From Student to Strategist

Working in the learning and development space, I often reflect upon what takes us from novice to master. For any given topic, what is the path of learning? How do we become experts? And how do we grow our ability to then teach others in a meaningful way? Below, I propose a framework for understanding how we move from student to teacher, from teacher to content designer and, ultimately, from content designer to learning strategist.

AS A STUDENT
Experiencing We begin in traditional student mode. Students in the experiencing stage are the recipients of the experience rather than creators of the experience. Though they may actively participate in exercises and offer their perspectives, they do so within the design of the course and typically at the behest of the teacher. They focus on content — comprehension, application, and integration — rather than the way in which the content is delivered.

Note that, for most learners, this ‘hard’ focus on the content is where nearly all their attention goes — and rightfully so. It is often only higher-level thinkers with a specific curiosity about learning and development who step above the direct student experience.

Understanding Stepping one level above the experience at hand, students shift their focus from the content of the experience to the design of the experience. Students are still primarily in observation mode, but their senses are attuned to different dimensions: They look for the choices made by the designer and/or the teacher. They are curious about the decisions made about when to tell, when to ask, when to demonstrate, and when to invite participation. They notice the teacher’s own style as a factor in facilitating the experience.

AS A TEACHER
Replicating Shifting roles, we next transition from students to teachers. Again, this transition is not for everyone; on any given subject, the majority of students will find that they capture the value they needed through their experiences and move on to apply their learnings in the real world. For the handful looking to teach others, their teaching approach begins in a crude and unrefined state; it lacks subtlety and depth of experience. They largely replicate the approaches they have seen, delivering content referenced in notes or memorized by rote. They navigate with the aid of lesson plans, outlines, or presentation slides. When complex questions come up, they tend to parrot their own teachers and cite the experience of others rather than relying on their own expertise or observations.

Tailoring As they teach the content again and again, teachers come to facilitate the learning experience more elegantly. They abandon their external aids, depending instead upon an increasingly clear understanding of what is required to meet the goals and how it should go. As they get the facts down cold, they are able to widen their aperture, intentionally managing their style and focus. They dynamically adjust to accommodate the learners in the room and their style of learning. Increasingly fluent in the content and structure, they grow more fully into their authentic selves as teachers.

AS A DESIGNER
Evolving With increasing experience, teachers may shift into content designers. At first, they may simply evolve pre-existing content, making an adjustment to the delivery here or a tweak on the timing there. Over time, they come to shift the learning experience in bigger ways, more fully revising content to better achieve learning objectives. Evolving designers take the power of the pen not only as they plan learning experiences, but real-time in the room as well; they are comfortable shifting the design in substantial ways on the fly in order to maximize learning in the room.

Innovating With even more experience, content designers become innovators. They are able to take new learning objectives and craft meaningful learning experiences ex nihilo. They thoughtfully consider all aspects of the learning experience. They often begin by examining the world of relevant content on a topic and synthesizing this into the most important points. They then apply themselves to crafting the learning, adjusting each aspect of the embodied experience (e.g., the timing, the tone, the atmosphere, the space, the materials) to enable the higher-level goals.

AS A STRATEGIST
Translating Beyond this, we again transition roles; this time from the designer to the strategist. Translating strategists can take high-level goals (e.g., greater proficiency in mathematics) and render these into the right set of tangible learning objectives (e.g., understanding of concept of addition, facility with adding multi-digit numbers, speed of application). In addition to the learning objectives, they also articulate the design principles and high-level architecture within which the objectives are best achieved (e.g., twelve-session series over three weeks, focused primarily on application). Translating strategists can apply their skills in either direction — scoping a new learning experience from the top-down or evaluating an existing learning experience to understand whether it fits shifting needs.

Envisioning Finally, envisioning strategists primarily concern themselves with the goals at hand and how exposing people to learning experiences might contribute to those overarching ambitions. They bring a big picture view, carefully considering the relevant context (whether that be the organization, industry, community, country, or world as a whole). They see the opportunities and challenges within the broader system and can envision its evolution. Given this view, they identify where learning experiences might affect meaningful change in individuals and communities.

As you see, each stage includes a basic level and a more advanced level before fundamentally shifting focus via a role change (e.g., student to teacher). That said, this framework is not linear. Though some may ‘rise through the ranks’ from student to teacher to designer to strategist, this is not necessary; for example, a strategic thinker with experience in other domains may also strategize about learning. However, the best envisioning strategists are not generalists who see learning experiences as one of many levers to pull to execute a strategy, but those who have moved from student through strategist in this continuum and hold a nuanced understanding of how learning experiences can meaningfully shift human development.

