By Marla Lepore
An Apollo rocket scientist whose business evaluation methods have been used at many of the world’s most prominent corporations. A Top Gun fighter pilot who went on to serve as president of many of the training industry’s largest firms. A Human Resource and change management thought leader who went on to chair the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation’s Board of Directors.
When ISA-The Association of Learning Providers honored its “First Generation Legends” at its Annual Business Retreat this past spring, it was a gathering of some of the Who’s Who of the learning industry:
How have these leaders stayed motivated throughout their decades-long careers? What drives their success? And what can we learn from their examples as we look for new ways to motivate and develop employees?
Learning to Succeed
Listening to the legends discuss their careers and work lives, it’s easy to think these are rarified people who were just born to succeed. But do some digging, and you’ll find there’s a little more to it than that.
“I played a lot of competitive sports growing up. You get hit a lot. You get up.” Like many of his colleagues, Ken Blanchard talks matter-of-factly about how he’s been able to persevere over the years, but it’s telling that he describes his own resilience in the context of his lifelong learning experiences. While there is certainly an aspect of character that allows someone to shake off the bad and move on, he and the others didn’t get where they are today by sheer force of personality. There’s a mindset behind the successes, and it’s one that can be encouraged and developed, both individually and organizationally.
In many ways, learning to succeed starts with, as Blanchard puts it, getting hit and getting up. In other words, it starts with learning to fail.
When asked how they have stayed energized and engaged, nearly all of the legends spoke about having the continual opportunity to try new things, and just as importantly, to fail at them. The freedom to fail and the ability to use the lessons of failure to move ahead have been essential. As John Humphrey puts it, “I’ve made failure a guidepost in my life.”
Using failure to learn, he says, not only teaches resilience, it keeps people motivated by focusing their sights on the future. Too often, when an employee fails at something, it’s a limiting experience because the negative consequences lead to less risk-taking—and less learning—going forward. That single incident becomes exponentially more de-motivating as a result.
Training and Human Resource professionals are in a unique position to be able to turn that dynamic around. It’s unrealistic to think we can completely eliminate mistakes, especially as we wade further into the unknown waters of the “new normal,” but we can build learning organizations that transform failures into growth experiences, so people and organizations aren’t dragged under with them.
But it’s not just about looking for failures.
“We had a culture of optimism that recognized and celebrated success,” Tod White says of his days at BlessingWhite. “It’s not that we were oblivious to the challenges, but we were looking for successes and ‘ups’ all the time.”
If you’re looking for them, he points out, you’ll find them. He acknowledges that the recent economic climate has created a much different reality for today’s businesses, but the basic philosophies of viewing mistakes as a stepping stone to smarter decision-making, and looking for the “gift buried in the opportunity,” as Richard Whiteley puts it, are in many ways more relevant today than they’ve ever been.
The Vision Thing
When he was president of the ISA board, John Rosenheim surveyed a dozen company founders who had sold their businesses. Eight of the 12 told him they regretted the sale because their vision didn’t carry on without them.
As business founders and leaders, it’s not surprising this group has a strong sense of vision and purpose, but they attribute their successes not just to their own belief in the broader vision but to being around others who share that understanding and commitment. In these companies, vision and purpose aren’t just words on paper; they’re actions that play out every day, forming the building blocks of a strong, enduring culture.
The payoff can be felt in all corners of the organization. “Many companies don’t use their people as business partners,” Blanchard points out. “But transparency keeps people involved—they’re motivated to help. For a business owner or manager, that means you’re not alone trying to solve problems.”
Humphrey adds that retaining customers was key to The Forum Corp.’s staying power, and you can’t do that without retaining good people. “Keep, develop, and grow your people,” he advises leaders, “because if you want a customer-focused company, it starts with an employee-focused culture.”
The BlessingWhite culture established back in the early 1970s has persisted through ownership changes, White says, precisely because the employees became the core keepers of the culture. Twenty-four years after founding his company, Rosenheim sold it to a group of employees who carried on his vision.
As workplace volatility persists and talent management complexities increase with it, this cultural anchor will become an even more important unifying touchstone. “Believing in what you’re doing—that’s what gets you through the day,” Rosenheim says.
Whiteley adds that a common sense of purpose and commitment gives people the passion and energy to get through tough times. “They say people will work hard for a paycheck, harder for a good leader, and even harder for a cause. The analogue to the cause in an organization is the vision.”
