Learning what cannot be taught

In 2012, I’ll be writing a series of articles about “learning what cannot be taught”. Indeed, after some end of year reflections with Philippe, we’ve pinpointed how my portfolio of various activities was connected by this thread : helping people learn these very important and most of the time elusive skills that are crucial to success such as people and professional relationship management, entrepreneurship, leadership, dealing with change and adapting etc. All of these skills that often have been qualified as “soft” because we can’t quite grasp them… These are the skills that cannot be taught in the traditional way: they are closer to art than to science in a way.

So in this series I will explore through my experiences as a coach, trainer and teacher but also through my research, the different ways I have found to help people learn what cannot be taught!

Because these skills are not about knowledge but about understanding, about taking a step back to get insights from an experience. This means that experience is necessary, theory will definitely not be enough to reach understanding and to be able to re-use the knowledge hence created in a different situation or context. This is why you’ll see that in most cases I will write about, the learner is given some tools – being strategic, managerial, or other  – and a situation – being a case study, a role play, a project, a real life business experience etc. – to practice and try out the tools. This is by no means a way to test the learner, but a way for him/her to appropriate the tool, maybe adapt it, maybe reject it, maybe find another one more appropriate. And then to reflect about the experience with the new tools, to gain some extra insights, so that decisions can be made for the way forward. This is why mentoring is such a great way to help with this kind of learning. The mentor will offer a neutral and kind space for the learner/mentee to reflect and share his thinking with an experienced person. This kind of learning needs to go through dialogue most of the time to further personal thoughts through confrontation to another’s.

Now if all this seems a bit abstract here are a few examples:

  •  Try teach Organisational Behaviour (OB) to business school students who have never set foot in an organisation! This course is traditionally full of very well thought through theories… but they do not reach the students, because they cannot apply the knowledge. So here the trick is to create games, projects, exercises that will put them in situations where they’ll be able to test the theories like a game about conflict, creating their own virtual company, making group decisions, choosing a leader etc.
  • Try teach entrepreneurship! Each entrepreneurial decision is conditioned by so many variables, risks, individual preferences, context, market etc. that there is no magical formula, no scientific method that can ensure success. However, there are tools which can be practiced, adapted, combined, and there are people (consultants and mentors) who can help the entrepreneur reflect and make decisions.
  • Try teach managers how to engage teams. As soon as we are talking about people management or relationships, we enter a field whose rules are not clear, nor rational. Here some tools are always useful but far from sufficient. Here personal insights are necessary: you know these “aha” moments when things start to make sense. For managers of EADS, we have designed with Inchigo (a partner company) a training programme which includes games, role plays etc. (with a small number of participants – 12 max) which can trigger these insightful moments about understanding a particular person, or relationship. They can then go back to the office with new knowledge or dare I say wisdom which will allow for a wider range of possible decisions, and behaviours, which in turn will enable better management and engagement.

Basically, it’s like trying to teach a new born to walk… Only through experience and testing, through discovery and understanding of his own body, and its functions, through motivation and drive, through encouragement and support, will a baby learn how to walk.

Author: Stéphanie

Stéphanie has developed an extensive practice of executive coaching in London for more than 10 years. She now coaches CEOs and top executives to help them with team creation and development as well as business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.