Posts Tagged Learning

Social Learning as an Enabler of Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership at its very core is about the act of being “leaderful” no matter the role that we play in an organization. As an organizational philosophy it promotes agility, innovation and shared learning. Formal leaders play a critical role in empowering their teams’ success through the sharing of vision, modeling the values, the coaching and management of performance and of building trust. It’s about setting the guide lines, providing the resources and allowing your people to soar. The end result, that elusive lagging indicator many of us know as employee engagement. And better still employee engagement that has at its heart shared ownership and targeted performance outcomes. All good for your stakeholders whether they be clients, shareholders or employees.

Transitioning from a more traditional hierarchical leadership model to a distributed one requires a mind shift on many levels – think change management in all its glory. It’s about the systems, the processes, and the people all wrapped in a communication plan that helps bridge the gaps in both knowledge and willingness. As I work with my own organization to bridge those gaps I am sure I will be inspired to share many learnings but today I want to specifically focus on social learning as a powerful enabler.

Social learning at its core is about observing and learning from others.  A child learns to walk, talk, etc. by watching the ‘experts’ around them. Similarly, in the work place we learn about the organization, the cultural norms and expectations, and organizational specific process from those that are already doing the job – from the experts. We observe, learn and mimic in a bid to reach fully performance and also to fit in. We want to belong.

Social learning is therefore not a new concept. What has changed in the last decade is the way in which we utilize or deliver social learning. Technology allows us to meet, share documents, share thoughts, learn, socialize, and share photos, send links to great information, funny stories, and video clips. Virtually.  It allows us to build connections.  And for the skeptics out there – the connections can be very real. Thirteen years ago when I was expecting my daughter in July of 1999 I joined an online community of moms who spanned the world – our common point of interest was the fact that we were all expecting babies at the same time. Thirteen years later many of us are still together. We have long left the original board – some of us connect through a private Facebook page, others have stayed connected through an email group, some we have met in person and others we know  simply through our ongoing virtual discussions. Together we learned about raising babies, navigating the school years and now we are in the territory of teenage hood. We also talk about ourselves, our lives and issues. We support those that need it, celebrate with each other and cry together as life throws its many challenges our way. We are stronger people, better parents, and more knowledgeable human beings all because we had a connection simply known as our July 99ers.

Imagine the connections and learning that could take place if you could harness that effectively and transport it into your work place. The key ingredients for success include:

  1. a strong and powerful reason to meet
  2. the technology that allows it to be safe and fast
  3. a willingness to share openly of your knowledge and talents so that others can learn from you
  4. An openness to learn from others
  5. Great content. The material need to be meaningful.

Communities of practice in the workplace can be used to discuss real time issues and share best practices. It’s a place where like-minded people who are geographically dispersed can come together to work, to socialize and to learn at a time and place that is convenient for them. Innovation, agility and shared outcomes become very real and very manageable. And it is here that I had my little ‘huh’ moment. The very things that technology enabled social learning encourages are the core of what distributed leadership is about. The opportunity is there for us to marry the two in a way that progresses and allows us to realize the full benefits of both.

I am on a path of supporting my organization to embrace distributed leadership. We are in the early stages of our journey but the future is exciting. I see social learning as an interesting tool in our cultural and learning tool box. I would welcome dialogue from those of you that are using social learning in the workplace to shift learning outcomes, to influence culture and to tap into the wealth of knowledge that our employees bring to the workplace.


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Learning, leading and cultural change… the synergies.

This post definitely falls into the arena of “things that make you go hmmm”. 

Story telling has long been used to pass down wisdom, as a tool for learning and to entertain. A good story leads us down a path, it allows us to discover, at predetermined moments, little nuggets of wonder that make us want to follow the path to the end. At the end of the story we are left with a message that the author/or teller wants us to have but the experience we had in getting there was very much our own for we saw it through our eyes, our realities, our emotions…

Recently I had the distinct pleasure of preparing a story as part of an interview process.  The story, at its heart, is about people, it’s about massive change and it’s about learning to do things differently. It’s a story about human frailty and incredible human strength. It’s about the excitement of the possibilities.

In “business speak”  it is a story about selling myself as being the right person to help an organization implement and embed a new leadership framework, of supporting the creation and sustainment of a learning organization and of leading a diverse team to do great things.

The organization that I interviewed with has a clear vision and the change required to support that vision, on the surface, was massive. However as I built my story, as I reflected on what I had done in the past and researched what others had done in similar situations I had an “aha” moment that made my story a very easy one to tell.