Stepping back and reflecting, what has your own evolution as a learning professional looked like? At which level do you prefer to function? At which level do you aspire to function? Then, looking at your team, at what level are they engaging with your agenda? What potential do they have to operate at other levels and what experiences are necessary to get them there? And, most importantly, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?

Meredith

Does This Outfit Make Me Look Insecure?

Liz and I were walking down the main drag in Westport the other day when we passed a group of high schoolers. We overheard:

“I have my first day outfit figured out, but I still need to buy my second and third day clothes.”

I remember being a version of that high schooler (albeit, one who only planned the first day). Specifically, I remember preparing for ninth grade and my first day of high school with particular care. My mom took me down to Jacobson’s, the Detroit-area department store, to shop, and I put together the best outfit: light blue jeans with more-than-average flare (we were en route to the ‘extra wide leg’ era of the late-90’s), a yellow fitted sweater, and, the best part, a silver necklace with block letter beads spelling M-E-R-E-D-I-T-H.

If only deciding what to wear on the first day could be driven by algorithms, instead of driven by our insecurities.

[For a shout-out to nineties fashion, the stress of outfit matching, and the iconic movie Clueless, click here.]

On that first day of high school, I wanted to be perceived as stylish, grown-up, and desirable to be around. My first day of school fashion efforts faltered quickly. I didn’t have the second and third day outfits planned, nor did I find any joy in doing so. After all, I didn’t value fashion; I only valued the approval it might give me if I crafted my image appropriately. And yet, through my first day outfit — and every comment, action, and homework assignment to follow — I sought the approval of every student, teacher, and administrator in that building.

To my surprise, when I started my new job in April, I was no different from that ninth-grader in the wide pants. I bought a new dress and blazer that struck the right balance of casual and professional. I got a reasonable haircut and even spent a minute considering whether I should wear make-up. While I’m more comfortable with myself in important ways, I could see the instinct of approval-seeking nonetheless playing out.

Opening a new school year and starting a new job are both entryways into new group formation. Our approval-seeking tendencies, which may be more or less activated in the day-to-day, are piqued by this newness. Uncertain about our status and situation, we bring reawakened questions of identity, inclusion, and approval. If I show them who I really am, will I be included? Will the real me be a fit for this role? And, more broadly, who do I have to be for you to approve of me?

When is the last time you picked out your “first day” outfit, designed your Burning Man costume, or dressed to make a particular impression? And what can those choices tell you about how you want others to perceive you? Byron Katie, in her work on thoughts and approval, suggests considering each item you pick out and articulating:

“With this <item of clothing>, I want you to think that <perception of you>.”

Or, alternatively,

“I am hiding this <part of self>, so you won’t think that <perception of you>.”

[From Byron Katie’s I Need Your Love — Is that True?]

What do these seemingly mundane choices about shoes and shirts tell you about yourself? How do you use clothes to manage your desired image? And what if you gave this up and dressed as your authentic self? I’m not suggesting there’s a right answer here, but instead an opportunity to look at something as tangible and seemingly inconsequential as your ‘first day clothes’ and get curious about what you can learn from it.

Meredith


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Leading With Meaning

There are many responsibilities we ask our leaders to take on:  setting the vision, making decisions, managing stakeholder relationships, and igniting our own motivation.  Often underappreciated, however, is the role leaders can and should play in interpreting and understanding the world, particularly when faced with change.  Is that 3% increase in revenues good or bad?  Are we threatened or energized by our rival’s new product launch?  Should we feel concerned that digital is changing the landscape of our industry or confident that we’re out ahead of the challenge?

Accurately interpreting changes and challenges to our organizations is more important now than it’s ever been.  Since the 1990s, we have recognized that the world is increasingly “VUCA.”  VUCA is a military acronym which describes our current situation as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.  It reminds us that not only is the world changing, it is changing quickly, unexpectedly, and along many dimensions.  This increasing rate of change demands that leaders interpret – and reinterpret – the company’s situation far more frequently than was previously the case.  Particularly in changing situations, effective leaders pair the ability to continuously create and deepen meaning with the ability to push towards right action.  As a result, we see both the situation and ourselves more clearly and are more likely to take appropriate, committed action towards our collective goals.

How is meaning created
There are four broad steps in the process of meaning-making within leadership.  We begin with the facts of the situation, layer on an interpretation of those facts, understand the implications for us individually and collectively, and then emerge to take action based on this deeper understanding.

Alternative approach - With the realm of meaning

A framework for meaning-making in leadership


Situation 
When faced with change, we first ask:  “What’s happening?”  The answer may seem straight-forward:  margins expanded two points, we are about to start a cost-cutting exercise, or the headcount reduction will affect 5% of the workforce.  Of all aspects of meaning-making, the situation is most closely grounded in facts.  That said, the situation often only reflects a selection of relevant facts, rather than everything which is true in the organization.

