Motivational Clichés Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

  • Ryan Panzer

I learned yesterday that my publisher selected Tuesday, December 1st as the release date for "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture." I assume my book will soon become the hot gift of the 2020 holiday shopping season!

The book is also now available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Fortress Press.

So as they say, shop now and avoid the holiday rush!

And if you'd rather not wait, anyone can download and read a sample chapter of the book on Luther Seminary's Faith+Lead platform!

It's rather humbling to see my book on these websites. While we'll have to wait a few months to share the book, we're one step closer to the culmination of years of research, writing, and lots of editing. I'm hopeful that these pages will provide some clarity and insight to church leaders navigating a new normal, in which digital culture and online expressions of church have become more important than ever.

I made one final round of light copy-edits early this morning, one of which brings me a heavy heart. My longtime friend and mentor Brent Christianson passed away in May. Brent inspired me to think about studying theology at the graduate level, and to write this book. I'll always be grateful for our conversations about God, the Packers, and Wisconsin politics - served best over an iced cold beer and fresh cheese curds. Just like you remarked after Green Bay's famed QB left to play for Minnesota - "We'll never forget you, Brent."

Pastor Brent leading a discussion at the Lutheran Campus Center in 2010

So now it's on to the "book marketing" stage. I'm looking forward to many upcoming digital conversations with church leaders on the topics covered in this book. First up - a four-part course with Luther Seminary (not too late to register!) and a free online workshop this August, featuring Dr. Michael Chan of Luther Seminary. I've also written a series of blog posts for Luther Seminary (available here).

Thank you to everyone who has supported and encouraged me through the process of writing my first book. I'm so eager to share it with you all this December!

  • Ryan Panzer

This post is the third post in the "Training in Turbulence" series, focused on talent development during COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting workplace coaching, forcing those of us who work in talent development to reconsider what we mean when we talk about "coaching culture." Suddenly, the old goals no longer seem as important. The old coaching scripts no longer seem as relevant. So where do we go from here?

The past: The few coached by the fewer

To understand how coaching must change in this time of crisis, we must first look at how we practiced coaching in stable conditions. In the decade before COVID-19, coaching was primarily provided to business leaders. Some companies had started to experiment with peer-to-peer, in-the-moment coaching models, in an attempt to infuse the practice of coaching throughout all levels of the organization.

Still, the most commonly practiced form of coaching was in service to senior leaders. Structural rigor defined the practice, rendering coaching as something that sat on the periphery of most organizational cultures. Some estimates suggest that executive coaching created over one billion dollars in annual economic activity before the pandemic. Prior to 2020, 53,000 coaches provided formal, 1:1 guidance to managers and executives. Two-thirds of all coaching practitioners focused their business on executive-level coaching. By contrast, only one-third of coaching practitioners worked with non-manager employees. Why the disproportionate focus on executives, a level of professional attainment to which only 7% of workers aspire? Perhaps because executive coaching is a relatively lucrative practice, with practitioners billing an average of $400/hour.

Executive coaching practitioners were and still are highly-credentialed. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is among one of several credentialing authorities to the coaching profession. To attain their certifications, one must complete over 60 hours of formal training and over 100 hours of formal coaching experience. Holders of ICF’s highest credential, the Master Certified Coach, complete 200+ training hours and 2500+ hours of coaching experience. Such credentialing expectations have spurred the development of a cottage industry dedicated to professional coaching. Myriad universities and business schools now offer professional coaching certificates, provided for a substantial tuition fee. While these training and credentialing standards provide necessary standards to a relatively new profession, they establish an implicit expectation that being a coach requires expenditures of energy, focus, and finances. The popularity of the executive coaching model conditions us to imagine coaching as a professionalized activity deployed to support a small percentage of our workforce.

The future: The many coached by the many more

In the wake of coronavirus, the bottom may fall out of the executive coaching market as companies look to reduce fixed expenses. But even if the executive coaching market doesn’t contract, a recession-ready workforce requires a different approach, one that began to emerge before the pandemic.

To develop talent amidst disruption and volatility, today’s L&D professionals must seek to integrate coaching practices, indeed even habits, at all levels of the organization. The talent developer in turbulence must move away from an overreliance on formal, executive models and enabling everyone to be a coach.

In this era of anxiety and uncertainty, our workplaces need coaches capable of converting negative sentiment into creative, goal-directed action. Our workplaces need such individuals not just in the C-suite, but in every operation within a company’s portfolio. To quote best-selling author Michael Bungay Stanier, the training professional must now work to ensure that everyone in the organization becomes more “coach-like.”

