Goodbye PowerPoint, Hello Coach

The evolution of corporate training

At the C2 commerce and creativity conference in Montréal last May, I met with Marie-Noëlle Do Thanh, a Learning Strategist at TD Bank, about how she’s aiming to revolutionize corporate training at one of Canada’s largest banks.

Her title grabbed my attention right away, fitting perfectly with many of the ideas that e180 is devoted to, such as the evolution of learning, both on an institutional and individual level. Our conversation ranged from her background in industrial psychology, the challenges faced by financial institutions today, the shift towards a digitized workplace, and the innovative learning programs that she’s putting in place to manage these seismic changes.

Here is an abridged version of our conversation.

Could you describe your role a Learning Strategist within a financial institution?

As a Learning Program Strategist at TD, my role involves developing learning strategies for managers and providing cutting-edge training for future generations. Unfortunately, to this day, the approach that many companies take towards learning is still very traditional, wherein learning is seen as an event, often featuring the dreaded “death by powerpoint” syndrome with hours and hours of training. It’s not very hands on — maybe there’s a bit of discussion at the end, but it’s often not very well structured. Usually, when you leave a conference like this, you forget everything. My approach, on the other hand, involves approaching learning as a real tool to drive behavioural change. As a psychologist, I use a distinct training approach to help companies to articulate what they need from their employees in order to be able to achieve their purpose.

What are some of your programs based on this model?

The model that we’re developing right now involves ongoing programs, as opposed to a training event. We want to create a mindset where learning is seen as ongoing, as is the case in many innovative companies. Leadership should be seen as a journey. Our programs can last anywhere from twelve to eighteen months, with several touch points throughout, either face-to-face or virtual depending on the size of the company. This involves seeing people several times about their leadership progress, as well as the use of social digital platforms, thereby creating an ongoing learning environment.

“We want to create a mindset where learning is seen as ongoing.”

What about peer learning?

Peer learning is a big part of our programs because more traditional approaches aren’t working. There are various popular learning models today, but one that resonates with me is the 70:20:10 rule, which states that 70 percent of knowledge is derived from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal educational. I believe this is even truer with younger generations such as millennials. When they want advice or an opinion, they look to social media and their peers. So the future of learning is clearly social.

I’m in the process of implementing these social learning approaches at TD. In a best case scenario, you want to create a highly experiential program to create a sense of emotion. You want to create some discomfort, but at a safe level where people can learn. Then, as peers, participants discuss the practice, go over what happened in the exercise and see how can they help each other. It’s a cohort approach, where you have a group of colleagues with challenges and constraints learning together, having them engage throughout the journey.

An issue that we often see in larger companies is that people tend to feel lonely. Especially as a manager, it’s rare that you’ll open up and say to a colleague “I feel like I wasn’t performing very well as manager the other day”. But if you’re part of a real community of leaders with other managers that you can talk to, you’ll be more likely to share your experiences, both positive and negative. You’ll feel like you’re part of the big picture, as part of the company’s leadership. It strengthens that sense of belonging, which is so valued by millennials.

What are some of the bigger challenges facing the financial industry in the coming years, and how are your training programs addressing these?

Financial institutions today are trying to address the digital transformation of their services, particularly in an effort to maintain a personalized service for their customers. These digital systems can range from automation programs, software, financial reporting processes, the increased use of smartphones and social media as a means of interacting with customers, as well creating more self-serve transactions. We’re also seeing the insertion AI into financial services, aiming to reduce costs and while increase quality. Generally, financial institutions are looking to see how can they still be innovative and introduce new ways of operating, while still reinforcing customer loyalty.

Are you implementing particular learning programs addressing this digital shift?

We’re trying to be more agile with the customer throughout this digital transition. Our training programs are looking at what it means to adopt a digital-first mindset, not just “do” digital. So we’re looking at ways to adapt our internal processes, which is where my learning programs play a role. We’re not just teaching digital skills, but transforming mindsets and changing behaviour. I believe that you need to walk the talk if you really want to offer a personalized customer service and foster strong client relationships. As a leader, you need to be able to show this to your frontline employees so that they can then replicate this kind of relationship with customers.

“We’re not just teaching digital skills, but transforming mindsets and changing behaviour.”

Many companies are trying to achieve this through the creation of a coaching culture. Instead of just performance management and feedback, coaching provides a different kind of interaction and opportunity where you’re seeking feedback rather than dictating it, thereby empowering employees. By conveying this kind of philosophy, employees are better able to establish a relationship of trust with their supervisor.

Instead of just performance management and feedback, coaching provides a different kind of interaction and opportunity where you’re seeking feedback rather than dictating it.

It’s really a shift from a sales perspective to an advice perspective, allowing customer-facing employees to take on the role of a coach rather than just a sales person. This is still a work in progress at TD, but we’re aiming for every employee to eventually have an internal coach. The programs that we’re creating begin with training executives and C-suites to become coaches and then cascade down the learning to our frontline employees. The goal is to replicate this kind of relationship with the customer where they are giving advice, and asking rather than telling.

In general today, mentorship and coaching are more informal, which is in line with social learning practices, involving more informal relationships than formal ones. You can mix both types of learning, for example, some of my supervisors mentor me, but I also regularly seek out more informal help from my peers.

What are some other types of experiential training programs that you’re working on?

In one case I carried out an exercise to explore a brand’s footprint, i.e., what people remember about a brand. It was an icebreaker where we asked participants who didn’t know each other beforehand to draw each other, with the constraint that they couldn’t look at their paper as they were drawing, so the pictures ended being up quite imperfect. We created a relaxed setting where participants were out of their comfort zone, but it was fun playful.

Participants had the chance to draw three different people, and then give their drawings to each subject. Then the subjects were asked to pick their preferred drawing and explain why they chose it. In explaining their choices, they would often project something about themselves. For example, in my case, I remember choosing a picture that someone had drawn of me quite badly, but she also made me look a bit like a mermaid. I chose it not because of the quality of the execution, but because on some level, I related to the mermaid.

The subjects then chose three adjectives to describe the people who drew them. After this very short exercise, what we noticed is that 80% of the adjectives accurately represented the participants, even though it was the first time they had met each other. The insight was that in less than one minute, participants were able to discover something accurate about someone else, even characteristics that they thought they could hide, that perhaps they’re not proud of. This made people realize that everything they do projects their brand. It was a simple exercise, but because it had a highly emotional impact, the lesson was retained. This is an ideal type of setting for real learning to occur because it’s fun combined with a bit of discomfort. This creates the ideal circumstances for retention — when you’re teaching and you want to drive a real insight.

Could you tell me a bit more about your background and how that’s translated to the work that you’re doing now as a Learning Strategist?

I was born to Vietnamese parents and grew up in France. I’ve always been curious about how differing social and cultural norms — why things are done differently in different countries. When I decided to immigrate to Canada to do a PhD, I chose industrial psychology because it seemed like an important role that would be in demand. I could see that companies would need a consistent coach to help them evolve in an era where everything is changing. So this is where I decided to focus my studies. I fell in love with learning and development because you’re basically empowering people, which is what learning should be. Everybody has a potential talent, they just need the right experience and connections to be aware of their gifts.

One of my first jobs was at a startup where I had a mandate to bring awareness to cultural and diversity issues. In Québec, for example, many large companies have a challenge of servicing customers from many different nationalities. How do you create a meaningful connection? This situation drove me to focus on diversity issues. I realized that training not only empowers the participant but can also cause real behavioural change. My focus became on creating training experience with high emotional impact.

Is there one person in your life that you feel has taught you more than anyone else, whether a teacher, family member or mentor?

