In Conversation With…
Sandy is a Consulting Director with NKD. She has over 25 years’ experience working with organisations across the globe and across business sectors, including hospitality, logistics, airlines, banking and IT, helping them realise their vision through their people.
‘Coaching is about unlocking someone’s potential. I think that’s what we do as facilitators – we unlock the potential, and facilitate the learning’
NKD: You’ve had years of experience in facilitating learning. What’s the role of the facilitator?
Sandy Willoughby: I think, as the word suggests, it is making things ‘easy’. It’s making things easy for your participants to engage, understand and connect. It can be done through a variety of mediums, using a variety of styles. Sometimes it’s as simple as making the messages easy to understand – like breaking down a strategy. How can I make something that is decided at a board level meaningful to someone in their role?
As a facilitator, I see it as our role to strectch and challenge participants – whether it’s a new skill, or a shift in mindset. I think to facilitate learning experiences, we need to be challenging. We need to push boundaries, stretch their thinking, and give people a safe environment to test things out. I think that’s the big difference – we’re not instructional, we don’t say if you have two plus two you get four. We ask, how are we going to get there? How would you make four? It’s okay if you make four through one and three, it’s still four and that’s where we’re going. It’s also okay if the person next to you gets there differently.
It’s really about coaching in the full sense, because coaching is about unlocking someone’s potential. I think that’s what we do as facilitators – we unlock the potential, and facilitate the learning.
NKD: You mentioned providing a safe space to allow people to discuss and debate. In a field that’s becoming increasingly digitised, is that the benefit of the face-to-face experience?
SW: Totally. I think digitised learning has a place; it’s time-efficient, it’s a great way of imparting information. But, it’s really hard to use e-learning when you’re trying to hone a skill. I can watch a golfing video and think I know how to hit a ball, but it’s quite a different thing to be standing there and doing it – and actually, sometimes you need someone alongside you, to guide you in the right direction. So, of course all of those things have a place, but they will seldom yield the same results without some human intervention there.
NKD: It seems like the subject matter is really key – it might work for something like compliance, but not for something like influencing skills.
SW: Exactly, it would be really, really difficult to get someone to hone their influencing skills through an app. The thing that you can never create with any kind of digitised learning is trust. As I said, our role is to expand potential and push the boundaries so people can grow. And you can never really do that through digitised learning. When you have a human being there, they feel they’re in safe hands – that you have their back for them. They’re willing to take that step and try.
NKD: And keep on trying
SW: And keep on trying! I love that quote by Thomas Edison “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” To me that says that you can fail a thousand times but each one helps you on your path to success. What I think is really great about facilitated experiences is that people take a risk that they wouldn’t do in the workplace, or that they would never achieve only through self-guided learning. That’s the real advantage, that’s what’s worth the investment.
NKD: And in a sense, engagement starts right from the beginning. From the first moment, you need to start engaging people.
SW: Absolutely. If we’re thinking about employee engagement in terms of people delivering in their role, it starts with that human element. In the same way, if you’re just learning through an e-learning platform or something like that, you’re connecting the intellectual side of someone, but you’re not necessarily pulling on the emotions – you’re not connecting with the person. That’s what the facilitated learning can do for them. It engages people in their development.
NKD: A lot of the design that NKD does focuses on experiential learning and immersive kinds of experiences and activities. How do those contribute to a more effective learning experience?
SW: It’s been proven that, when we physically, emotionally and mentally experience something we create new neuro pathways. The emotional pathways are the strongest and often the residual feeling of something remains far longer than the memory. The most powerful learning is when you discover in your own way. Through immersive, experiential learning, people come to conclusions by themselves. It’s far more powerful to do an activity like an escape room, or one where you build something together, and then through the debrief they realise ‘you know what, if we’d planned more effectively, if we’d communicated, if only we hadn’t been so focused on doing the task and saw the bigger picture’. That’s so much more powerful that someone saying, ‘the key steps to success is keeping an eye on the bigger picture, plan more effectively’. It doesn’t have the emotional connection, they haven’t experienced it. So, in terms of the routeways of recollection, we’re not just doing it at an intellectual level, its again connecting with that emotion. It’s so powerful to connect something with emotion, because then the recall is going to be so much easier when they go back to work and apply it. It’s so much more effective.
NKD: And that’s probably because real life human experiences are so much more than just words, and phrases and information in that sense. An experience is a full thing, it’s multidimensional.
SW: Yes, I’ve met people from workshops we did 10 or 15 years ago, and they still remember the activities we did because of the emotional impact. They won’t remember details of what they did but they’ll say, ‘do you remember that activity we did with the blindfolds? That was so powerful!’ But, if I asked them to run the activity, they wouldn’t be able to do it, but they would remember the learning from it – the key take-aways from the activity.
NKD: What is, for you, the most rewarding thing about facilitation? Is it those lightbulb moments?
SW: Early on in my facilitation, during a leadership programme, I had a participant there from the Ukraine. His English was pretty stilted and he was really struggling, but as that week progressed, he just came into his own and I remember saying to him ‘you have just blossomed this week, you have been like a flower literally unfolding in front of my eyes, and its beautiful.’ He was so proud of that analogy, that was his biggest take-away. And I think, for me, the biggest joy is just seeing people grow. So, yes sometimes it’s in that lightbulb moment – that eureka moment – sometimes it’s in the slow build-up of their confidence. But, it’s also how, from the moment they come in to the moment they go, they’re changed. I’m always heartened by their desire to go back and do things better. I love that.
NKD: I suppose there is always that potential to be engaged. Human beings want to be happy, they want to be enjoying what they’re doing, and as a facilitator, you give them the option to do that.
SW: Yes. That’s something people always say – that it’s been liberating. They’ve wanted to develop, but didn’t know if they should or could, or how. Now, suddenly it’s like you’ve got permission to be this wonderful human being that you are. I just love seeing people grow, and hearing how they’ve got on after the workshop – that’s the real reward, that’s really fulfilling.