A few facts first

  1.  the organization was in the process of moving from a heirachical leadership model to a distributed one.
  2. achieving the vision and the strategic imperatives was going to require a strong cultural change  – the way in which the work got done would have to change
  3. the organization was committed to creating a learning environment (this was not shared up front but it was an assumption I made given that I was applying for a role with “Learning” in the title

I developed my story by asking myself “what does effective/successful” <insert topic> look like. As I asked this question for leading, cultural change and learning it became very apparent that there in fact four key success drivers that are common to all.

Distributed Leadership Model
Cultural Change
Effective Learning
Clear roles and responsibilities. Vision.
Clear definition of end state.
Clear definition of end state
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Clear performance measures
Resources and support to meet goals
Resources to support the change
Resources to support the application of learning
Feedback and adjustment
Cultural audits and adjustment
Feedback and adjustment


First and foremost we need to know where we are heading.  We need a vision or end state that we are driving towards. As leaders, as employees or as human beings we are then able to self manage our alignment to that end state.

Secondly we need to be able to measure our success. Are we moving in the right direction? Are we seeing the changes in the way that we expect? Are we driving the right things?

Thirdly, do we have the right resources and tools in place for people to be successful?

And lastly we need to ensure that we are collecting the feedback we need to ensure that we can make course corrections as we go. This is a critical step for all leaders. Things change, people are unpredictable,  stuff happens – we can not always plan for every possible outcome but we can certainly build in an agile feedback and correction methodology that will allow us to keep steering to the vision.

As I was writing my story it became apparent to me that if these four success drivers were effectively cared for the individual stories of leadership, cultural change and learning would naturally merge to create a rich tale that could drive towards the strategic changes that this, and any other, organization was driving towards.

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The gift of the mirror – self reflection as a learning tool for leaders.

When you walk into most call centre environments you will likely see a small personal mirror on the desk of every phone agent. While it can serve to stroke ones vanity or serve as a personal grooming tool the real purpose of the mirror is to remind people to smile. Your verbal tone is very different when you smile – and when you are on the phone tone is one of the few tools that you have at your disposal to build relationships.

The humble mirror is often also flouted as an insult or rebuke as in “she needs to look in the mirror” meaning that perhaps “she” should be looking at herself for the answers/issues/ problems rather than looking at others around her. While the usage is very different than the call centre example the end result is the same – it is about relationships and human connections.

The mirror serves as an intimate 360 feedback session – a session with our ourselves. Good leadership means different things to different people but at its core most of us agree that is defined by vision, personal integrity, respect and relationships. We may use different words and we may have a few other criteria that we use but on the whole our views are very similar.

As a leader, I like to use my mirror for two purposes.

The first is to assess  “how did I do”? The questions can relate to today, this week, this quarter, this year.

  • Did I share the vision. Have I communicated it well?
  • Have I used my time effectively? Efficiency is only part of the question, the other is am I spending my limited time on the things that matter most?
  • Did I provide and ask for feedback?
  • How have I grown? Did I learn something new?
  • What have I done differently?
  • Did I model our shared values?
  • Have I treated everyone with the respect?
  • Did I earn my salary?

The second is a more focused look into the mirror when dealing with an issue or crisis. The type of questions I have asked include:

  • Could I have done anything to avoid the crisis from happening
  • Did I ask the right questions to understand the root cause of the problem
  • Was my response appropriate for the problem? Did I over react? Under-react? Did my reaction support the vision.
  • What will I do differently next time?
  • Have I cared for the “people” element involved (coaching, supporting, communicating)
  • What did I learn? How do I need to disseminate that learning?

The strength of the mirror is that there is no need to lie or fool anyone. It’s an opportunity to take an honest look at “you”. The fact of the mirror is that it shows all – the good, the bad and the ugly. The gift is that it allows you to learn and grow as a leader. It allows you to develop a true level of self awareness so that perhaps next time the bad and the ugly can be countered in the moment and quite frankly that makes for much nicer conversations with “you”.

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Non Classroom Learning Solutions – The Mentoring Program

I graduated from the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management as a part-time student in regulation time. Ten semesters in just over three years. During my final year I was working full-time in a role that involved frequent travel, got married, purchased a house and started my family. In fact my daughter was born one month after I graduated. Am  I some sort of super woman? No, far from it. In fact I didn’t crack a text-book during that last hectic year but I passed and passed well. I learned a lesson during that year that has benefited me throughout my career… a little bit of common sense, a committment to active listening and an openness to learning from others goes a long way. I had the privilege of studying with a group of very tenured professionals(average work experience post under graduate studies was 10 years) from all walks of life. Their experiences, combined with my own, applied to the theoretical frameworks that we were discussing in class and through project work taught me far more than a textbook ever could have. Without labelling it at the time I was part of an incredible learning exercise that was in fact a rich and robust peer mentoring program.

