Steve Gartrell is one of Abilitie’s longstanding all-star facilitators. With a career at ExxonMobil in a variety of leadership positions and over 12,000 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 skill sets in participants. We knew he’d have plenty of insights to offer on the topic of effectively incorporating feedback into experiential leadership development.
1. It should always come back to the learning objectives.
2. There are pros and cons to all feedback methods – be intentional in your choice.
3. Model your feedback framework in every step of the process.
Alex Whiteleather: A lot of people find the idea of incorporating effective feedback in a virtual leadership program to be clunky at best, but we at Abilitie were able to figure it out. Can you paint a clear picture of how we set up the virtual environment with Abilitie simulations to kick off this conversation around virtual leadership?
Steve Gartrell: Sure. A participant in an Abilitie leadership program comes into an immersive, competitive team-oriented environment. We’re leveraging an online business simulation where they’re competing, and a virtual platform with a lot of functionality so that they’re not only in breakout rooms with their own teams, but they also engage in large group debriefs.
We’ve got collaboration in intimate settings, and we’ve also got broader discussions in the main virtual space where we can share the collective experience.
The opportunities to collaborate virtually are enhanced in today’s world. Can you tell us a little bit more about how the small groups help virtually? What allows people to feel like they can lean into some of the key learning outcomes here, especially in these small groups?
The beauty of being in an intense situation with a small group of people, when you can see each other, talk with each other, chat with each other, share screens with each other, is that you can learn to communicate and collaborate better. You can learn how to leverage each other better in the way our current business environment demands.
Let’s talk about the people who make an experiential learning program successful. You, as the lead facilitator, really help to make the learning come together. Then we also have some other folks that are involved outside of the participants as well. How do you, as the facilitator, decide what some of the roles of those coaches are, versus your role as the facilitator?
Well, as with everything else, it should start with the client: what the client’s learning objectives are, what the client’s reasons for wanting to have coaches or observers in the session are. Then we go from there.
First let’s talk about the base mechanics of how we do virtual experiential training. Certainly, I’m the one who runs the simulation and knows how it works. From the overall content point of view, it’s my job to facilitate that and make sure the key learnings are achieved. We also have a virtual producer who will make sure that the platform is easy and accessible for everyone, so that the environment supports learning.
Then we get into, “Okay, how can a coach accentuate the key learning objectives by their observations in breakouts, by their participation in discussions with the teams, and in the broader large group discussions, so that we can get to some of the richness that only they can provide?”
Now there’s actually a lot more to it than that. Would you like to hear it?
Yes, I would! Tell me a little bit more.
It really becomes a function of the reason the observers are there.
It might be so that they can give targeted business-based feedback on decisions that were made or processes that were used, or on key initiatives that the company is trying to reinforce. Then, of course, we let them run with those. If it is much more of an overall cohort development and concept base, then we’re able to give them a more general type of role.
Again, it starts with the client’s needs and desires.
How have you found success in setting ground rules or expectations with the participants? Not only are they leaning into something which may be a bit uncomfortable (a core component of experiential learning) but they also are now being challenged to interact with a coach and a delivery team, and they might even receive peer-to-peer feedback.
How do you set some of those ground rules?
Much of the success happens even before the session begins. We have a pre-meeting with the people who are coming to coach or to observe so that they really understand what the participant experience is intended to be, what the learning outcomes will be, and what their individual roles will be.
We also will typically let participants know in advance that there will be people coming to coach or observe to enhance the experience.
It is all about managing expectations from the beginning and letting people know how the coaches/observers will be augmenting the participants’ learning process. It’s important for all to be clear on the front end on the manner and extent of the coaches’/observers’ involvement.
In addition to programs with coaches giving feedback, you’ve also worked on leadership development programs with peer feedback. Can you tell me a couple of examples, of what some of the general learning outcomes tend to be in a session where you’re incorporating team feedback, or peer-to-peer feedback?
Typically these sessions really lead toward awareness and, for folks who are either advancing into executive levels or moving into mid-higher levels of leadership, improvement in collaborative skills. They want to be able to leverage others and to communicate in ways that may be new or different, or at a level beyond what they’ve done before. The base experience gives them the opportunity to participate in all of that.
Having the coaches or the peer feedback there can help us by holding up a mirror to that process.
I’ve seen that when you’re building these sessions where you’re including team feedback, peer-to-peer feedback, and coaches who “hold up the mirror”, it’s often good to provide a framework or structure that can help people to successfully deliver that feedback. Can you tell us a little bit more of what you’ve done to support people feeling more comfortable to do this?
Great question. Over my time as a facilitator, we’ve used many, many different feedback tools.
We generally start with the client and ask whether there’s a feedback model that they’ve been either trying to implement or want their people to use. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to use the Observation-Impact-Suggestion Model that was brought to us by one of our clients. It was integrated seamlessly, not only into the way we facilitated the session, but also the way the coaches were observing what was going on in the session.
We’ve also used the Situation-Behavior-Impact Model in recent sessions along with other well-known feedback models as well. Regardless of which model is used, the idea is that anyone who’s facilitating and anyone who’s coaching, will be modeling the feedback model. Then being able to emphasize those, not only in conversations within the periods of activity, but also in our debriefs and in any decisions we might make on awarding winners as well.
I love that. Can you tell us a little bit more about what some of the goals or outcomes look like for peer-to-peer and team feedback? Although it might sound simple, I suspect that there are some “Aha!” moments, or key things that you want to keep in mind when differentiating between peer-to-peer feedback and team feedback.
Absolutely. They’ve each got benefits. They’ve each got some challenges.
Team feedback is wonderful because an individual can then receive feedback from multiple vantage points. It allows for different points of view and different perspectives that can help someone see themselves the way multiple people in a business might. If you use it early in an engagement with a cohort, it often creates a culture in which feedback is welcomed.
Typically, it does take a little longer to give team feedback, and so we have to factor that into the planning process. In some cases, by everyone giving feedback to everyone, there can be less attention and focus to each individual.
Peer-to-peer feedback can be much more focused, with one person paying attention to another, being prepared to give personalized feedback. It can also then be at a deeper level.
Interestingly, the level of trust can be really increased between two individuals that way, and those peer-to-peer relationships can exist far beyond the online simulation that we’re doing that day. It becomes a basis for partnering in the future.
I’ve seen peers that continue that relationship for quite a length of time in their careers, myself included. Peer-to-peer feedback also tends to take a little less time.
One option is to start off with a little more team feedback so participants learn and get comfortable with the model, and then shift to peer feedback. When we transition into more peer-to-peer feedback we find that the model is now known, the expectation for how it’s going to be given is already there, and the trust level goes up.
When you get more detailed feedback from somebody who’s really there to help you, and expecting you’re going to help them, the mutuality of that experience is just magic.
Great! And I recall, Steve, when we partnered together with a recent client and they were doing both team feedback and peer-to-peer feedback, we were also leveraging coaches. We specifically allowed coaches to be part of that team feedback, so they could help hold up the mirror for the teams to deliver feedback, but recommended that those coaches not join for those peer-to-peer feedbacks. This really allowed those participants and those leaders to lean into giving that one-to-one feedback and not feel like they were being too monitored in delivering that.
Can you share any specific observations on that?
Sure thing. We found that the coaches really help give traction in a team feedback setting. The best practices we saw there were that while the teams were doing their feedback the coach sat back, observed the feedback, and then after the feedback was done, they gave feedback on the feedback. It was very detailed.
The coaches gave their feedback using the models that were employed by the client and that we were trying to reinforce. This really helped the participants they had just observed to be more detailed in their observations, to be more on point, and to give more beneficial feedback, whether it was redirecting or reinforcing.
In many cases, they’ve been able to reinforce the idea that leaders need to give balanced feedback. When they brought that to bear, it seemed to have great traction. At that point, the coaches had credibility and the participants felt like they had received good feedback. They also felt like it must be okay to give feedback. By the time we then got to the peer-to-peer, they had more skill. They really didn’t need the coach as much at that moment. They were able to have a more open and sharing discussion by having just the peer-on-peer experience.
Check out part two of this conversation here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.