Ask a group of employees what they would like their business to be doing differently or better, and invariably the topic of Personal Development will be raised…Spending more time on it, investing more budget in it, and/or receiving more support around it.

That being the case, why is it then that when time, effort, budget and resource are invested in developing the skills and capability of a sales team, the level of engagement achieved is too often less than ideal? And critically what can we do to maximize participant buy-in throughout the personal development process?

In our last blog we looked at how organizations can increase the buy-in of the sales community when introducing a new sales methodology or approach. In this piece we’ll extend the conversation to consider how we engage individuals around their own personal development.

During our 20+ years in the world of adult learning, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of personal development initiatives! Based on our experience we can share with you 5 key considerations that will maximize your chances of engaging individual members of your team around any personal development initiatives.

So in no particular order…

1. Listen

Too many organizations fall into the trap of thinking that if they simply deliver the ‘right’ content to the right people at the right time, everyone’s worlds will magically change overnight. If only it were that simple!

It sounds obvious, but actively involving the individual in their personal development planning, asking them where they would like to focus is a great starting point in gaining their buy-in.

As is highlighted in LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report, demonstrating that the organization is prepared to put the individual at the center of the personal development process is key to success.  People support what they help to create, so let the individual take the lead in crafting their personal development plan.

The truth though is that whilst consulting with individuals is an integral part of any effective needs analysis, it is just one part of a successful intervention. Personal development demands change – so think about it in the same way you would any change initiative. We know that to successfully secure change we need to prepare people for the change, support them through the change and then continue to reinforce and sustain the change. Adopt a similar approach to personal development and you’ll set your team members up for success. Which means that we need to… 

2. Start with ‘Why’

Traditionally, workplace leaders and managers have done a far better job of telling their people what to do and how to do it than they have in helping those same people understand the rationale behind any change. Experience tells us that withholding the What and the How, and focusing first instead on the Why will drastically increase your chances of successfully securing the buy-in of the individual. So as part of preparing your people for their own personal development help them understand why they’re doing this, why now, and why they should choose to engage. The detail around exactly what they’ll be doing and how they’ll be doing it can come later. Start with why. The beauty of ‘why’ is that it’s often far more compelling than ‘what’. Ask a nurse in a hospital what they do day-to-day and they might reel off a list of activities including; providing medicines, checking vital signs, changing bedsheets etc. Ask them WHY they do those things and they may say ‘To preserve and prolong the lives of my patients’ – a far more compelling message. In the same way, telling a sales team that they’re going to attend a two-day negotiation skills program may spark some interest, but sharing why that’s important e.g. because it aligns with their personal objectives, because it will develop their skillset, because it will improve the quality of their customer relationships, because it will drive better results and commission payments…becomes a far more compelling message.

All the better if that ‘Why?’ is focused not simply on how the company or business will benefit , but on ‘what’s in it‘ for them personally.

3. Line Leader Support

In that previous blog we highlighted the importance of community in driving successful sales development programs. A common theme among the most successful learning and development initiatives we’ve been part of is sponsorship and engagement from the leaders of those participating in the program. This could include appropriate messaging from senior leaders as part of the program launch. Also, acknowledgment from those same senior leaders during and post-program of how new skills are being put into practice and the impact this is having. So senior leaders have an important role to play in driving engagement.

We’d probably go so far as to say though that the number one predictor of a program’s success in driving lasting behavioral change is the extent to which it’s supported by the line leaders of those participating. That support can come in a variety of forms. In our increasingly busy worlds, simply protecting the time and space for team members to focus on and apply their learning is a fundamental that’s all too often compromised. Checking in with the team member in advance of a program to discuss and agree personal objectives and focus areas. Meeting during the program so the team member can share their key learnings and how they intend to apply these. Regularly coaching and providing feedback as the team member puts their learning into action are all ways in which new skills can be reinforced and sustained over the long term.