Unfortunately, few have yet to see the value in being “coach-like” in the workplace. We’re not even at the point where every manager is comfortable in coaching their teams. Coaching remains the practice of credentialed, full-time practitioners. There are five full-time coaching practitioners for every one manager or leader who uses coaching skills in their day-to-day work. This lack of involvement with coaching comes despite a 2014 finding from CEB (now Gartner) suggesting that an integrated approach to coaching, in which individuals provide in-the-moment coaching to one another, can increase performance by 12.2%.

Michael Bungay Stanier on coaching in a crisis

Quarantined in my house in Madison, WI in March 2020, I sat down for a Zoom call with coaching expert and best-selling author Michael Bungay Stanier. I asked Bungay Stanier, the author of The Coaching Habit and The Advice Trap, how the practice of coaching might evolve, and how talent developers could support coaching in uncertain times. As we talked, Michael maintained that coaching in a time of coronavirus would require the development of coaching habits and practices for everyone in the organization.

Michael shared that coaching in a time of uncertainty is about helping one’s peers to differentiate data from judgment. “Those who are coach-like, regardless of whether they consider themselves actual coaches, help others to separate fact from feeling,” said Bungay Stanier. “It’s only when coaches help separate fact from feeling that they can help to determine an effective set of actions. The most powerful coaching questions that we all should be asking in a time of anxiety and ambiguity are ‘What do you know to be true?’ - And as a follow-up, what are you going to say yes to, and what are you going to say no to?”

In a workplace characterized by apprehension, everyone is going to have moments in which we will act on that which is objectively false. Coaches are those who can ensure our actions rest upon a solid foundation.

“Someone who is coach-like prevents their peers from being swept up in a wave of active uncertainty and anxiety,” suggests Bungay Stanier. “They facilitate action based on the data. They recognize that every action requires saying no to something, for example, anxiety, and saying yes to something else, for example, self-care, breathing, and grounding oneself in the truth.”

Michael recognizes that in moments of uncertainty, even those who aspire to be coaches struggle to maintain a posture of curiosity and inquiry. There are two harmful tendencies in these situations. The first tendency is to stop asking questions. Without coaches who ask great questions, all of us struggle to find the best possible course of action. The other tendency is to launch into advice-giving, what Bungay Stanier refers to as the “Advice Monster.”

“Part of what drives advice-giving and receiving is a hunger for certainty,” says Bungay Stanier. “So, COVID-19 and other crises will surely awaken our Advice Monsters. In these moments, there’s a wiring we have where we’re all hungry for a sense of certainty, even when that certainty is misguided.”

While professional coaches are often reknowned for their ability to give great advice, coaching and advising are intrinsically different practices. Whereas coaches empower individuals to find their own, unique path to goal attainment, advisors provide recommendations based on someone else’s experience. Author Henry Kimsey-House summarizes the two practices as follows: “Advisors stand in front of you and face you. You ask them their opinions and they give them to you, based on their experience and background. Coaches, however, stand next to you, facing the same direction, and look to the horizon saying, ‘Where do you want to go?’”

Advice isn’t problematic in and of itself, though its applications are limited, particularly in an economic climate when nearly everyone is facing never-before-seen challenges. For Michael Bungay Stanier, the problem with advice is that it implies that the one receiving advice is inadequate to meet the challenges of the times and that they are somehow not “enough.”

In a recent TedX Talk, Michael describes how giving advice implies that the other is not “smart, wise, fast, moral, or experienced enough.” For Bungay Stanier, the best-case scenario is that the recipient ignores the advice. The worst-case scenario is that it leads to a certain level of learned helplessness. With the need for individuals and organizations to take bold, innovative, and pragmatic actions amidst a time of recession, we need to pull coaching back from the entrapments of advice.

Bungay Stanier clarified that there remain cases in which some advice could be useful during an appearance on Hallely Azulay’s TalentGrow Podcast. He suggested that coaching has its greatest impact when we stop rushing to provide advice.

“I’m not saying stop giving advice or never give anybody any advice at all,” said Bungay Stanier on the podcast. “I’m merely saying, can you slow down the rush to give advice? What you’ll find is the longer you can wait, the more likely it is that they’ll figure it out by themselves. And if they don’t, then the more likely it is that your advice will be more focused, more useful and more likely to be acted upon.”

