It’s not enough to show up

The ratio of my time spent delivering professional development programs and benefiting from them definitely is skewed toward the former by the nature of my work. But last week, the tables were turned on this facilitator. I traveled offsite, this time sitting in the audience instead of leading from the front. I have to admit, at first I was looking forward to coasting. I was going to sit back, relax, and enjoy being in the passenger seat for a change! What I realized, however, is that it is just as much work to be a participant in a program as it is to be orchestrating the show – or at least, it should be, if you want to make the best use of your time. I thought I’d share some of my takeaways from the experience.

  • Don’t just sit there. The word participant should connote active participation, not passive observation. Unfortunately, I think many program attendees follow my initial default: to go along for the ride. But as I can attest from the front of the room, the experience has far more depth and opportunity for learning when the group is actively engaged. If you have a question – ask it! If you have a challenge – assert it! If you want to thank someone for particularly insightful contribution – pipe up! What will people remember about your presence? It’s likely a reflection of how you show up day-to-day. If you’re bored, do something about it! If you feel like you can’t unplug even briefly from the office, there may be something there to explore.
  • Take notes, preferably by hand. There is a balance to be struck, to be sure, between being fully in the moment and trying to capture the moment in its entirety. Taking notes can take you out of the experience, but also allows you to carry the experience forward, which is the ultimate goal. My memory is never quite as good as I imagine it will be. So take notes! But, don’t bring a device that encourages you to try to capture verbatim everything you see and hear. Not only does it keep you tapping away instead of participating, research shows taking notes by hands is a more effective strategy because it demands we make decisions about what is important and construe meaning in the process.
  • Network like mad. When you are present and engaged, an interesting thing happens: you realize the room is full of other humans just like yourself! The connections that are forged outside of the office – whether with people from your own organization or outside- are a gift you continue to unwrap. It is very easy to put your blinders on and go about your work in your business, your industry, your functional area, where people often think and work like you do. Simply hearing the perspectives of people who may be quite different – whether you agree or disagree – can help us expand our own aperture beyond what we arrived with. Many of my (handwritten!) notes from the program I attended last week were the particularly astute, curious, or infuriating comments made by my classmates. Not to mention my LinkedIn feed is all the richer for the ideas and stimulation I will continue to gain from them across time.
  • Look for ways to apply your takeaways before you leave. At the end of a long day, I was tempted to sneak back to my hotel room, order room service, and catch up on work. Which I did. But I made my first task to review the day’s materials and notes and I created a separate document where I brainstormed how I could put to use what I had learned. Long ago I wrote a master’s thesis about training transfer – that terrible and thorny problem any training professional wrestles with: no matter how much people enjoy a program or learn from it, do they actually apply it on the job? Is it changing behavior? There is only so much a facilitator can do about this. Even with supports in place, the onus ultimately falls on you to do something different with what you’ve gained. And if you’re a leader and manager, one easy to-do is to start by taking your experience back to your own team. What will you tell them about how you spent your time? How can you share what you learned?

As you can probably tell from all of my exclamation marks, I came away from the program energized, despite an unnervingly large to-do list of catch-up tasks. I’m also feeling renewed zeal for my own programs, because I’ve relearned from the other side just how awesome it can be! So if you haven’t done any professional development lately – get out there! A little bit goes a long way to keeping YOU fresh and at your own cutting edge.