Finding the Hidden Teachers in Your Organization

By Tara Denton, Life Cycle Institute
As appeared in Learning to Change

The only true competitive advantage a company has is its employees’ ability to learn, grow and change so they can discover, improve, innovate and meet the challenges of a dynamic marketplace. Today’s agile companies know that learning and continuous improvement is a priority. Training Magazine’s 2009 Industry Report published that the average organization spent approximately $484,000 on training-based investments last year.

Formal instruction, online or classroom, is critical to developing talent in your organization; however, formal training is a piece of the learning process. Learning professionals largely agree that 80% of learning happens outside of a formal classroom. Some learning leaders, like Jay Cross, think that the amount of informal learning (unstructured learning that happens outside the traditional learning events) drives the percentage even higher. With so much learning happening every day between leaders, managers, employees and clients, it’s time to take a closer look at our roles and see how we may function every day as coaches, trainers, knowledge agents, and advocates for professional growth and change. Who are the hidden teachers within my organization? How can I harness their ability to produce results and increase benefits to the company’s constituents?

In this article we’ll look at two types of hidden teachers. We’ll explore examples of how these hidden teachers might appear in your organization, and a few tips on how to improve their ability to facilitate learning and change in others to produce results.

  1. Leader as teacher
  2. Subject Matter Experts (SME) as teachers

    The Leader as Teacher

    Out of all the possible hidden teachers, a company’s leader is paradoxically the most visible. A good leader inspires people and guides them through growth and change to achieve personal and organizational goals. In the article, “Leader as Teacher: Creating the Learning Organization,” authors Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie discuss the leader as teacher model as critical to a business’ success:

    “While businesses today face challenges that can be met by applying technical expertise, they also face challenges that require many people in the organization to learn new habits, attitudes and values….we should be looking for leaders who can move us to face the problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions—the challenges that require us to learn new ways” (Heifetz and Laurie, 2)

    The concept of leader as teacher doesn’t end at executive leadership. The model can benefit team leaders, project leaders, committee leaders and meeting facilitators.

    The best leaders are good teachers that orient people’s purpose and direction, model behaviors, demonstrate values and provide context for learning and changes necessary for the team or organization’s success.

    The Subject Matter Expert (SME) as Teacher

    An SME knows his or her subject intimately. Although a person may not have the title of SME, subject matter experts exist in many organizations and are frequently asked to share their knowledge with others to enhance competency in a certain area. These folks aren’t called “trainers” or “teachers”; however, they may teach as part of their regular responsibilities and are seldom in a formal classroom.

    A few examples of hidden teacher SME’s that you might find in your company:

    • A work planning specialist
    • A software system “power user”
    • A business or process consultant
    • A customer software integration specialist
    • A customer support specialist
    • A legal or contracts department manager
    • A financial or tax auditor
    • A top-selling product salesperson
    • A Six-Sigma black belt

    An SME is a knowledge powerhouse that one would expect to easily transfer knowledge to others. This is not always the case. Because the SME may not serve in a teaching capacity at all times, they may not have the tools or embrace the methods to effectively facilitate learning and change in others. Do they have the skills to assess and honor the experience level of those they’re teaching? Are their sessions active? Do they reinforce relevancy to real-world application, encourage action planning and give people a choice in how they learn?

    If your organization uses SMEs to teach others without properly equipping them, the result could be a missed opportunity to enhance the development of an employee or client.

    Let’s look at an example: Pam is a customer integration specialist. She works for a company that provides software products that are customized for the client. Pam performs the customization. For a certain client, she’s asked to deliver and introduce the software to client users. Pam’s goal is that the client knows how to utilize the system and embraces its use. She needs to overcome the client’s resistance to the new system  unlock their minds so they are willing to change the way they “did” things, and learn a new way of “doing” things.

    If Pam is effective, her company’s software installation has a greater chance of success and the company can gain an advocate client. There is no question that Pam is an SME, but is she prepared to teach a session that incorporates activities, review strategies and retention techniques to facilitate learning and change?

    Let’s add another factor to the example. Let’s say Pam’s clients are expected to train co-workers at other locations on how to use the new system. They are essentially in the same position as Pam. Are they aware of how to most effectively teach others to use the system correctly? Have they been prepped on how to coach other users?

    Boosting the Effectiveness of Hidden Teachers

    Once you’ve discovered the hidden trainers in your organization, here are a few suggestions on how to help the transition to a facilitator of learning:

    1. Self-study: There are many great books out there to support the growth of a hidden teacher. A few I recommend.
      a.  Active Training (3rd edition) by Mel Silberman (ISBN: 0787976237)
      b.  Telling Ain’t Training by Harold Stolovitch (ISBN: 1562863282)
      c.  Presenting with Pizzazz by Sharon Bowman (ISBN: 0965685101)
      Self study should have discipline and accountability. Learners should document their progress in an action or development plan and ask themselves these questions:
      a.  What action will I take as a result of reading this book?
      b.  What results will I achieve because I took this action?
      c.  How will the results impact the organization?
      d.  When will I implement this action?
      Ask the learner to target an action that will achieve some sort of result within 90 days.
    2. Individual coaching: If you have a well-defined mentor program in your organization, you can pair a mentor with the teacher-to-be. You can also hire a trainer coach to observe, assess and coach the individual. For example, Life Cycle Institute Learning Consultants build individual development plans and provide detailed support structures to guide an individual’s development.
    3. Train-the-trainer classes: There are many train-the-trainer opportunities available. To name a few, the Life Cycle Institute, SkillPath and the Bob Pike Group all offer train-the-trainer workshops. When looking at a course, consider the learning objectives. Is this course designed so that participants can practice the skills they learn in class? Is follow-on coaching after the course an option?
    4. Success story network: Look in your organization at those individuals that produce results. What do they do that makes them successful? What are the qualities of that success? Consider building a network where people can learn from each other, share best practices and success stories.  

    Every organization has hidden teachers with the capacity to motivate employees and clients to adopt new behaviors that produce results. Find the hidden trainers in your organization and provide them the support they need to become great. If you happen to be a hidden trainer reading this article, I encourage you to use the four steps above to guide your transformation to become an agent of learning and change for your co-workers and clients.

    Works Cited: Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie, “Leader as Teacher: Creating the Learning Organization.” Ivey Business Journal (Jan/Feb 2003): 1-10.

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