How to Involve Participants in a Leadership Training Program

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”

— Confucius

Even the most brilliant, credible, and talented instructors with the most dazzling PowerPoint slides won’t guarantee participants in a leadership training program are actually going to learn anything.

In order for all that good content to actually sink in, people need to have a chance to do something with it.

I was recently asked by one of our professors for some ideas on exactly how to involve participants more in one of our leadership training programs. I was happy to oblige. (-:

Telling vs. learning:

Start by cutting your content in half and build in “soak” time. Instead of presenting 10 best practices in 2 hours, present the 5 most relevant to the participants and build in a learning activity that facilitates knowledge transfer to help them build a bridge to on-the-job application.

For example, after each, or after a series of best practices, ask participants to take out a piece of paper and write their answers to the questions: “What’s one idea from this best practice that I could implement at my company?” “What would be the barriers?” “How could I overcome or minimize those barriers?”

Then, have participants pair up or form triads to discuss their answers. Encourage them to mix up their groups throughout the program to encourage networking. Keep the activity brief and fast-paced – about 5 minutes for individual reflection and 10 minutes for group discussion. Monitor the energy level in the room.

Then, debrief the discussion. This allows for everyone to hear each other’s ideas. Ask each group for a brief summary, ask questions, and add your own comments. More importantly, encourage other participants to join the discussion. A skilled facilitative instructor knows how to “fan the flames” of a potentially hot discussion yet keep the pace moving. Again, it’s about monitoring the energy level in the room. For example, people standing and checking their emails are signs of low energy and engagement. When all eyes are focused and multiple hands are in the air, you know you’re in a zone.

Build involvement into the design of a program:

Adult learners, especially senior managers, are ADD when it comes to training. They can only actively listen for a limited period of time before their minds begin to wander. In any program, participants should be spending at least 50% of their time “doing” something (other than listening). High involvement instructional techniques (also known as “experiential”) include case studies, simulations, role plays, pair/small group discussion, learning journeys (field trips), and project work (action learning). Low involvement techniques include lectures, guest speakers, listening to long project presentations, reading, and watching videos.

Note: Even low involvement techniques can be very effective, as long as they are not overdone. For example, for videos, think 2-3 minute “Youtube” clips, vs. those long boring science videos we used to have to watch in high school. Lectures can be very engaging with a healthy dose of Socratic questioning, stories, examples, and group discussion.

The learning effectiveness of any high-involvement learning activity can be amplified with an effective debrief. Participants are not always consciously aware of what they learned, and a good facilitated discussion can help bring these “aha’s” to the surface, and provide potential learnings to other participants.

One more note on experiential learning: unlike a planned, sequential lecture, participant learning is usually random and unpredictable. You could run the same simulation for 10 different groups and get hundreds of different outcomes and learnings. However, the learning is usually more personalized and meaningful to each participant.

Beginnings and endings:

They say in any speech, the audience always remembers the beginning and end. For training programs, a high energy, high involvement beginning and ending helps to create a memorable and positive experience. At the start of a program, get participants involved right away. Introductions can go either way – they can be long, drawn-out, and boring, or highly engaging. The key is to pick provocative questions or activities directly related to the course content, and then engage with each participant. The focus should be on the participant, not the instructor (i.e., “hey, that reminds me of a story….”).

At the end of a program, try having each participant announce what they are committed to implementing back on the job, then “graduate” them with a certificate and a handshake or high five. It should be high energy, fun, even emotional experience.

The impromptu role play technique:

I’ve seen Jim Clawson, one of our instructors, use this technique very effectively in our Change Leadership course. He doesn’t overdo it – maybe 2-3 times per program – and it’s always “in the moment”.

When a participant makes a comment, suggestion or asks a question that he wants to explore, he’s say something like “OK, let’s try that out. I’ll be your manager, and let’s have you pitch that idea to me.” He’ll then divide the class in half, with one half on his side, and the other on the precipitant’s side (like boxing corners). He turns around and gets his side involved in planning the discussion, then turns around and role plays it with the participant. He’ll call time outs, debrief with the entire class, have both sides strategize again, and then continue the dialog. It’s fun, high energy, and most importantly, allows participants to try out concepts by putting their own “skin in the game”.

While a group of students or new managers might find this intimidating, senior managers seem to love the competitive aspect of it.

To learn more about high involvement training techniques, I’d recommend two classics that are chock full of tips and techniques to build more involvement in any corporate training program or MBA class: Telling Ain’t Training, by Harold D. Stolovitch, and Active Training, by Mel Silberman.