Interpretation  Moving down the U to interpretation, we start to question “What does it mean?”  This generally begins with a broad assessment of the overall ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the situation.  Should we be happy or upset about this change?  Great leaders give a more nuanced interpretation of the situation, including the valence of the emotion (e.g., ‘very good’, ‘somewhat bad’) and the details behind it.  While we often consider our interpretations to be objectively true in the world, leaders know that interpretation is malleable.  Revenues up 3% can be exceptional and beyond expectations, deeply disappointing and requiring serious action, or innumerable other options given the context and ambitions of an organization.  Effective leaders guide followers through this interpretation, helping them to understand the right way to think about the new information.

Implication  A clear view of the situation and interpretation brings us to the question of implications.  The fundamental question of implication is “Who are we?”  This piece of the U is often tied up in deep questions of identity.  Followers ask:  “If our performance is not good enough, what does that say about us?  And what does that say about me?”  This is where an individual’s stake in the situation enters the conversation as followers consider both “Who are we collectively?” and “Who am I in this situation?”  Frequent answers come in the form of “We’re the type of company that. . .” or “I’m the type of person who. . .”  These questions draw on the cornerstones of individual and corporate identity for their answers:  What do we value?  What are our beliefs?  And what are our fears?  Leaders know that elegantly taking the conversation to this level has the potential to connect listeners with the purpose, mission, vision, and values which fire right action and increase individual commitment to the collective.

Action  Finally, we emerge to ask “What’s next?”  Note that the action here can result in either a state of being (“here’s how we want to be in the midst of this”) or an act of doing (“here’s what I want you do to next”).  Either way, it’s a call to action for the followers.  A good leader will ensure that this action builds off everything that comes before – the situation, its interpretation, and its implications.  Beyond this, a great leader will also relate this particular set of actions to a continuous thread, articulating how the answer to ‘what’s next’ ties to ‘what we were doing before’ and ‘where we’re headed.’  The situation – and any change required in reaction to it – is seen in the broader narrative of the organization.

 

How this is different 
In a quickly changing world, we have become accustomed to move quickly between the situation and our resultant action.  When faced with a situation, our instinct is often to fix it or change it.  We skip from “What’s going on?” to “What’s next?,” focusing on movement at the expense of meaning.  Unfortunately, confining ourselves to the realm of movement is increasingly limiting.  Moving from the situation directly to action misses the opportunity – and necessity – to create resonance with stakeholders.  It ignores the emotional and existential questions that emerge within an organization, preferring to keep things at the level of ‘all business.’  While this may seem ‘cleaner’ in some ways, it demonstrates either an ignorance of or willful ignoring of truth.  Followers will – and indeed they must – find interpretations and implications for events, whether guided by leaders or found independently.  Leaders who are willing to go there with their followers, instead of leaving them to take this journey alone, build commitment and resonance in the organization.  By moving thoughtfully into the realm of meaning, they choose grounded action instead of immediate reaction.

Old approach - The realm of movement

Our conditioned way of moving forward from situations – all within the realm of movement

How to apply this approach
As with all frameworks, there are some things this approach helps us see and some things it obscures.  It is not right to apply this framework in all situations; indeed, it is not always appropriate or necessary.  Instead, what is important is that leaders are ‘at choice’ with their approach.  Is the situation complex, uncertain, or particularly important?  Does it call for a connection to meaning?  Straight-forward or routine situations are not helped – and indeed may be hindered – by this level of processing.  But the more ambiguous the situation or the more sizable the impact, the more important it is to lead one’s colleagues through this process of adjusting their understanding of the world.  The goal is that we, as leaders, choose our communication style in each case.

Doing this well takes great capability in a leader.  It is hard and sometimes uncomfortable work.  First, it requires immense self-knowledge and maturity on the part of the leader to walk through the U process independently.  She must understand the breadth of interpretations and the depth of implications before communicating these to others.  As such, this work cannot be done by communications specialists or speechwriters; to be authentic and effective, the leader must walk the path herself.  Second, meaning-making requires a capacity to communicate this same journey to others and to hold the space for the organization to follow through the realms of meaning and out the other side.

When practiced iteratively in response to various situations, effective meaning-making co-creates the story of an organization in response to the challenges it faces along the way.  The leader weaves the story of not only what we’re doing and where we’re going, but also the story of who we are and why this work is important.  By reinterpreting and renegotiating our identity as protagonists in the organization’s story, the followers also see more clearly their role in the hero’s journey and their contribution to the success of the organization’s mission.

Meredith

Questions for reflection

  • When do you take time to create meaning?  When are you inclined to move straight to action?
  • Where are you uncertain about your own situation?  Where are you in need of deeper connection to meaning?
  • Where might your followers or teammates benefit from clearer interpretation and understanding the personal implications of a situation?