Since that day I have been involved with mentoring programs as a participant (both mentor and mentee), as an administrator and as an initiator. I believe in the power of the mentoring program as a learning solution. Mentoring programs have a number of benefits but as a learning solution they need to address a specific need so that we can build a program that makes sense for our participants and our organizations. Mentoring programs can be a solution to:

– transfer knowledge between seasoned tenured professionals and more junior ones.

– institutionalize corporate learning currently held in the hands, and heads, of a few

– develop high potential talent (both senior and junior)

– strengthen the desired organizational culture

– increase employee engagement, productivity and satisfaction

– bring together diverse groups from within the organization

Unlike formal classroom solutions a good mentoring program allows the participants to define the parameters of the learning exercise so that it is a meaningful exercise. The cumulative learning taking place within the mentoring relationships can be used to inform more formal learning programs aimed at meeting organizational goals. In so many ways it’s a win win situation.

Mentoring programs are not difficult to set up. They do require some work ranging from the administrative, to training and marketing but none of these things are difficult. If you’d like to explore further here are a few resources that may lead you to the program that works best for your organization:

As a learning exercise, and dependant on the need you are trying to find a solution for, there are a number of things that we, as learning professionals can do to support the mentoring program. All of these component parts have the ability to add a richness to the experience. Examples include.

– training on how to be a good mentor and/or mentee – how do you articulate your objective, how do you prepare for your meetings, what are you roles and responsibilities within the program

– exercises that encourage dialogue around a specific organizational need. This can be very effective when trying to change or strengthen organizational culture

– regular debriefs to capture what is being learned

– recommended reading, articles, discussion points in support of emerging needs

– check-lists or structure to help the mentees capture the learning

My MBA experience, as an exercise in mentoring, seemed like a lucky break. Today I would go further to say that creating non classroom learning solutions such as mentoring programs is critical if we are to create learning organizations that can meet the needs of tomorrows reality. Learning professionals – put this one in your toolbox. It can be very effective.

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Asking for help – 7 key points to doing it well.

As adults many of us find it tough to ask for help. We’re afraid of being seen as less than fully competent, we don’t like to look foolish or we simply don’t know how. However our fear of putting ourselves out there is holding us back. We don’t learn if we don’t ask. Asking for help, at the right time in the right way, is core to us learning what we need to know and in some instances critical to meeting the expectations that have been set for us. We’ve all heard the saying “don’t ask, don’t get” and that is true almost 100% of the time in the work place.

My last post talked focused on what leaders need to do to make asking questions acceptable and comfortable. The ownership however doesn’t just lie with our leaders – we each need to take ownership for asking for help when we need it. The following points

1. Ask for help before you get to crisis management. We all have a sense of when things are starting to build to a level that we may not be able to manage by ourselves. It is much easier for someone to assist you complete a task, share some knowledge, or provide guidance when they also don’t have to help you crisis manage.

2. Set your emotions aside. Now is not the time for embarrassment or apologies. Give yourself permission to ask and don’t self project a sign of weakness onto the request.

3. Be specific. Articulate exactly what you need from someone so that they can best assess how they can help.

4. Set the scene. Share what you have done or know about the task. Explain what is outstanding. Show you’ve done your homework and you are not simply dumping responsibility.

5. Share you ideas for action and then invite comment or guidance. Show that you’ve thought through possible solutions and now you are seeking the input of others who could refine or add value to the end product.

6. Don’t whine. People are put off by whiners (or whingers for my UK and Australian friends). We are all busy. Dealing with whiners takes emotional energy that some may not be willing or able to share. The need to deal with the whining risks having your real need being lost.

7. Be appreciative. We all like to hear a simple thanks. None of us go into a assistance situation expecting appreciation or reciprocation. However building your partnerships by showing both will result in a pool of people that willingly help each other when needed. It’s what collaborative leadership models and shared accountability values are built on.

Asking for help requires us as individuals to take ownership for our own learning and success. It requires the courage to step outside of our comfort zones. We need to find a way to get past our own discomfort because asking for help, in our crazy complex fast changing workplaces, is critical to our organizations success. Consider it your responsibility to ask for help when you need it.

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I don’t know

“I don’t know” is scary. We all have used this phrase at times whether it was to show lack of understanding or avoid taking ownership. The point is, it can be interpreted in many ways.

