In this bonus series on Leadership and Learning we share episodes from other podcast series we recommend. They feature inspirational people that our host, Sue Stockdale has interviewed. This guest episode is from the Coaching Perspectives podcast series published by the Association for Coaching.
Host, Sue Stockdale talks to Dan Hoffman, founder and CEO of Circl.es Learning Labs based in Brooklyn, NY about how to create a learning environment, and the role that leaders have in making this happen effectively within an organisation. Dan’s mission is to make it easier to connect as humans in small groups and to make a difference in how we learn, work and live.
Listen to more episodes from the Coaching Perspectives podcasts.
Transcription of the bonus episode from the Coaching Perspectives podcast
[00:00:00] Sue: hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the podcast. You know, inspiration is like a magical gift within all of us. It’s free energy that we can give to others when we shared our experiences and insights about what we have learned from life for work. Our hope is that this podcast gives you inspiration. By listening to the experiences of guests from all around the world.
At the moment, we are busy preparing a new series that will launch in January. And for this month, we have created a special, short series on the theme of leadership and learning. It features five episodes from some of the other podcasts that I host, we hope that you find these episodes thought-provoking as well as providing you with some ideas and recommendations of other podcasts you can listen to that feature inspirational people. Today’s episode on the leadership and learning theme is from the Coaching Perspectives podcast series. I spoke to Dan Hoffman, founder of Circles Learning Labs. We discussed different ways that leaders can empower and coach their people and create a learning environment. Welcome, Dan.
[00:01:15] Dan: Thank you so much. Sue, pleasure to be here.
[00:01:17] Sue: I’ve briefly outlined what your business background is there Dan, but I’m wondering where learning fitted in for you during that journey as an entrepreneur?
[00:01:25] Dan: when I had a chance to reflect on the journey, It was clear to me that learning was what gave me the most energy out of all of it. Only my own development as a leader, when you’re growing a startup, you’re doing a new thing every six months, but. As we scaled the challenge became creating a culture of learning. And I realized that that was one of the most gratifying parts of the job of building an organization,
[00:02:01] Sue: And what is it about building a culture of learning that you think is really important for a entrepreneur or a business to include within the way it operates?
[00:02:11] Dan: Well. I call it the wish for more wishes.
[00:02:15] Sue: Oh, tell us more.
[00:02:17] Dan: I mean, if you have an employee who’s growing, you’re getting multiple the value for your dollar, if you will. Right. But it’s more than that. It’s energizing. And so I truly believe that your company grows as fast as your people. The two are very connected.
[00:02:38] Sue: So learning is an integral part of what you see as important within an organization and our listeners and readers of the magazine are a lot of them were coaches in the coaching community who are supporting leaders to learn and grow. What do you think is important for them to be paying attention to when they are supporting that CEO or the leader is [00:03:00] learning.
[00:03:00] Dan: When I built M5 I was very interested in alignment top-down. We had a mission, we had some core values. We had knowledge and the frame from 2000 to 2012 was very much about how to build that structure. So we’re be consistency. Even with learning culture, the tools we use, like one-on-ones and corporate university and performance reviews. In the decade, since I’ve come to believe that a better way is bottom up. And the world is moving so fast those structures that we’re building become very fragile unless you truly have engagement bottom up at the team by team level, we put so much pressure on bosses that the idea of bosses is breaking because they’re responsible, right. For managing the development, just to take that one part of the job of each of their people and the framing we have is one-on-one, there is an order of magnitude of value to unlock when you create the conditions on a team so that the job of developing doesn’t become a leader job it becomes a team job. And the unit isn’t top-down hierarchy. We have this behavior centralized we need it throughout the group. Everyone must be more innovative. So we’re going to push that down through a set of courses and our leaders must give everyone feedback on their performance views on if they’re innovating.
A better way is to create the skill and leaders to create spaces, teams, openness, so that the, you have the multiplier effect of a team helping each other develop. And I think that coaches can go a very long way towards teaching leaders. Not how to Develop and do their job as a coach one-on-one, but how to really focus on building learning teams, environments for, for learning where the team does their work.
[00:05:01] Sue: So in that situation, that coach is becoming a facilitator of exponential growth through the leader, seeing that opportunity and devolving responsibility for learning.
