Learning by example is a very old yet very powerful method for transferring skills to novices. Technology has boosted the number of approaches and tools learning professionals can use to support this development strategy.
My Uncle Jack never wrote a book on leadership. I would be surprised if he’d even read one, much less attended a leadership workshop. He is not an expert in learning design or high-performance consulting, but when he was a Chicago-area sports writer, he took me to see a Chicago Cubs game from the dugout. I noticed how my uncle interacted with the players and the mutual admiration they had for each other. I knew that somehow I wanted to be like him. I noticed everything about him: how fast he typed, his meticulous grammar and use of words and even how well he spelled. My uncle inspired me to learn without even telling me about what he did. I became an editor for my school newspaper. I did well in English and grammar. And I eventually became a writer.
I also learned a lot from a former manager. She not only read leadership books but wrote one herself. She knew all the buzz words: collaborative leadership, holistic leadership, allowing others to rise to their potential, helping others succeed, etc. It turned out that she wrote better than she lived. She would surround herself with cronies and “yes” people, and she would work to undercut anybody she perceived as a threat. She inspired me to learn how to keep my head low and not share ideas.
Learning by example, as I did in these two very different instances, is the oldest and still most powerful learning strategy. In the old days, when nobody had ever heard of competencies or training and development, there was the idea of apprenticeship. A trade or skill was handed down from generation to generation through a system of formal mentoring. In fact, family names were based on the skill that was handed down. Baker, Taylor, Smith and Plummer were examples of skilled trades that became surnames.
Even during the Renaissance, great masters such as Michelangelo started as apprentices for other great masters. They would stretch the canvas or mix the paint or do any other series of menial tasks, hoping to upgrade to perhaps assisting in painting backgrounds or providing shadows. They would then diligently observe the teacher, and after years of assisting and learning, would become masters in their own right and have their own apprentices. Not much has changed today in organizational learning, as we still learn by observing and doing. The only difference is the technology.
Strategies to Learning by Example
There are two strategies for learning by example: mentoring/apprenticeship and games/simulations. Both can be effective if well thought out. As the stories above illustrate, the first rule of learning by example is to be careful what message people are learning. People observe actions over words, and you need to understand the real lessons they are taking away.
We all have people whose qualities we admire and try to emulate. When I was doing work for a very high level U.S. government training institution, I remember talking to the director’s administrative assistant. On her computer was a screensaver that asked: “What if you were Jackie O?” I looked at it for a few moments to make sure I read it correctly and then I asked her to explain what the screensaver meant. “Well,” she quietly told me. “You know what it is like to work with some of the people around here. They are very smart senior people with egos to match. I often feel very intimidated and clumsy around them and then I think to myself, ‘What if I was Jackie O?’ To me, she was so sophisticated and had so much grace, even in dealing with difficult people. When I think about what she would do, it allows me to copy those characteristics that I need to do my job effectively.”
Informal Mentoring or Apprenticeship
In the story above, the learner emulated the behavior of someone she respected. It did not matter that she had never met Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She recognized that, in order to be successful in her job, she would need to learn a skill that she did not believe she possessed but that she saw in Jackie O. This is a good example of informal mentoring.
Informal mentoring can be effective because:
• The learner has chosen the teacher and therefore is the one driving the process and engaging in the change.
• The learner is highly motivated to apply what he or she has learned.
The problem with informal mentoring is that, because it is informal, it cannot be uniformly applied. People also may be selecting the wrong behavior or teacher. Formal mentoring, or apprenticeship, can be a better organizational learning strategy.
Formal Mentoring or Apprenticeship
Formal mentoring or apprenticeship allows for greater organizational control over what is being taught and who is doing the teaching. The idea of apprenticeships has not changed greatly over the years. Historically, an apprentice did a series of tasks to support the master and, over time, learned the trade by observing the master. A similar concept is common in professional service firms where an associate does much of the work while the partner concentrates on the big picture. The idea is that by working with a partner for an extended period, the associate will learn the important aspects of the job thus enabling them to eventually become a partner.
There is another kind of formal mentoring and apprenticeship: parenting. Apprenticeship and parenting are the same process. As any parent knows and countless books will tell you, there are several ways to create a successful mentor:
• It matters what you do, not what you say. How many times have we heard the line: “Do what I say, not what I do?” As everybody knows, actions speak louder than words. We emulate people’s behavior, not what they say.