The best line leaders strike the right balance between providing appropriate support and also ensuring the team member is held accountable for applying their learning. The good news is that the same ‘Start with Why’ can equally be applied through a different lens to help line leaders recognise the benefits of supporting their people.

According to LinkedIn’s Skills Advantage Report, 91% of employees say it’s important for managers to inspire learning and experimentation. Without line leader support the chances of the participant’s full engagement in, and accountability for their development, are drastically reduced.

4. Experiential Learning

Do you drive a car? Can you ride a bike? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, consider how you learned that skill. I’d hazard a guess that it wasn’t simply by being told what to do and how to do it. The vast majority of any new skill development comes from practice, from having the opportunity to apply the skill. In the case of driving a car it’s the shift from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat. When riding a bike it’s about balancing on the saddle whilst pedalling and activating the handlebar.

Sales skills are no different – to develop them so they become habit they need to be practiced regularly. Part of that journey can be supported by the line leader in how they encourage the team member to apply their learning, but practice should begin during the program itself – in a safe environment for participants to learn through experience. What we call experiential learning.

Explaining to a salesperson what best practice looks like in building rapport during a customer meeting is one thing. Giving them the opportunity to practice doing it is something quite different.

Research suggests that around three quarters of new skill development comes from having the opportunity to put things into practice. That’s an easy thing to say, but to ensure we’re doing it in a way that truly engages our participants there are a series of factors we need to consider. These include making sure those participants feel they’re operating in a truly safe environment, that it’s OK to make mistakes and to not be judged for doing so. Think back to learning to drive that car. How many of us stalled the car, or forgot to check our mirrors or messed up a parking technique at some point during our learning journey? Making mistakes is a big part of learning through experience, so if we’re going to engage our participants we need to make sure the objective of any application activity is to ‘have a go’ rather than to ‘be perfect’.

Similarly if we’re going to set people up for success in their experiential learning, don’t overwhelm  them – don’t ask them to do too much. Don’t ask them to practice opening the meeting, asking great questions, demonstrating their listening skills and signposting next steps all in the same conversation – at least not as a first practice. Take things step-by-step. Give them one thing at a time to focus on. In the world of experiential learning less is definitely more.

5. Easily Actionable

To maximise their buy-in, participants need to recognise that they can apply what they learn within their day-to-day roles. Sounds obvious right? Too often we see tools, techniques and approaches that have worked well with one client group, go down like a lead balloon with a different set of participants – because that group don’t see their relevance or feel that they can’t use them in role. I once observed a painful half-day interaction between a trainer and a group of  participants where the trainer introduced a series of ‘best practice’ negotiation tools and techniques only for the group to share that their internal processes meant they had neither the authority nor the mandate to be able to use those tools. What could have been a very practical toolkit for a different group, was anything but for this set of participants.

Whilst there can never be a cast iron guarantee that a participant will regularly apply their learning post-program, ensuring that any content covered is, in their eyes, both relevant and straightforward to apply, will increase the likelihood of their engagement around it.

The easily actionable piece also relates to the number of action items a participant takes from the program. Don’t get me wrong, putting learning into action should be a big part of any effective sales enablement initiative. However, I always worry when I see action planning templates at the end of a program with half a dozen or more rows for participants to complete. If participants believe they’re being asked to do too much in transferring their learning into action, one of two things will happen. Either they’ll disengage from the learning transfer process, or they’ll play along and identify their six action items – but when it comes to the crunch it will be too overwhelming and they’ll end up taking no action at all. Just as with the Experiential Learning, when it comes to action planning, less is more. Far better that the participant should have just one or two action items that they truly engage in and apply, as opposed to half-a-dozen – none of which are acted on.   

So there we go, 5 key considerations when looking to engage your participants around their own personal development. Whilst this is by no means an exhaustive list, increased attention to these five items should set you on the right track to securing and maintaining individual buy-in.

If you’d like to find out more about any of the topics mentioned here, or discuss anything else sales enablement related please reach out.