“Change my front line leaders and my world will be a better place!”

This comment came from a client as they engaged with me to conduct front line leadership training for their supervisors. Leadership results are definitely a concern for executives in most organizations. The sentiment can be expressed in many ways, however, what they are really saying is: “change the behavior of my leaders.” Today, providing learning content or classroom training isn’t enough—organizations want to see behavior change that improves the productivity and efficacy of their teams.

There are many reasons why people do not perform to their highest potential on the job—lacking the knowledge and skills required is just one bucket of many. Providing training for the wrong reasons will create no change in behavior and likely lead to frustration. When training is provided without clear objectives or required next steps, it will be perceived as a waste of time, or a disingenuous attempt to retain top-performers.

A key first step in any successful learning initiative is to identify the return on expectations—begin with the end in mind. This process is articulated in Kirkpatrick’s New World Model and sets up the learning initiative to succeed. Not knowing specifically what the end result of a learning initiative needs to be is like trying to hit a moving target. However, focusing on the six steps of Return on Expectations (or ROE) will keep you focused and on track, with stakeholders throughout the organization buying into the process.

  1. Focus on the organizational mission
  2. Identify leading indicators
  3. Define critical behaviors
  4. Determine required drivers
  5. Design learning
  6. Monitor and adjust

These steps of Return on Expectations create a chain of evidence that tells the story of the learning intervention results. For the organization that was looking for improved performance for front line leaders, I dug deeper to identify what the return on their expectations would be, and what success would look and sound like. These became the behaviors to focus on in both the learning and follow up. Let’s break this down into how we went about changing leadership behaviors in a manufacturing environment.

1. First, we discussed the organizational mission, and how it aligns to the overall objectives of the learning initiative. For this organization, a safe work environment with a full workforce able to produce high quality products and achieve production targets was the overall corporate mission.  

2. Next, we identified the leading indicators that would tell us if we were on track. Leading indicators have predictive value and can therefore be used to make adjustments in behaviors, processes, and procedures. In this situation, leading indicators were identified as a reduction in safety incidents, improved absenteeism, and achieving daily production goals. Each leading indicator was associated with best practices, which were identified.

3. Knowing what we were working to achieve, we could identify the critical behaviors to reach these goals. To create context and relevance we spent time with the front line leaders, learning about their world, their perspective, and their challenges. This process built buy-in with the end users, and their input was translated to the behaviors to focus on in training—trust, communication, accountability, teamwork, and coaching.

4. To maintain these behaviors in the workplace after the training session was completed and ensure knowledge transfer, we needed to identify the required drivers—the support mechanisms that needed to be in place to guide, reinforce, sustain, encourage, assist, and sponsor the new behaviors back on the job. This stage is the most critical in managing behavior change. As the Kirkpatrick Foundation argues: “Reinforcement that occurs after the training event produces the highest level of learning effectiveness, followed by activities that occur before the learning event.” Too often learning focuses on the event itself, and not the before and after activities.

5. After completing steps one through four, we designed the training program. Classroom training in a manufacturing environment can appear daunting to participants and put them in an uncomfortable state. These supervisors typically spend their days moving about the shop floor, not sitting in a classroom. To overcome this, the learning was experiential and we introduced review processes throughout the learning to test for understanding and application. This was non-threatening fun, and based on gamification which engaged the learners and identified the understanding that occurred. Fun and business don’t often go in the same sentence, however fun has a positive effect on learning. Neurologist Judy Willis showed how fun experiences increase levels of dopamine, endorphins, and oxygen—all things that promote learning.

Typically, L&D will jump right to step five, without laying the groundwork of steps one through four. This can lead to results that range from spectacular disasters, to interesting programs that result in little to no change in behavior. “Research suggests that as much as 90% of training resources are spent on the design, development, and delivery of training events that yield 15% on-the-job application” (Brinkerhoff, 2006).

6. To monitor and adjust we implemented the learning transfer strategy. This included the Broad and Newstrom Transfer of Training process, introducing Before/During/After commitments of the manager, the trainer, and the learner. This immediately set the tone that managers were involved and would enable learners to forget about the shop floor for one day while they were learning new behaviors. Once back on the job, the commitments included the manager’s role to support the learning transfer. One such initiative to continue the learning process, was implementing Actionable Conversations.  

Actionable Conversations are a simple yet powerful platform that provide opportunities for managers to build relationships with their teams by leading conversations. The conversations were on key concepts surrounding the learning topics. This provided an entirely different way for the supervisors to learn and grow while deepening their leadership knowledge. The process introduced individually relevant commitments, and peer accountability, which provided real-time, applicable business insights.  

To build peer support amongst the supervisors, projects were established that saw supervisors working together to solve issues related to the behaviors expected of shop employees. How would they, together, demonstrate the required behaviors and involve their team in safely achieving production rates? Supervisors were encouraged to talk through challenges in the context of their work activities, devise solutions, and model new behaviors to their teams.

With an inward mindset, people behave in ways that are calculated to benefit themselves. With an outward mindset, people are able to consider and behave in ways that further the collective results that they are committed to achieve.” The Outward Mindset, page 26

The results? All areas identified showed improved performance. Safety incidents were reduced and productivity results increased due to supervisor focus on building trust and coaching their employees to success. Knowing what to do and say to be a successful leader of a safe, productive team, brought about the necessary culture change senior leaders and key stakeholders were needing.

We put systems in place to help individuals throughout the organization apply what they learned on the job, and in the context of their daily work activities. Furthermore, by monitoring progress towards those goals, we were able to identify and recognize individuals who were embracing change, and provide targeted coaching and support to those who were falling behind. Ideas are only valuable if applied, and creating a structure to support and reinforce the application, ensured that action and insight would follow.

Sadly, reinforcement and evaluation have become the Achilles heel of L&D, and a mystery many practitioners do not explore. The process is often considered to be too complex or require too many resources to identify results.

Despite knowing that changing behavior doesn’t happen from a single event—such as one day in the classroom, one online module, or one great keynote speaker, the pattern continues throughout the L&D world. These events aren’t enough to create lasting change—just as going to the gym one day doesn’t mean we can run a marathon tomorrow. Changing behavior requires commitment and dedication to the long haul.

“By adding elements to your environment that remind you of actions that you are supposed to perform, you are providing a framework or scaffold to support your new behaviors.” –Smart Thinking, page 187

Too often in a learning initiative leaders are not involved in the process and therefore it is difficult for them to support the learning back on the job. Despite having the best of intentions to change our own behaviors or do something different, we all tend to fall into the patterns of behavior we have become accustomed to, and forget about the learning that took place. Gaining stakeholder buy-in throughout the organization builds partnership with L&D so that they can be more than a provider, but rather a cohort in the success of the business.

The secret sauce is in knowing what end result you are trying to achieve and providing the necessary learning transfer support to keep the pressure on to make the required behavior changes. We are creatures of habit—in danger of falling back into old patterns. With support and sustained effort, we can create new habits of behavior that are aligned to the objectives of our organizations.