[00:05:10] Dan: Exactly. I think that’s, I think that’s one of the frontiers we have now for coaching and leadership development is really building leaders that have recognized they cannot, general Stanley McChrystal, who wrote team of teams has a wonderful frame for this. And he has such an incredible track record taking the military, a super hierarchical, you know, the U S military organization. And the special forces and by decentralizing and building team of teams, he’s radically improved the performance of, of the areas under his command. And his frame for this is I used to be a chess player. I would move my people on the board, and then I realized I had to be a gardener. My role was to make the soil rich and water and let the plants [00:06:00] do their own growing. And I think that change in frame is radical and I think it’s important and it takes a coach working with a leader to change that kind of mindset so they can become a gardener instead of a chess master.
[00:06:13] Sue: That’s a lovely analogy to get us thinking about Dan. I’m thinking of two words as you described that about trust and risk-taking because I’m getting a, you know, a sense of a leader has to accept relinquishing control and also a belief in the capability of their team as well. I’m just wondering what your take on those phrases of kind of trust and risk, where that plays into this scenario.
[00:06:37] Dan: The two are some are counter-intuitive. My father was a surgeon. And what I learned from him among other things, but a phrase that he used to repeat that just lives in my head is that the doctors with good bedside manner don’t get sued. And I really believe that compliance, for example, especially in an age that where we have seen, you know, how quickly a massive corporation can come down because of the actions of a few. Compliance is the same thing. We can no longer control from the top. We must do it through culture and we must do it by building the muscle of trust worthiness. And so we have to practice this at the team level. And so trust to me has two dimensions, easiest to think about in two dimensions. One is openness and psychological safety and the other balances it, which is accountability or performance pressure. Amy Edmondson. Teacher at Stanford has a beautiful matrix of this, where she calls the balance of openness and accountability. The magic zone when you achieve that, you know, some leaders are just too nice. They’re too open with their teams and they let anything go in. Some leaders are too strict and it’s all about the performance pressure. And so everyone clams up. Don’t they, and they don’t share the ideas or the challenges until it’s too late. But the leader’s job is to get good at building a space where people are comfortable being open and people are comfortable counting on each other. I’m going to keep my promises. And those two, those two things produce this really what, what, you know, feels like the best team you’ve ever been on, you know, that football team, that amazing work experience that.
I think that that’s the skill of building trust in those two dimensions. If you do a good job of that, people will be open enough to bring you the risks before they blow up. And then also be open enough to bring you the crazy idea, which is the heart of innovation. The other side of, you know, risk-taking is, is taking risks with your ideas. Anyway, I could go on and on about that, I’ll stop.
[00:08:47] Sue: It’s a, it’s a great model to be thinking about for leaders, the Amy Edmonson. And I’m also wondering in terms of willingness. So we’re talking about leaders becoming gardeners, so nurturing the soil [00:09:00] to enable their team to flourish. There’s going to be a willingness for the team to accept that challenge. And I’m thinking about learning and the plan do review kind of circle of learning and many organizations that I experienced working with as a coach. Do plan, do plan, do plan do, and don’t often do the review part.
[00:09:19] Dan: So true.
[00:09:20] Sue: I’m thinking from your perspective, how does one encourage or enable those team members to actually learn by doing the reflection.
[00:09:30] Dan: Well, you must create the space for it as a leader and by space. I mean time, I mean, we will have a meeting or some portion of our meeting to do the review, or it’s an after action review or simple reflection on the sprint. You know, this is one of the lessons of agile work. By space. I mean, structure I mean the structure of the space and what, one of the things I’ve learned in our work in circles is the power of structure to foster deep reflection quickly. Right? And that you, you, you have to learn to do this. So an example is a structure that I call it, the Kung Fu punch of peer learning. It’s the very basic move. 1, 2, 3, 1, ask a question. Give time, 60 seconds to reflect quietly before that person jumps in and drowns out everyone else’s thought. Right. And then three share an equal turns. So you’re getting a diversity of points of view on the question. 1, 2, 3, this can take equal turns 60 seconds a person, no one who dominates the conversation. This little structure can take 10, 12 minutes and a team of, of, of eight and is magic it open. It opens people up. So leaders need to think about one building a space using that structure and agenda is not a to-do list. It’s a set of structures for how we’re going to talk and then their role isn’t to provide answers it’s to provide questions, right?
So we complete agile has a wonderful way in scrum of doing this structure. Leaders can use it too. After action review is another one that came out of the military. And Peter Senge’s work and let’s use this structure. We just had a client blow up. We just had a tremendous win with the event, came together. The learning and development workshop was phenomenal. Now let’s make this. So use the structure to ask the question, how did it go? What did we learn? So that’s, that’s really how you build reflection. And that last piece,
[00:11:29] Sue: so the structure is a really critical part of that. And I’m imagining also the role modeling of the leader, doing that, to help people in the organization see that it’s important to be doing.