Harvard professor Howard Gardner speaks of a potential ninth learning style that is an important component of mentoring. It is the spiritual learner. The spin on this is that the learner will follow the example of what the teacher does. One rule I have for every train-the-trainer program I create is that it has to be applied by any potential facilitator before he or she is allowed to stand in front of the classroom. Potential trainers then use their own stories as examples of how to apply what is being taught.
You really have to think about the type of person you want to be a mentor. The person with the best technical skills may not make the best mentor, especially if they are threatened by the success of others or their ego makes an empty room seem crowded.
• Clear boundaries and communication. What are the expectations of both the mentor and the protégé? This really goes to the core of what you want the person to learn. Do they need to learn just technical skills or both technical skills and organizational values? There needs to be a clear understanding of the relationship between the mentor and the apprentice. The apprentice, by the very nature of the concept, is in a weaker position than the mentor just as children are in a weaker position than their parents. Without clear boundaries, there lies the potential for abuse in the relationship.
You also need to clearly define your measurements. What does success look like, and how will you know when you get there? What is the beginning, middle and end? All of these need to be clearly communicated and defined.
• Sufficient resources. Mentoring takes resources, not just a financial commitment, but also a commitment of time and training. What resources are needed to help the mentor? The mentor may need additional skill training in order to be an effective role model. For instance, if the mentor addresses the protégé by saying, “Hey, if we wanted you to think around here we would be paying you the real money,” then the mentor may need some type of soft skill training.
What are the implications for both the mentor and the organization in terms of time and productivity? Are you asking a top salesperson to help mentor somebody and then increasing their quota or having some of their key accounts taken away? You need to understand the effects on performance and compensation for the mentor and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed.
• Start early. Ideally, a mentoring program should be part of the onboarding process. It helps the new person feel integrated into the organization and gives them insight into the values and norms of the organization. Effective early mentoring also has a direct impact on retention. If people feel a part of a larger picture, they are much more likely to stay.
Use of Games and Simulations
Although the technology has changed, the practice of learning by games and simulations is not new. Armies have been using it for hundreds of years. The game of chess was invented as a military strategy simulation. The idea for all simulations and games is simple — give people a fun, safe and challenging way to learn new skills and behaviors, and they will be able to apply it effectively in the real world.
I had the opportunity to attend a conference a few years ago on the use of games and simulations for learning and heard Will Wright speak. Will Wright is the creator of the popular computer game SimCity.
“My proudest moment in creating SimCity was when a 9-year-old girl came up to me to tell me how much fun she had playing the game,” Wright said. “She told me that she tried to be the nicest mayor she could, and the city kept going bankrupt. She looked at me and said that from that experience she learned that, in order to be nice, sometimes you have to be mean.”
The lesson that girl gained from playing the game will serve her well in her life. She has learned something about the importance of putting up boundaries and making difficult decisions.
Here are some guidelines that are important to create an effective game and/or simulation.
• Start by understanding what you want to debrief. It does not matter whether you win or lose the game, it matters how you debrief it. Games allow people to try new things, gain insight from their response and apply what they have learned into their work or personal life. It is through the combination of playing the game and providing an insightful debriefing that the participant gets an “a-ha” moment that signals that real, sustainable change has been made.
• Don’t rush it. Simulations allow you to move from the consciously unskilled to the consciously skilled and then to the unconsciously skilled. It is a process that takes time. Allow people the opportunity to run the simulation several times and work their way through the learning.
• Give positive reinforcement. My daughters are very competitive. When they play a game or try something, they have a real desire to win, or do it perfectly. When they do not win, I have to sit down with them, ask them what they learned and tell them what a great job they did. If not, they would give it up as being too hard and never move beyond the consciously unskilled stage of learning. Having worked with many organizations, I see the same trait in my daughters as I do in many of the adults I work with. It is important that any game or simulation that is designed or implemented continually give positive reinforcement.
It does not matter what the company mission statement is or what the values say, people learn by carefully observing how others are succeeding around them. If they see people being rewarded for keeping their heads low and not rocking the boat, they learn to do the same. It does not matter if it is a game or a mentor, we all learn not just from listening but through example.