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When Leaders are Too Busy: What it Really Means

When Leaders are Too Busy by Steve Paskoff

Imagine this conversation:
Doctor: “We’ve reviewed the tests; our findings are in line with all of the other opinions. You need this operation. Without it, your life is at risk.”
Patient: “This is exactly what I’ve been told; I did my research and know you’re the best. Just one question: How long will it take to perform the surgery?”
Doctor: “The operation will last 3 hours.”
Patient: “Sorry, I’m too busy. I can only give you 2.”

I’ve never heard of a conversation like this. But when it comes to suggesting learning experiences for busy professionals, executives, and other leaders on topics such as building culture, Inclusion, professionalism, and other legal behavior, I hear it all the time. When I do, the standard refrain is: Our top people are extremely busy; they can only spare an hour at most. We’re lucky to get in front of them briefly, if at all.

Short, intense, interactive workshops that cover key points work. However, I’ve often wondered why there’s such an aversion to participating in these sessions in the first place, let alone more extensive experiences focused on topics such as building and sustaining a professional and values-based workplace culture when they are very clearly tied to organizational health.

This is also puzzling because errors at the top, whether violations committed by leaders or a failure to correct those of others, are frequently the most catastrophic to organizational wellbeing.

Training worth their time

Here’s what I’ve learned: Those who avoid learning entirely – or demand shortened experiences – either don’t really see these topics as personally relevant, or they believe there isn’t a messenger who will deliver a presentation worthy of their time.

Some leaders assume that they already know enough, or that what happened to others won’t happen to them. They apparently believe: “Why should I spend more than an hour a year, at most, covering these topics? That’s enough to check a compliance box. I need to spend my time making deals, conducting research, treating patients, or doing something really productive.

However, if something serious happens, these same leaders may wish they hadn’t avoided or cut corners on what they previously considered to be “time-draining” topics.

To combat this lack of engagement and interest in participating in learning programs, senior leaders must communicate to their teams that: “These topics are important to me, to you, and to all of us. I will be attending and participating; I expect you to do the same. We will keep talking about the issues among ourselves, not just in this session. ”

When top leaders send this message, it is as if they are the physician saying to their patient that they must have this procedure.

The messenger matters

No matter how effective the message may be, the facilitator has to be credible and find ways to “Make it Matter” to the participants by personalizing the experience with relevant, memorable examples and stories that directly tie to the audience’s personal and business experiences.

The facilitator must be professional and able to quickly understand and acclimate to the needs of any audience. Most importantly, professionals at all levels don’t want to be lectured; otherwise, they will tune out or walk out. In other words, the learning experience must matter, be engaging, interactive, and offer ample challenges for discussion amongst peers. The facilitator also must “Make it Simple” by offering easy-to-apply “prescriptions” for avoiding risks to the organization. Forcing audiences to listen to information that they can absorb in other ways – podcasts, books, websites, and so on – wastes everyone’s time.

Just as when patients know they will need and benefit from an operation and find the right expert who can make the diagnosis matter to them personally, they will most likely agree to surgery. The same is true for leaders learning about topics such as ethics, professionalism, and legal behavior.

When facilitators can find ways to make the learning experience more directly relatable by tapping into insights that matter to their own and their organization’s wellbeing, they are more likely to engage and walk away with a different perspective about the topic and the learning experience.

“Make it Matter, Make it Simple, Make it Stick” is the mantra ELI follows in the design of all learning solutions and learning experiences.



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