I’ve learned a lot from many people in my life, but the ones who have always guided me through are my leaders, generally my bosses, perhaps in part due to my cultural background. There is a saying — that as an employee if you quit a job, you’re usually quitting your leader. Any time I’ve ever been in a position of seeking a job, I’ve always had the mindset that I was choosing my future manager and mentor. I want to be able to trust this person, to be able to seek his or her advice and create a real connection. This is important not only on a professional level but also as a young woman trying to figure out my future path, making decisions about myself as a future leader, what kind of work-life balance will I have, if I want to have kids, all these kinds of concerns. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to create these powerful relationships with my leaders, who often became my friends.

“Every time I’ve ever been in a position of seeking a job, I’ve always had this mindset that I was choosing my future mentor.”

My peers are also a big part of my life in terms of guidance — I believe that you can gain a lot from the strength of a community. It’s really helpful to learn best practices and share your challenges, it makes you feel like you’re not alone. I also really like diversity within my communities — my network is made up of people with extremely different backgrounds because I believe that’s how you innovate. When you have many people thinking differently, you can create something brand new. That’s why I came to C2 — although it’s not directly connected to my field of learning development or industrial psychology, when you see the way different leaders and entrepreneurs deal with their challenges and how they solve problems, it’s very inspiring. I find myself thinking, how can I learn from this story and apply it in my field?

“My peers are also a big part of my life in terms of guidance — I believe that you can gain a lot from the strength of a community.”

Could you tell me about this relationship with different bosses that you’ve had over the years, in terms of seeing your future self in them — how did you reconcile their advice with your generational and cultural differences?

In some cases, you need to nuance advice from your mentor. For example, my first boss was also a visible minority like me. He was African and I’m Asian, but we shared common values about collectivism. Often in these cultures, family will be more important than the workplace. His advice really resonated with me. Even though he was a generation older, he was able to give advice with a “take what resonates for you” attitude. He understood that I wouldn’t be replicating his exact path because we’re from different generations, but he was still happy to share his experience. This positioning really helped me.

Today I’m lucky to have this kind of leader too. In this case, he’s a Baby Boomer, so it’s a bit different. We’ve often had very open conversations about career development opportunities. One day, I was telling him that I was wondering what kind of career path I should take. He told me to keep in mind that his advice is based on his generational experience, where people tended to stay long term at one job, but this may not apply to me. He gave me the freedom to use my judgement and make decisions based on what makes sense with my values.

On the other end of the spectrum, I once had a boss who was less sensitive, and it was more challenging. I didn’t end up staying on her team for very long because I couldn’t sense the fit. It’s not that dissimilar from braindates actually. I really like this concept because you get the chance to meet someone, and within in a short window, there is the potential for it to become a real relationship, depending on your fit and the way you connect. I feel like it’s the same with your leaders, you can usually really sense the fit very quickly. “Wedding” is big word, but in truth, it’s a bit like a marriage. If you succeed in having a very strong relationship with your leader, it will be much easier for you to face challenges at work. That’s why in my training programs, I really want to create this kind of social support. If you happen to be less that lucky and you don’t have a great fit with your boss, which happens, at least through your peer support network, you can find the help you need to cope and thrive. As a millennial, I rely a lot on my peers, but I also like to seek out advice from different generations, to open those lines of communication.

It sounds like you found an optimal environment to apply your psychology background towards driving institutional and behavioural change. You sound very passionate about your work! What are some of the challenges in implementing these types of programs?

I am very passionate about my work — I think the real challenge is with mindset. It’s can still be difficult to convince key decision-makers that learning should be seen as a journey rather than an event. They need to see the value in order to provide the time and resources for managers to engage in these kinds of programs.

In the learning field, it’s hard to show direct immediate results — you often have to wait at least six months to see changes. But when managers can experience the programs directly, then they recognize the value. My work involves a lot of change management — trying to determine how we can best prepare ourselves for the inevitably different future of work.

e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.