To be, rather than to seem

by Jay Cross on April 11, 2008

Esse quam videri, Latin for “To be rather than to seem,” is the motto of North Carolina and my advice to CLOs. Presenters at training conferences say you can earn a seat at the table by speaking the language of business, expressing your ROI in hard dollars, and relating your learning initiatives to business goals. They are wrong.

Many training managers try to have it both ways. They pepper their speech with business buzzwords but deep inside beats the heart of a trainer. When push comes to shove, they prefer instruction to self-discovery and instructional design to business strategy.

Speakers at training conferences mouth the mantras they imagine to be politically correct among senior managers. They revisit the same old stories again and again, as if repetition makes them useful. The generic version goes like this:

    In today’s fast-paced business environment, it’s more important than ever not only to stay attuned to organizational needs but also to heed what’s going on in the greater world outside. Leaders (like you) need insight and foresight to recognize the signs of change, understand broader trends, make enlightened decisions, and innovate to create competitive advantage.

    Learning professionals are under-appreciated, for they are the secret weapon for dealing with lack of skills, lack of qualified talent, lack of specialized expertise, keeping up with change, playing catch-up, dealing with school graduates who fail to make the grade, and filling the talent pipeline.

    Embrace leading-edge technology, world-class, drive shareholder value, Ken Blanchard, learning as transformation, clarity on leading the way, become world’s best, provide extraordinary service & care, change, change, change. make the business case, align vision and goals, metrics, look in the mirror, need commitment of executive leadership, manage expectations, keep progress visible, platitude, platitude, earn your seat at the table every day, learning as a process, engagement, bottom-line, message on target, and Jack Welch.

    Alignment, stakeholder value, assess and improve, benchmark performance, cliche, cliche, sequence activities for continuous improvement, total change management, evaluate, celebrate successes along the way, start over again, don’t have time, integrate learning and work, businesses have marginalized training and learning, commit to true collaboration, empower your team, objectivity, scary, jobs are changing, competency-based assessment, be accountable, continuously raise the bar, results are all that matter, be second to none, world-class, embed learning into the company culture, lead by capitalizing on change, best practices, don’t outsource the secret sauce, manage effectively and efficiently, drive the right resources into hands of employees, the work force is changing, strategy is changing, this new generation is not like us, boomers are aging, role of learning & development in orchestrating change and making strategy happen. Please buy my brand of snake oil; it’s not a panacea but it will make many of your problems go away.

People nod. Nothing changes.

That makes it all the more refreshing to hear a presentation that rings true.

Michelle Bieburg holds a magic wand when she describes the learning culture at UBS. She’s authentic.“Learning is in; classrooms are out.” She has orchestrated the development of great internal branding: “It begins with you.” At UBS, people are given the latitude to learn and self-governing forms of organization to support it.

In an era when most corporations focus too much on new hires, obvious skills deficiencies, and leadership programs, to the detriment of high-producing mid-career professionals, UBS encourages learning within every group in the company. It looks like fun: a photo of a Managing Director team resembles the merry bunch in Renoir’s The Boating Party. Most UBS team-building projects involve working with the larger community; another photo shows a senior manager spontaneously mimicking a statue of an energetic ballet dancer in the course of a UBS project with the Miami Ballet.

UBS people carry in-house business cards which they exchange when learning from one another, making it possible to track productive social networking.

UBS selects only vendors (“partners”) who are very, very smart and who will be enjoyable to work with.

It’s refreshing to listen to and learn from someone who not only gets it but who puts it into practice so deftly. Michelle describes informal learning, balanced scorecards, leaving room for serendipity, respecting individuals, self-generated activities, broad participation, internal marketing, pull in lieu of push, and other techniques I believe in. She does so by showing examples. She shows respect for the audience by letting them draw their own conclusions.

Michelle cast a spell on me. It was refreshing to hear the right stuff instead of another hour of platitudes and truisms. At the conclusion of her talk, I ran over to say that I want to interview her for my next book. And I blurted out “I think I’m in love.”

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