Crises provide us an opportunity to develop a coaching culture. If we want to make coaching a widespread habit in a time of turbulence, we need talent developers who can train us all to ask coaching questions. We need trainers who can slow our inclination to provide advice. And we must all resolve to follow Bungay Stanier’s advice in saying less, and asking more, at all levels of the organization.

If training departments are going to affect positive change or build any meaningful capacity during a recession, they must do so with a commitment to lightweight implementation, or a focus on learning culture over training courses.

Potential 20% reductions in training resources, paired with drop-offs in available learning hours, create an uncertain future for large learning programs. Programs and courses will continue to help employees to develop new, role-required skills. I expect many companies will continue to prioritize their new hire onboarding programs, for example. Still, formal learning, with its hefty administrative burdens like scheduling, content maintenance, and ongoing SME engagement, cannot build a recession-ready workplace.

What we need instead are techniques that enable skill development by rapidly converting theory into practice, and practice into habits. We need a strategy that makes social learning work! Fortunately, these techniques are not unfamiliar to talent development professionals, though they may be peripheral to much of our past work.

By focusing on micro-learning, nudges, and communities of practice, trainers can form a recession-ready learning culture defined by efficiency and efficacy. These three instructional design techniques form a robust "triad" of organizational development in that they can develop skills with little administrative overhead.

The root of this triad is micro-learning, which provides a mechanism for the distribution of essential procedural and declarative knowledge. ATD defines micro-learning as that which “enhances learning and performance in the most efficient and effective manner possible through short pieces of content. Assets can usually be accessed on-demand when the learner needs them.”

Micro-learning is not new to a time of recession. Just before the pandemic, Donald Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey identified micro-learning as the sixth-hottest trend in L&D, indicating widespread interest in this emerging training tool. But what is new about micro-learning is that it will transition from a tangential measure deployed to support formal learning into a core strategy for the development of essential skills.

Nudges establish the middle note, or the third, of this triad. Whereas micro-learning involves actions to create and ship content, nudges involve actions that shape and optimize behaviors, thus turning theory into practice.

We can define a nudge as a "relatively subtle" action that encourages behaviors that are either individually beneficial or socially altruistic. Google's small cafeteria plates are a commonly cited example of a behavioral nudge. Google famously found that smaller plates lead employees to make more nutritious choices. As a former Google employee, I once shed over fifteen pounds by switching to Google's smaller plates and ensuring my lunches consisted primarily of vegetables served from the front of Google's buffet lines. While talent developers can use micro-learning to demonstrate essential skills for a time of uncertainty, nudges are needed to put skills into action and to ensure that social learning perpetuates skill development.

Communities of practice form the top note, or the fifth, of our triad. Harvard Business Review defines communities of practice as “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise.” Communities of practice can exist online or offline, within an organization or with like-minded individuals across organizations. They can be broad in scope and complex in operations, such as an international trade organization or a multinational CEO peer group. Or they can be narrow in scope and easily maintained, such as a Slack channel for instructional designers or a group of podiatrists on WhatsApp.

Whether these groups gather virtually or physically, synchronously, or via social media, a community of practice facilitates two needed elements of adult skill development: peer-to-peer learning, and opportunities for reflection. Communities of practice are a powerful form of “social” learning - the third “hottest” global trend in Learning and Development in 2020.

Social learning provides 70% of workplace learning and is especially popular with Millennials and Generation Z. All communities of practice are social learning, though not all social learning rises to the level of a community of practice. The difference is that a community of practice involves a commitment to constancy. Many social learning opportunities are “one and done” - but one can always turn to their communities of practice to take full advantage of social learning. Moreover, in a time of disruption, companies may verbalize a commitment to social learning - when, in fact, their hidden commitment is to avoid investing in L&D! In upcoming blog posts, we’ll reimagine communities of practice as more targeted towards specific skills, more supported by talent developers, and more appealing to workers in uncertain times.

Until the pandemic ends and the recession dissipates, bulky training programs will achieve limited traction. Fortunately, the triad of micro-learning, nudges, and communities of practice provide an objectively better alternative! With these strategies in mind, let us turn in the next blog post to the skills that we must build if our organizations are to withstand these turbulent times.


@ryanpanzer is an instructional designer for Zendesk and a member of the board of directors for the Association for Talent Development Madison Area Chapter.


Leadership developer for digital culture. Writing a book with Fortress Press, coming in December 2020!

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