by Jacob Burris, ATD-MAC Past President
ATD-MAC’s October is all about understanding what leadership of training teams is all about. Whether you’re already a leader or you’re aspiring toward leadership, we’ve got something for you. We are learning to manage Training Misconceptions as well as Manage the Learning Function in Susan O’Hara’s program on October 18th – it’s not too late to register! In gearing up for a month on Leadership, I’ve been taking time to reflect on my own leadership journey and all the lessons and turns along the way.
When I first started leading a training team, I had what my colleague and fellow ATD-MAC member, Sarah Gibson, describes as Imposter Syndrome. Sure, I’d been in L&D for a decade, but my team was seasoned too – some even had more experience than I did. I kept asking myself, “What could I possible coach or teach that they don’t already know?” I questioned whether I really deserved the training manager title, and whether the title automatically made me a leader. But, I also knew I’d grown complacent as an individual contributor, and I excited for the new challenge of helping to shape a team.
What I immediately found is that the team did need me – not just to approve PTO and filter communications from senior leadership – they needed permission and support to try new things. The team wanted to explore new ideas in ILT, but were held back by a company culture entrenched in “sage on the stage,” “spray and pray,” and “death by PowerPoint.” These were things I’d learned not to do years ago.
With the support of our director, we began converting lengthy slide presentations into activities and discussions that would engage participants. Because of my past experience, I was able to use this redesign process to coach my staff on the difference between what it meant to be a facilitator rather than a trainer. Guided discovery became the philosophy, and I helped lead the team toward comfort in letting participants struggle, increasing their patience, and learning to spend less time talking and more time listening and answering questions. My leadership came from helping facilitate desired changes and helping remove obstacles that were preventing the change.
In my next position, a director position, I also helped facilitate change, but this time the focus was supporting organizational initiatives instead of team-level initiatives. The company was going agile and it was my job to move the department in that direction. While I had the experience necessary, I didn’t anticipate the open resistance to change. While I saw the change as a positive, the team did not, and I saw the approach I used to use as manager stop working. My relationship with the team was strained and sometimes openly adversarial. Again, the Imposter Syndrome set in. I started to question, “Am I ready to lead at this level?” I struggled with why the team seemed to hate me when I’m trying to help them. I wasn’t sure how to balance listening to the team and moving us forward in the direction we needed to go. This balance is what I have struggled with in particular. While time has helped gain trust, it’s sometimes still a challenge to lead when I don’t know the next steps of where the company is headed.
Retired Marine Corp General Anthony Zinni talked about leading the charge in Vietnam, sometime up hills with no idea what lay on the other side. He always led the front of the charge and put himself at risk first as they crested the hill. I use that analogy with my own team because sometimes we must operate in ambiguity and move forward into uncertain territory. If there is one lesson leadership has taught me, it’s that while I can’t promise we won’t make mistakes, I can promise I’ll be right there with them when we do. Leading this way has helped me find that balance of supporting the team and organizational initiatives. It’s helping me built trust even when the direction is uncertain.
Jacob Burris, ATD-MAC Past President
Jacob Burris is a Learning & Development Partner with QBE North America where he works across business units to design and deliver training solutions. He has been facilitating to diverse business groups both nationally and internationally for over a decade. His training career began with facilitating presentations skills to sales teams and grew from there, but his main areas of expertise include: onboarding, customer service, sales, leadership, virtual training, and e-Learning design. Jacob has a graduate degree in Education and an Instructional Design Certificate from UW – Stout. In addition, Jacob is an active member of ATD and has served on the ATD-MAC board since 2015. He currently holds the role of ATD-MAC Past President.