[00:11:39] Dan: Absolutely. I mean, you know, some teams have, have this as a separate role leading is not necessarily facilitating.
[00:11:46] Sue: Okay. So how would you define the difference?
[00:11:48] Dan: Well, leaders define purpose and direction. We’re going over there. Facilitators make it easy to get there. And sometimes they’re the same person and sometimes they’re not as, [00:12:00]you know, if, if you’re having a very high stakes meeting, one where the leader. Essential that she is involved and present, people will invest in a facilitation role. Sometimes this is a leadership opportunity on teams. Actually, someone who is not the boss can play a facilitation role. Think about the meeting structure, you know, observe how we’re doing with the process we agree to, but all you know, all too often, it has to be the same person. But still it’s, it’s two jobs.
[00:12:31] Sue: Yeah, isn’t it. And that’s an important distinction for people to make. We’re now kind of getting into some of the detail about learning and how organizations can structure, how they conduct themselves to maximize learning. I’m wondering how you learned about learning.
[00:12:45] Dan: Oh, I had so much fun learning about learning. I had a great on the job experience in the 13, 14 years of building this company and then selling it and working inside another company. And then as you mentioned in that lovely intro, I had a chance to move my family into a learning space in Spain with a lot of white space for learning. And this is where I concluded. I wanted to build another company. I wanted to work in the learning and development world. I read a lot of books. But then I called the authors and it was just a joy to have the time and space. One of my advisors told me a lesson that when you’re starting something, he asked, what’s the first question. What’s the very first. That you should ask when embarking on something. And his answer was who is the best in the world at this
[00:13:35] Sue: so you set the benchmark high. Right?
[00:13:37] Dan: And so I was able to meet some learning scientists at Harvard business school, MIT media, lab authors, and practitioners like Pat Lencioni. We talked about a number of entrepreneurs that I knew that were. In the thick of this, some neuroscientists and I just had the best time. It was my graduate degree and it was a few years. And then I started setting up some experiments.
[00:14:01] Sue: So you, you really took that time for reflection and use it purposefully.
[00:14:05] Dan: I had the gift of two years with young kids and being in your playground and spending my days learning about learning.
[00:14:13] Sue: I guess I’m going slightly off piste but I’m curious to know why Spain.
[00:14:17] Dan: Well it’s funny, my wife and I will spend more time debating which TV show to watch then where to move on sabbatical. It was such an easy one. We had four and six year olds girls at the time and we were looking for some language components. We like the beach. And when you do the spreadsheet, it’s a very quickly conclude that Barcelona is fantastically, centrally located. There’s also a community of entrepreneurs. There. It’s a popular destination for folks that have built a business and are taking a break. And we literally in this group started experimenting with circles and it’s grown to be a little bit of a community with people that had a chance to think about what they wanted to do if they [00:15:00] grew up. And they were very helpful in starting circles with me. So Barcelona was just a win. We actually still have we built an operations arm of circles, so I can keep my connection to that fantastic city.
[00:15:13] Sue: You can keep practicing your Spanish.
[00:15:16] Dan: Trying
[00:15:17] Sue: so tell us more about circles. And because I know it’s about it’s about learning and peer groups.
[00:15:21] Dan: We’re trying to make an easy button for peer learning. For me our flavor of this is a group of four to 10 in a structured synchronous meeting. And so we’ve built some tools that make it really easy to. Sort and match and bring groups together at scale, and then a video space where the structure is built in. I think of it as training wheels for great facilitation, timers, and music, and a place to record your actions. And. It’s a very deliberate interface to foster this deep peer learning quickly break you out of the usual day to day video meeting and then analytics to measure. And so our clients have been people like salesforce.com, Matt doing manager training, Harvard business school, where you come to their campus for an executive ed program. And there’s no follow up. Creating these teams to help each other continue and follow up and grow has been one of our best applications. But really we’re just trying to make it easy for learning and development professionals to use this structure of circles, this practice in their mix.
[00:16:25] Sue: So it’s really bringing to life those principles that we were talking about a moment ago of good practice, that a leader should be able to demonstrate, and you’re taking it into the virtual space. So it can be for teams, right.
[00:16:37] Dan: Yeah, exactly. We started with virtual for a few reasons. One is it’s easier to control, you know, and do our experiments and see data. Another is that the mix of the diversity that you can bring in when geography is. Constraint is very powerful and that’s proved compelling to large companies who seem to have to work distributed and have this issue of silos, forming where they need collaboration instead. People sometimes underplay the role that coming together for learning has in culture, in breaking silos and having a space where people can learn to appreciate each other and build trust across departments. I’ve been thinking about Jack Welch lately. One of the things I did on this learning journey of my own was visit Crotonville, the campus that he built and his line that I think about a lot was, my job is to figure out how to get people to be as open back at their desks as they are when they come to Crotonville.
[00:17:40] Sue: And do you think he cracked that one then?
[00:17:42] Dan: Well, for awhile,
[00:17:45] Sue: so learning is really at the heart of really your passion by the sounds of it. Our audience is coaches who are really passionate in the main about learning and developing and developing potential in their clients and other leaders within the coaching profession, [00:18:00]coaching community. What would you say to them, you know, are there any sort of insights or top tips that you’ve gleaned over the years that you think are really important for them to be cognizant of as they are both learning themselves and helping their clients to continue to learn?
[00:18:17] Dan: I’ve seen team coaching, team development, be absolute magic. I think it’s under practiced. A coach. It should be on the field with you. And if you have the chance to be in a team meeting with a leader that you’re working with, you will be able to see behavior patterns that can be directly powerfully relevant to that leader’s development. And so I would love to see more of that in the world. I think it can be expensive and hard, which is why a remote and, you know, using video is such a powerful way to do. That would be one. I’d love to see some of the talented coaches that I’ve come across and seen. And I do think the world has learned to appreciate the power of coaching culturally. That’s my number one thing I would love to see more coaches learn to be great at team coaching team development and, and to get their leaders to let them in the room.
[00:19:09] Sue: I think it comes back to this question of trust and risks.
[00:19:12] Dan: Yeah, exactly.
[00:19:14] Sue: I suppose my final observation or thought is about the difference between say active learning and passive learning. And if you could describe what they mean to you and B how do we encourage more active over passive learning?
[00:19:27] Dan: It’s such a funny human flaw that when we listen to something, we think we understand it, which means we think we can do it. You know, it’s just a hard learned lesson again and again and again. And unfortunately, well, fortunately, we’ve spent a lot of energy in the professional development world getting, you know, our classroom trainings, virtual or in person to be great and underestimated the forgetting curve. We must move from these passive learnings, which are inspiring. Sure. Entertaining. Sure. And that’s all good, but so much of that investment evaporates within 30 days of going back to the storm of the office and a very easy thing people can do is create a structure space to practice and actively apply. Those concepts in the field. Again, this is what’s driving our circle’s business.
Let’s create, you know, create six sessions, not one, form teams so that people will show up for those and, and see the role. You know, teams are great at getting engagement and staying engaged in the material for, you know, six months or, or, or longer so that we’re, we’re, we’re applying. And I think the leaders, the CEOs that write checks for learning and development programs, get this, they’ll get, you know, we w we can’t just bring everyone to a great offsite and, and not, not sustain and follow up on it. It’s, it’s relatively easy to do, but it does take some investment [00:21:00] and it does take some intention. That’s one of the move from passive to active. The good thing about active is now you’re solving business problems now you’re, you know, you’re, you’re really amplifying the value of that L and D investment in a very tangible way. You can even report on that.
[00:21:13] Sue: Well, you’re making me think about there done is that if a manager or leader almost gets two or three questions at the end of a training course, that they can ask all of those participants that have been on that training course that immediately engages that learner and thinking and reflecting on what they’ve learned. Perhaps how they might apply it. So it’s as much about the ability to ask great questions as it is to then do the acting and applying the learning.
[00:21:39] Dan: Absolutely questions and invite engagement, especially, you know, adult learners. It’s one of the things that they say you must have relevance. It must be relevant to a problem I’m working on. And so just make a question, makes that easy connection for people and makes them take that step between, and I think we underestimate. Need for connection that need to help people make the connection and give them the space to make the connection themselves. So many brilliant presenters and books filled with fantastic stories. And, and we invest our dollars in, in these learning events that are really wonderful. And it’s that little, that last little piece. Ask a question to that. How do you apply this to your job? Where do you have a challenge with this material? Tell a story of something that you have done with this framework, those types of questions will seal the deal.
[00:22:28] Sue: Well, it’s certainly been a really eye-opening and insightful half an hour to speak to you today. Done. I’ve so enjoyed what you’ve had to tell us. So thank you very much for your time.
[00:22:36] Dan: Thank you. It’s a real pleasure to speak and thanks for the important work you’re doing helping our leaders grow.
[00:22:48] Sue: I hope you enjoy this final episode from our short series and we will be back in January with our new podcast series on the theme of impact. See you then.
Sound Editors: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him) and Rob Lawrence (he/him)
Producers: Sue Stockdale (she/her) and Rob Lawrence (he/him)