Blanchard is a good example of this. He points to two primary motivators that have fueled his passion, as well as that of his employees: meaningful work and connectedness to others. “I wanted to make a difference, so I was cause motivated.”
How many of your employees might be “cause motivated,” but their energy remains untapped because the vision isn’t clear or the culture isn’t strong enough to back it up?
With the right mindset, that energy can be harnessed in even the most mundane of tasks. Pat McLagan
acknowledges that you won’t always be able to find your passion and purpose in your situation, “but you always have the opportunity to find something in it you can connect with.”
It’s a simple premise but one that’s easily forgotten in the daily workplace grind. If employees are stuck in a rut, it may be time to spark some new energy by helping them use personal goal setting to change their perspectives and drive greater on-the-job fulfillment and enjoyment.
And who wouldn’t want to have more fun? More than four decades after starting their companies, Blanchard, Zenger, and Byham still go to work every day because, as Zenger puts it, “if you enjoy what you’re doing, there’s incentive to keep doing it!”
Developing Consummate Learners
To a person, the legends attribute a great part of their resilience to their continual search for new challenges and ideas, and an interest in the broader world outside the confines of the job description. Whether it’s writing, which Zenger says “forces you to think in different ways,” or reading on a wide variety of subjects, which McLagan says gives her fresh perspectives and keeps her learning, or maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which Rosenheim and Juechter credit for keeping them going even in stressful times, they each have found ways to stretch their perspectives and keep growing. “Growing and learning are like oxygen,” Blanchard says. “Without them, your life is threatened.”
How do you translate their example back to your workplace?
For many of these leaders, the career path they ended up on was nothing like they one they started out on. Don Schrello had no idea he would go from the ground floor of the U.S. space program to become an influential author, trainer, and business advisor. He is just one of many who spoke of how they “fell into” the training business.
Yet much of corporate training is focused on skill building and behavior change tied directly to the job or specific initiatives. In fact, the formula isn’t quite that neatly drawn. The people who stay motivated tend to be those who look for—or are encouraged to look for—new opportunities, challenges, and ideas.
If there’s one overarching lesson to take away from these legends, it’s that leaders and trainers need to encourage employees to become “consummate learners,” in McLagan’s words, rather than confining them to a narrow set of expectations. With what we now know about how people learn and the wide variety of technology available at our fingertips, we have more tools than ever before to engage, motivate, and develop the passion for lifelong learning. In the end, everyone benefits.
Finally, the reason this group came together in the first place and returns year after year is a lesson to us all. By forming ISA, they found they could learn from their failures, celebrate their successes, inspire each other, and have a sense of connectedness to keep forging ahead.
After all, sometimes resilience needs a little backup.
The Technology Question
There was a time when technology was an option in learning. Today, it’s no longer a question of “if” but “how.”
Ken Blanchard attributes his company’s growth to its Office of the Future, which helps the company stay ahead of trends by focusing on innovation and technology. Similarly, Bill Byham credits DDI’s commitment to investing in R&D even in tough times for keeping it ahead of the curve. In contrast, Richard Whiteley says his company found success by taking a wait-and-see approach when it came to technology investments, intentionally staying away from the “bleeding edge” and letting others test unproven technology first.
Both Jack Zenger and Tod White have seen the growing potential of blending technology with the classroom through their work with higher education. The blend is key, Zenger says. “You can’t sell short the classroom’s ability to provide structure, motivation, collaboration…and all that does for the learning process.”
The legends have different perspectives on how to leverage technology, but they all agree on one thing: Don’t lose track of your customer—the learner. “Technology is individualizing learning,” Pat McLagan points out. “People can find learning on their own. They don’t have to wait on someone to deliver it.”
But, she asks, can we rely on them to manage their own learning in the most effective, conscious way? An endless supply of readily available information combined with more multi-tasking is leading to a society of surface skimmers. “Learners are much more impatient, but the onus is on us to build the tools to help people go deeper.”
John Humphrey, for one, feels the training profession is up to the task. “I am dazzled by what we know now that we didn’t know 12 years ago about how people learn, different modes of learning, how to stimulate learning, and how to reinforce learning,” he says. “I’m confident that improved training is a big part of the productivity increases in the United States.”
Reframe your perspective on employee motivation with these questions, inspired by the ISA Learning Legends: