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ATD 2016: Are Your Leaders Vulnerable, Concerned About Employees?

ATD 2016: Are Your Leaders Vulnerable, Concerned About Employees?

Simon Sinek is an unshakable optimist. He believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. Described as “a visionary thinker with a rare intellect,” Simon teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people. With a bold goal to help build a world in which the vast majority of people go home everyday feeling fulfilled by their work, Simon is leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. Simon recently appeared at the The Association for Talent Development Conference, and CLO media was there to capture Simon’s message:

During the ATD 2016 International Conference and Exposition, May 22-25 downtown Denver was ground zero for talent professionals from around the world to gather, network and learn and share strategies to advance the impact of learning and development on their organizations.

In his opening remarks to attendees ATD President and CEO Tony Bingham spoke about the influential role the learning function has in transforming organizational culture and driving business results. “Creating a culture of learning is one of the most important things an organization can do to ensure its success,” he said ahead of the conference’s first keynote address from Simon Sinek.

Sinek, whose TED Talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action has received more than 27 million views, highlighted the importance of leaders creating the right conditions for their employees to encourage engagement, innovation and high performance. He said leaders can’t expect too many great things to come out of their company if the culture is off. If, for instance, people feel a need to send CYA emails after every decision they’ve made, a culture of distrust is the culprit, and people are essentially protecting themselves from their own company.

Sinek told attendees they play an important role in creating a circle of safety – where the natural human response is trust and cooperation. Then he explored the neuroscience behind a safe environment. He underscored the importance of promoting serotonin- and oxytocin-producing experiences in the workplace, and said managers shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge even their employees’ smaller achievements in reaching larger team goals. That kind of support doesn’t encourage staff to kick their feet up and coast, it encourages them to power on.

“People should feel inspired to go to work,” Sinek said before acknowledging what some learning professionals may be experiencing an uphill battle advancing learning’s role in their companies, and facilitating cultural changes needed to keep their competitive edge.

The educational sessions – more than 300 across 10 content areas and four industry tracks – addressed trainers, designers and leaders’ current as well as future needs.

In a session on reaching resistant learners, Laura Arellano, organization development and training manager for, created a community for trainers to commiserate around engaging hard-to-reach learners, then dug into the science behind the resistance. As participants worked through scenarios and reflected on practices that had and hadn’t worked, Arellano shared some specific steps they can take to breakdown resistance.

The source of a learner’s resistance is rooted in a subconscious place that’s emotionally-driven, she said. As a result, some strategic messaging is necessary to influence the learner’s conscious mind and create a new story. “You don’t want the elephant in charge, you want the rider in charge,” she explained, referencing a metaphor made famous by Chip and Dan Heath.

In another session – one of many happening concurrently during the four-day conference – Matt Richter, president of The Thiagi Group, helped learning leaders view the costs associated with their projects through the lens of their company’s chief financial officer. The session included, defined and offered opportunities to practice concepts like sunk costs, opportunity costs and irrelevant costs.

Richter said CFOs think long term while the learning function often operates in the here and now. “You have to make the case that you’re contributing to the long term,” he explained.

Leadership was an unofficial theme for ATD 2016, and not just which traits create leading companies in the marketplace, but the so called soft skills that underpin greater managers and leaders in the workplace. For instance, Daring Greatly author Brené Brown discussed the importance of vulnerability in the workplace during her keynote address. While many cultures view vulnerability as weakness, she said, to be vulnerable is to be courageous. She identified areas the learning leaders will need to address if they want to teach courage.

“Leaders only have one real job,” said Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. “Excavate the stuff no one wants to talk about that’s getting in the way of good work.”

Bravetta Hassell/CLO Media/May, 2016