Steve Gartrell is one of Abilitie’s longstanding all-star facilitators. With a career at ExxonMobil in a variety of leadership positions and over 15,000 hours developing leaders in highly engaging, dynamic training sessions, we always know we can rely on Steve to effectively navigate the sometimes challenging world of experiential learning. In Steve’s time supporting leadership development programs for our clients and our Invited MBA mini-MBA program, he’s seen it all.
As part of a longer series of conversations with the experts, we wanted to get Steve’s perspective on how virtual leadership development programs can best encourage strong feedback cultures and skillsets in participants. We knew he’d have plenty of insights to offer on the topic of effectively incorporating feedback into experiential leadership development.
Haven’t read Part One of this interview yet? Check it out here!
1. (Again!) It should always come back to the learning objectives.
2. You don’t have to hire coaches to incorporate coaching into your programs.
3. Help your learners envision their futures at your organization with executive involvement.
Alex Whiteleather: Some leadership development teams may have the means to bring in coaches for their virtual programs, but some may not have the means to bring in coaches. As a facilitator, how would you see the success of running this type of feedback session when you don’t have the coach involved?
Steve Gartrell: We’ve done that very effectively in some situations.
One of the beauties of the virtual platform we use is that our facilitators may move freely in between the breakout spaces. We can act as coaches in that environment or we may use a client contact or two if we’ve got L&D professionals who can also help with that.
Some of the skills and learnings that are being reinforced may not require high-level executives as coaches but could be folks who have gone through the experience before or were in the previous cohort. They can come back and say to participants, “Hey, look, I moved on from where you are now. This is what helped me. It’s really great for me just to be able to come back and see where you are and help you make that leap.”
Leveraging an alumni network to come back and share their learnings from going through this experience not only helps in a coaching role but also shows participants what is possible once they complete the program.
I really have seen great benefit from having alumni of the leadership development program come back. They understand the context that they’re looking at, but they also demonstrate the next level that these folks are trying to achieve.
Getting feedback from those alumni really feels pretty open and very beneficial. And, of course, there are other great places to get coaches from the organization.
Where’s the best place outside of alumni to search for coaches?
Again, it always starts with what we’re trying to accomplish in the session. In some cases when we have high potential participants who are being developed and we’re trying to expand their thinking, it’s been wonderful to have an executive presence.
A higher-level individual, multiple levels above the cohort, can come in and observe and give feedback. It reinforces the importance of the learning experience because executives have dedicated their time. They’re able to share stories.
Another very helpful thing to do is to bring in folks who are just a level or two beyond where the participants currently are, whether they’ve been through this program or not. Participants find them to be folks they can trust to tell them what they need to do successfully to advance to the next level.
In other cases, we’ve deployed HR professionals as coaches, as they are typically well-versed in giving the type of feedback that is being taught.
Again, it’s a question of what the desired learnings are. Who would be the right people to have the perspectives that are most valuable to the participants? Then in addition to coaching, there’s another opportunity within these experiences to have the right people on the Board of Directors.
You’re referring to our Enterprise Challenge and Executive Challenge simulations, where we have the fictitious Board of Directors. Can you tell us a little bit more about how those coaches can transition really nicely into that role?
In some cases, the coaches will become the executive board to whom all of the competing teams make a presentation on why they should be chosen as the winner. The coaches have been through the immersive experience and they can ask targeted questions about challenges the teams faced and what they would do differently in the future.
What have you found makes a successful coach for experiential learning programs?
This sounds basic, but they need to be there for the entire experience, if at all possible. Having them drop in and out of the session can be disruptive to the team, and to their ability to give feedback over the entire time. I would also say while they’re there, they are fully engaged. They are enjoying it, leaning in, being attentive. In other words, they need to let the teams run and fully experience the challenges of the simulation.
We have had fantastic coaches who have made huge differences for some of our key cohorts. There’s one I remember in particular that was extremely beneficial to everyone.
There was an unexpected event that happened late in the simulation that we didn’t fully debrief in the moment, for a reason that was specific to the group.
We had an executive who was attending as a coach. After everyone presented and we announced and congratulated the winners and began to wrap up, he said to the entire group, “Before we leave, I need to tell you one thing. Our values were not modeled in that decision that every team made. I can’t let you leave unless I reinforce to you that the way we do things is more important here than the results we get.”
You could have heard a pin drop across the Webosphere at that moment.
It was interesting because he was such a dynamic, influential leader. Having a person who was known as a successful guy say, “Guys, I made a decision just like that earlier in my career, if I could have made it over I would have and I’m not having you make it again. I’m just so glad we had it happen here today.” was huge. He turned a negative into a positive and it was a great learning experience for everyone.
Well, that’s our purpose here, right? Always be learning. Growth is important in these feedback sessions no matter what, in the classroom or virtually.
Any other last final remarks that you have, that you’d like to share?
The one thing I would share is how many times I hear the words “This was way too real–in a good way! It was intense but fun. I’m so glad I got to see and try things here before running into them in the real world!”
In other words, folks have found that the experience that they have with us–in eight hours in a virtual environment over a couple of days–truly reflects the challenges for which they’re being groomed. They really appreciate having the opportunity to have those experiences, learn how to handle those challenges, in a protected environment.
This interview has been edited for clarity.