For many years now, organizations in the wildland fire service have worked to improve leader and leadership performance via training. The fundamental purpose of training is to improve individual performance, organizational performance, or both. However, training of any sort proves useful only when participants transfer what they learn in their training into enduring workplace practices. Effective training requires that participants extend learned knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) into the workplace and sustain those KSAs over time. We don’t like to talk about it, but we fail to achieve the fundamental purpose of training unless the people we train transfer their learning into the workplace beyond the training environment.
As it does for all leadership training organizations, training transfer really matters to the wildland fire management community because wildland fire organizations expend substantial resources to train personnel to assume leadership roles and to engage effectively in leadership processes. I estimate that U.S. wildland fire management agencies invest at least one million dollars on leadership development training each year; and effective training transfer achieves the fullest benefit of their training investment. However, we know that training participants, including participants in leadership development training, typically transfer only a small percentage of what they learn in training into actual workplace performance and that organizations commonly experience significant difficulty achieving training transfer.
So I set out to look into what motivated some experienced wildland fire personnel to transfer, to the workplace, the KSAs they had learned in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s L-380 or Fireline Leadership training. When I examined the training transfer experience as it played out for a group of L-380 participants, I found that about half of my study participants found themselves motivated to transfer the KSAs they had learned in their leadership training when they perceived that the training provided them with a framework for self-understanding and self-improvement.
The trainees/leaderrs who found self-understanding and self-improvement motivating were those who sought to better understand their own personality, how they related to others, and how other people perceived them; and then they used the self-discovery they achieved during training to guide self-improvement of their leadership. The training gave them, as a person who wanted to lead, the ability to lead. Improved leadership performance created or improved their sense of confidence in their abilities. Improved confidence enabled additional self-discovery; which makes sense, because we know that introspection, assessment, and self-discovery require courage and confidence. People lacking confidence often resist looking within, because they fear what they may find.
For my study participants who were motivated by self-understanding and self-improvement, I found that a little self-confidence — brought on by leadership performance — enabled additional self-discovery that strengthened the trainee’s framework for self-improvement, motivated additional training transfer, and further improved their leadership performance. In short, the trainee entered a positive, reinforcing cycle that turned their leadership training into a gift that kept on giving.
But not everyone succeeds in their leadership attempts every time. The people that found self-understanding and self-improvement motivating found that when they attempted leadership, but their attempt failed to work out as planned or they got mixed results, they learned from that experience and identified areas for improvement; which contributed to additional self-discovery that strengthened the framework within which they guided their leadership self-development.
One experienced wildland fire management professional illustrated, in practical terms, how they experienced this process when they told me “I think once you kind of let yourself go in this leadership curriculum I think you find out that there’s ‘Yeah, I’m not perfect, I can learn’ – it just seems like as long as a person is willing to learn, from whatever it is that they’re doing, you’re going to be a better person for it.”
We don’t activate all of people’s motivations to transfer their training simply by providing people with a framework for self-understanding and self-improvement; judging from the experiences of my study participants, establishing that framework is just one of several motivations.
However, Wildfire readers who provide leader and leadership development training of any sort would be wise to pay attention to self-understanding and self-improvement as a factor that motivates the training transfer of participants in leadership development training. When people extend learned KSAs into the workplace beyond the training environment and sustain those KSAs over time; they can improve their leadership performance; and improved leadership performance builds a sense of self-confidence that can create more training transfer and even better leadership performance.
From a practical perspective, I offer four recommendations for leadership trainers and leadership training course developers.
- When conducting leadership training, offer opportunities for self-assessment as well as opportunities for participants to receive assessment by others.
- Focus on self-discovery. Provide opportunities for leadership training participants to better understand themselves, understand others, understand how others perceive them, and to identify areas in which they might improve their leadership performance.
- Help your leadership training participants turn their assessment experiences and self-discovery into action by providing them with a guided approach to organizing their ideas for self-improvement into a workable plan before they leave the training session.
- Help your leadership training participants to prepare for both success and set-backs by thinking about and planning what they will do when their attempts to put to use what they have learned succeed, fail, or achieve mixed results.
Mike DeGrosky is Chief Executive Officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.