Uncertainty of Pandemic World Forces Adjustments in Training Concepts

Therese Smith

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the training and peer group leadership sessions offered by the National Association for Business Resources consisted of pretty standard stuff — self-awareness, awareness of others, conflict resolution, etc.

But, like so many other businesses, NABR had to pivot to programs that took the pandemic into account. In a world of uncertainty, NABR programs took a step back and assessed what clients wanted. So, they asked, by surveying peer group members to find out what was important

“Prior to the pandemic, it was your standard leadership development,” said Therese Smith, NABR’s director of education and programs operations. “When the pandemic hit, we surveyed our peer group members and asked, “If you could put your people through leadership training right now, what are the most important things you’d want covered?’”

The result? Companies still wanted to hear about all the usual topics, just in an all-new context, one of uncertainty, that took into account changes brought about by the shift to virtual work.

“The topics changed slightly, but it was really the context,” Smith said. “We had to train people on those topics, but in the context of the ‘new world.’”
Smith oversees NABR’s peer group and leadership development programs. The peer groups are small groups of either like-functioned individuals (HR, accounting, sales and marketing, etc.) or people who come from similar organizations (family businesses, next-generation in the family business, etc.).

NABR’s leadership development programs consist of two groups, one of which — Leadership Development Jumpstart — focuses on people who are new leaders, or leaders who have no formal leadership training, and the other — Practical Leadership Advancement — which focuses on people who’ve had a little formal training or have more experience, and maybe are at a more sophisticated level of developing themselves as leaders.

Smith, who owns a bachelor’s degree in personnel management and industrial relations from Wayne State University, offered her views on a variety of training issues:

Corp! Magazine: Is the training you provide something participants can take back to their companies and implement?
Therese Smith: Yes. In both tracks you’ll hear the word “applied learning” or “practical application.” These are not academic programs, they’re programs where leadership principles are introduced, but the bulk of the focus is placed on ‘How do I apply this back at my (business)?’

Corp!: How did the pandemic change things? Obviously it changed how you deliver this training?
Smith: We were ready with some in-person offerings and we had to pivot to virtual. We had to take our content that was meant to be delivered in two half-day sessions and deliver it virtually. We had to consider a person’s likelihood of paying attention while seated at a computer. We had to break it up into pieces so we could keep people engaged, and we also had to keep people engaged virtually. People learn visually, auditorially, kinesthetically, too. When they’re not in one place, there’s no touch, they can’t turn to the next person. We had to put people into “breakout rooms.” so you can go talk to people. We had to navigate all those things.

Corp!: Did that pivot change the effectiveness of the programs?
Smith: The positive way it changed it is it strung out the learning, and learning is better when it’s strung out over time. The natural positive was … we had touch points every other week for 12 weeks. So the learning stuck, because every week would build on the next one, and there was accountability to what you learned the week prior. It had a real positive effect.

For some organizations, it was an awkward transition. For the organizations whose students were working in–person and weren’t used to remote, it took some getting used to. But, it was up to the trainers to be mindful of that, to help people work through that awkwardness.

Corp!: How did you keep people engaged?
Smith: By talking about how to be engaged remotely, by naming the elephant in the room. We all want to be in the same room together, that would be our preference, but we can’t be, so how are we going to make the best of the situation? What are some of the things we can do to make sure we’re engaged and talking about how to keep interruptions away, to make sure you’re in a safe, confidential space, how to use the chat function (chuckles) … some of the basics the people didn’t know at the beginning.”

Corp!: How important were these kinds of programs pre-pandemic and has their importance increased since the pandemic?
Smith: There are always going to be organizations who place an importance on the development of their leaders and looking to the future. But I think companies now who weren’t of that mindset have to get with that mindset, because they don’t have a deep bench to go to. They have to train the people they have there.
I also think there’s an expectation among good, solid talent that an organization is going to offer them opportunities to become better leaders. Organizations see that if they want good people, they better be developing them.

Corp!: Are potential employees looking for organizations that have that mindset?
Smith: Absolutely. The good ones are. That’s a core value … continuous improvement, professional development. Put yourself in the place of a business owner. Don’t you want people in leadership positions who want continuous improvement for themselves that will translate into continuous improvement for the organization?

Corp!: Did interest or participation in these programs wane early on (in the pandemic) and has it come back?
Smith: It has ebbed and flowed during the pandemic. It’s natural for training to be the first thing out. When things start going crazy, the thought of taking people away from their day job and getting them trained and spending money when you’re uncertain about what’s going to happen next month … that happens.

Corp!: Are the peer groups more effective in person?
Smith: In general, no, but for some groups they are. Two of our metro Detroit area family business groups really love being in-person. If you polled them they’d say they’re more effective in person. But for the people who came in during the pandemic, all they know is virtual, so they’ve got a strong sense of comfort with it. And there are some people who just naturally are OK with building relationships on-screen or on a phone. And there are others who don’t feel comfortable with it.

Corp!: Why should companies invest in their leaders?
Smith: It’s about attraction and retention and engagement. It’s about tying your leaders in with your company’s core values, to make sure you’ve got people on board who are resonating with your company’s values.

Corp!: Is it possible companies will find a “diamond in the rough” leader out of this kind of training?
Smith: If (the potential leader) is willing to learn and then apply the learning. If he’s willing to learn and apply, and he’s going back to an organization that would nurture that and support that, absolutely.