month curriculum with pre/post testing, individual coaching, and more. How did you come up with that model?
It really started with an employee engagement survey that found some disturbing patterns about employees’ experience with their managers. My group had administered that survey and the results went to the company’s Board. They came back and said, “We want you guys to do something about this.” So we felt like, number one, we were going to be supported in putting something together that was robust, and number two, that we better be able to deliver. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that on the next engagement survey, the scores better have gone up! (Laughs)
At the time, I had just learned about something called the Development Pipeline from Personnel Decisions International, now part of Korn Ferry. It was the first model I’d come across that really got into creating awareness, creating motivation, then having the learning event, and then providing support as folks applied what they learned.
So we looked at a number of training vendors and really liked Ridge’s content and focus on skills. Once we made that decision, we asked Glenn from your team, “if we could implement your training the best way you’ve seen it done, how would we do it?” He said that offering the skills in chunks, with periods in between to practice and apply the skills, was the way to go. Keep in mind we were using eight-to-ten days of content. We knew we needed to provide ongoing support in between based on the Pipeline model, so that’s where coaching came in. Then we looked at how to create awareness and motivation. We ultimately added a skills survey which direct reports filled out. That really got managers’ attention— that first year some actually cried, it was such a disconnect with the way they saw themselves as effective leaders. But by the end, their skills really came around. I know you’ve seen the numbers— we got statically significant behavior change—but to see first-hand how leaders grew in that program was really gratifying. One manager who didn’t think she had time to go through the program came to me really upset. She was worried because, in her words, “If you haven’t been through this program, you’re not respected as a manager or a supervisor here.” That’s when I knew this thing had really taken hold.
How about a project that didn’t go so well? What was it and what did you learn?
Okay, this was at a different insurance company. I had been a training director for operations for about a year, and was asked to create a training program to broaden the perspectives of the managers to understand the different functions within operations. Before I got very far, an executive who had come from another insurance company plopped a training manual they had used on my desk. The implication was clear—use this!
It was literally five days of slides and lecture. Torture to sit through. I thought we could improve the outcomes and the experience by customizing it and adding a simulation. So I went to our EVP and walked him through my thinking and what it would cost; he was pretty positive. He wanted me to present to his team, which included the executive who brought in the program I was trying to fix. I put together a presentation that showed the strengths and weaknesses of that approach and three other options. I felt pretty good about it.
I shouldn’t have. It was a brutal meeting. That executive quickly went after the simulation idea, saying that simulations didn’t work. She didn’t let up. By the time I walked out the door it was clear nothing was going to change.
The thing is I knew better. I should never have let myself get surprised that way. I should have met with the individuals on that team in advance and taken their thoughts and feedback into account. I could have included answers to their concerns and challenges in the presentation, and shown the pretty compelling research on how effective simulations can be.
So yeah, I lived with that failure a long time. I had to look at that program and work on it every week for six months… (laughs).
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?
I can’t distill everything into a single soundbite, but a few themes come to mind.
One is Manage Your Half. Focus on the things within your sphere of influence. Do your part of your work and relationships well.
Another is Fail Small, Succeed Big. A corollary to that is Luck Is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity. I like testing experimental solutions when needs arise. Those that show promise, we iterate and grow. But you’ve got to be ready and able to recognize opportunities when you stumble over them.
Another related maxim is Effort Without Result Is Meaningless. There’s some nuance in that one—something might not work as intended, but if you learn something, it’s been worth it. Still, don’t lose sight of the result.
A final tip is It’s Not About the Learning, It’s About the Doing. In L&D, we often like to do things we think are cool, but can lose track of what we’re really here to do which is to help power business results. My experience has been that when your business partners see you really listening and working to help them capture their opportunities and solve their problems, the stuff they deal with and struggle with every day, and you’re helping them be successful, they have a way different reaction to L&D than if you put out a program and ask them to sit through it.
Listening to your billboard messages takes me back to when we first met. Your group back then wasn’t called “Learning & Development,” it was “Performance Improvement,” right? That’s a perfect fit for how you approach L&D.
My wife used to wonder how I ever ended up in corporate HR. For me there’s a clear path. I took a personal interests, attitudes, and values assessment years ago— my two top scores were “theoretical” and “pragmatic.” That rang true—I love looking at conceptual things and then say “how can I put that to use in a way that’s practical and simple so we can accomplish things?” Early in my HR career I remember thinking, “look at all this research and these models and these things that you can do, that create interesting results!” That’s what’s exciting about Learning & Development and OD.
So where do you go for inspiration or resources that you use in your work or your own development?
I tend to stay away from the popular press—things like HBR or ATD. A lot of times I’m searching for things specific to what I’m working on, or I’ll get a book referral. And a lot of time it’s just serendipity. I recently learned about nudge theory which got me thinking about how to apply it to change management.
Another case of finding conceptual theories, making them simple, and putting them to work. Thanks for the conversation Rick.
Thanks. It’s been fun.