As adult learners we are not comfortable saying “I don’t know” when we believe there to be real or perceived consequences of not knowing. Sometimes we are not even comfortable admitting it to ourselves since admitting “I don’t know” may require action that we are not willing or able to take. It means admitting limitation and that is very uncomfortable for many adults (and children). Saying “I don’t know” takes courage – it means that you have to openly admit a weakness be it a competency or skill that we simply do not have, or we do have but know we could perform better. There is an argument to say that courage is not required to utter it, the real courage is to do something about it. Either way true learning takes courage.

This reluctance to say I don’t know and more importantly the cultural reality that makes it unacceptable to openly share your limitations poses a real challenge to those of us that are in the business of enabling the performance of others. How do we as parents, as learning professionals, as teachers and as leaders help facilitate the process of acknowledging the “I don’t know” so that true learning can take place. How do we make the shift from it being a courageous act to an expected act – is lifelong learning and continuous improvement not the end goal of most? Based on my own research and years of experience as a leader I believe it can be boiled down to a few prescriptive measures.

The key is that we need to make learning acceptable. As leaders we need to make it ok to “not know” something. There are many elements to this but as a starting point this requires more than lip service. We need to have our actions and our words aligned – we need to build a level of credible security that not knowing in its own right isn’t a punishable offense by creating an environment where gaps are acknowledged and dealt with appropriately.

1. Align learning with performance

One way in which you can do this is align your performance management processes to acknowledge and reward learning a new skill or competency that supports the strategic direction of the company. A major bank that I have worked with does this well. Your performance bonus is largely determined by the performance of the bank. Your merit increase is determined by the added value that you have brought to the table. When determining your merit increase, your manager asks two key questions. What learning have you done that has enabled higher levels of performance? What learning or responsibilities have you taken on to better position you to meet the banks performance objectives? This alignment between acknowledging “I don’t know” and reward is a very tangible way to make learning acceptable and in fact desirable.

2. Walk the talk 
As leaders we need to show that we believe in the power of identifying our own gaps and taking actions to close them. This is not necessarily an easy task. There is a fine line to showing a weakness (empathy and acceptable) and losing credibility (she doesn’t know what she’s talking about) but it is a worthwhile step to take. As leaders we need to demonstrate that we too are learning. Learning about our clients, our business, our profession and about the skills we need to be effective. Confidence is not instilled because I know everything (because I don’t) it is instilled because I am willing to learn and have a process for incorporating that into my “go forward” approach. Feedback that tells me “she cleared the path and made me feel I had a voice” tells me that I have demonstrated not only an openness to learning, but learning from those that know better than I.

3. Invest

Learning is an investment. Your willingness to invest in the learning needs of your team demonstrates that learning is valued and by default acknowledging that you have something to learn is acceptable. Learning organizations/ departments worldwide know only too well the impact of a tight economy. Learning is at times seen as expendable but this is perhaps where it is important to make a differentiation between formal and informal learning. Learning does not need to stop because the formal learning dollars have dried up. Learning occurs in many ways and as a leader you have many avenues as your disposal.

  •  Have a favourite management or skills based book? Recommend it. Send out excerpts. Create discussion points to bring into team meetings. Share your experience with incorporating it. Formalize it as part of the performance management process.
  •  Found a new technology tool/ software/ app that you like? Demonstrate it. Ask others to review it for applicability to the team. Tie it back to the goals of the team, department, or organization.
  •  Grant people “time” to learn. There may not be a budget and yes everyone is busy but be prepared to be wowed by the level of productivity that will materialize when you demonstrate your support of learning. Your people will feel valued and will seek to still get the work done even as they learn.
  •  Encourage process improvement. Seek ideas. Ask people to propose how to make things better. Make clear your expectations in terms of proposals being fully supported. You will naturally motivate people to “back up” their recommendations by seeking out supporting evidence. This is learning.  Be open to trying new things and allowing for organizational learning to take place. Take a risk.

The options for learning interventions or opportunities are far beyond what is listed here but the message is clear. Don’t let formal budget restrict the learning process.

4. Share your vision

As adults we like to be self directed. A sense of control is integral to our sense of well-being. It empowers us. As leaders we can further empower our employees by sharing the vision in such a way that they can start to self identify where they have opportunities to better fit into that vision. Most human beings have a strong survival instinct. If we sense danger or upcoming change we will all move through a process that will allow us to feel “safe” again. When we have the opportunity to have some control it is a much easier process than when it is forced upon us. We may not control the desired end state but we certainly can have some control in how we get there. Once the vision is shared the role of the leader becomes one of reinforcing and realigning. It becomes one of encouraging our people to share their thoughts, aligning them with ours and looking at options for the learning to take place. It becomes a partnership in realizing the vision.

