An Insurance Policy for Making Experiential Learning Successful

Experiential learning has been en vogue in corporate training for some time, and for good reason.  Our research at the Najafi Global Mindset Institute has shown that first-hand experiences can fuel a leader’s motivation to enter into new or challenging experiences and to get to know diverse new people.  This is incredibly important for a leader who needs to interact with diverse others.  It allows him or her to be able to embrace unfamiliar people, practices, and environments rather than being fearful of or irritated by their differences.  The trouble is that while many human resources development professionals recognize the value of experiential learning, they do not always see a return on their investment.  Why?  According to our recent research, the missing link is often coaching. 

In 2011, we researched precisely how expert international executive coaches help to turn good performance into exceptional performance in each area of Global Mindset (for more on Global Mindset, visit   Coaching before, during, and after experiential learning efforts was an essential component.  According to these experts, they have seen too many examples of human resources development professionals investing precious company resources into first-hand experiences, such as travel to international offices, the formation of global project teams, business simulations, and global assignments, without building in adequate coaching.  The experiences may be the vehicle for learning, but coaching is the motor.  So it is not surprising that the vehicle doesn’t arrive at the desired destination.

 A typical example of the importance of pairing coaching with experiential learning can be seen in a global team meeting.  Global team meetings are a wonderful way for dispersed members of a functional team to meet and interact with one another.  The experience can be quite valuable for developing and strengthening relationships.  When the experience of a global team meeting is well designed, it can make working relationships more fluid and productive.  The problem is that, according to our expert international executive coaches, the design of global team meetings usually centers around the agenda to accomplish tasks (e.g. goal setting, project plans).  There are often some local cultural events sprinkled into the agenda in the name of teambuilding, as well.   So by the end of the trip, team members have likely had some fun, gained some knowledge of the local culture through experiences, and may have accomplished many of the agenda items.  That doesn’t sound too bad, but what happened when the team members returned to their own regions?  Did the agreements made during the meeting move to action?  Did the team members enhance their abilities to work with diverse others, or did they simply muddle through?  Did those working relationships continue to develop, or did they revert back to that of colleagues who rarely interact?

Remember that a leader’s motivation is affective in nature, and is strongly influenced by attitudes about and reactions to experiences.  Just because a leader participated in the global team meeting—she traveled there, she went to all the cultural events, she contributed to the tasks accomplished—does not mean that she was comfortable or excited to do so in the first place.  It does not mean that she developed a passion for diversity, or sees the value in continuing to deepen working relationships with dispersed and culturally diverse colleagues.  And it does not mean that she improved her ability to work well with diverse others.  Compliance can inspire participation, but not necessarily learning and development.  Skilled coaching is the key to unlock the lessons of these kinds of experiences.  It is an insurance policy for making experiential learning pay off.

Stay tuned to my blog next month for tips on how to structure coaching before, during, and after experiential learning efforts to get development motors running.

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