5. Acknowledge that learning takes courage

Learning takes courage. It is a change management exercise at the personal level with all the nuances that formal change management implies. You will see denial, you will see mourning at what is being “lost”, you will see acceptance and then adoption. Our job as leaders is to make it as easy as possible for our people to move through the change process. Avoid “minimizing” the potential impact and acknowledge the personal reactions.

The more we can do as leaders to make “I don’t know” an acceptable term within a framework of empowering people to move to “I know”  the better we will create an organizational environment where personal learning is no longer an act of courage. Instead you will have created an environment which supports learning as part and parcel of realizing the organizational vision, and more importantly you will have created an environment where people feel empowered and equipped to do great things. As a leader there is very little that is more rewarding that watching your team soar.

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Innovation – where do you get your inspiration?

In the corporate environment learning, or training, is by it’s very nature often a reactive exercise. As service organizations we partner with our clients to solve for very real problems – customer disatisfaction, a drop in sales, an increase in business. All require learning support in some manner. More often than not this need for support is not well anticipated nor well articulated which means that as learning professionals we need to react quickly to understand the need, to design and build the solution and in some way or form facilitate it’s delivery. No matter the end form, the starting point is usually a reaction. The process too can become very reactionary especially when we are faced with limited time, resources and budget. Human nature drives us to use solutions that have worked for us in the past based on what we know of the audience etc. In a reactionary environment it becomes increasingly difficult to drive towards innovation.

The reality of being a reactionary service providor will never change. There will always be unanticipated needs among the planned initiatives. It is what is it is. But as learning professionals there are steps we can take to get ahead of the game – to drive some proactive innovation even before the need arises. And it begins with our own mindset and challenging ourselves to look beyond the known.

So where do we go for this mind expanding experience? I find my inspiration in many places. Mentors, discussions with peers and reading among them. Reading from diverse sources is perhaps the most accessible way to develop insight and new ideas. The list below is by no means exhaustive and is designed only as a starting point from which to change and expand your perspective. A chance for some new tools/thoughts/ considerations in your learning professional toolbelt. Readers – please add your own recommendations in the comments section. Let’s build a library of “go to” sources for further learning and inspiration.

1. Success

This just happens to be my favourite “business” oriented magazine. I lean heavily towards business/industry publications because it allows me to develop an understanding of the current challengs and future directions. It allows me to see what others are doing. It allows me to understand what’s important to the key players. When I apply my filters I start the process of developing the direction I am likely going to have to move my team in order to continue to be a value added part of the organization. It allows me to challenge proactive thinking and learning within our reactive reality.

2. Chief Learning Officer Magazine.

A nice mix of big picture thinking (my preference) and getting it done (the business requirement). Don’t be put off by the title – it’s a great source of helping us to understand what learning industry leaders are thinking. Apply your filters and get out of it what you need.

3. Learning specific publications and/or websites.  The list here is broad but a few I enjoy are Learning Solutions Magazine (,  Kirpatrick Partners  ( and eLearning Guild ( It’s always nice to see what others are doing.

4. Industry specific websites and/or publications including technology publications.

5. Talent Management, Communications and HR.

The reality is we are in the business of helping people grow and we need to work closely with these groups to ensure that we are supporting the right growth with the right messaging. A few favourites include Talent Management Magazine (,  Human Capital Media ( and Melcrum (

Before you start your exploration a few words of advice. There is a lot of material out there and you can’t possibly read, absorb and apply it all. Help focus your reading and learning by applying a select group of filters to what you are reading. My reading is broad but the questions, or filters, I keep in the back of my mind are fairly consistent. From a leadership perspective the type of questions I ask include:

1. Can this be applicable to my company/industry

2. What future learning/leadership/innovation needs might this drive?

3. What skills sets do I need on my team to support this?

4. Who and what do I need to influence to allow for us to try this?

Depending on your position or role your questions may be a little different – the point is, a filter is going to help. A lot.

Questions to use as filters – ideal for the learning professional.

1. Who will this impact? How do they like to learn?

2. What new skill sets will this drive?

3. What is the competitive advantage that I need to help support.

4. How can I take this and make it my own.

Long term viability as a learning organization means we need to be linking our solutions to the business results of our clients. We need to be impactful. Expanding your perspective will allow you to do both. So tell me, where do you get your inspiratation to innovate? What resources can you recommend to your learning peers?

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