As CEO of Vista Cova and a Certified Professional Facilitator, Lowell Aplebaum collaborates with organizations to create transformative dialogue around vision, strategic planning, community, and value. He’s passionate about building a better future and his inclusive, learning mindset carries through in his work helping others recognize their potential for lasting impact.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Celisa talks with Lowell about the components of an effective strategy, how strategy has evolved related to learning and education, and the importance of having an invitation mindset to involve others on the journey set by the strategy. They also discuss inclusion as a silver lining from the coronavirus pandemic, what to consider about hybrid events going forward, and the difference between doing things for those we serve versus doing things with those we serve.
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[00:29] – Introduction of Lowell
We have organizations that feel like they have amazing value to share…but, in this ever-noisy world, the challenge isn’t in having the right value. The challenge is being able to have their members or customers hear that value. It’s definitely the inquiry mindset, the idea of being curious. And not just a little curious, but having an inherent mindset, philosophy, and ethos, being radically curious about the member, the end user, the customer, seems to be, I hope, something that will continue to shift how we approach each other, how we’re able to therefore hear each other in an ever-noisy world.Lowell Aplebaum
[02:30] – Would you define strategy? What are the stumbling blocks that you tend to see when it comes to strategy?
In the context of how leadership functions, being strategic:
- Is having the right balance of relevance in innovation. Strategy balances attention to the past and the present and the things we do that make us relevant to our audiences and attention to innovation, which is the future we see and how we get there.
- Is not an either/or but a flow. Strategy is not calcified. It’s an ever-evolving conversation of direction, with a unification around where you’re going, and you continue to explore a vision of possibility.
- Guides you in decision-making. Strategy helps to make the right resource investment decisions, to create the right cultural elements, to seek places of discovery and knowledge, and to make better informed decisions and have better discussions.
- Isn’t just a piece of paper with a set of metrics on it.
- Is an ever-evolving process of learning. The inherent application of the learning leads to a cause/mission/purpose and future that you want to see accomplished.
Opportunities to Strengthen Strategy
[05:13] – What are some stumbling blocks you tend to see when it comes to strategy and trying to come to this shared vision and balance of relevance and innovation?
There are a few places where there are opportunities for organizations to be more impactful when it comes to strategy.
- An organization’s strategy should be something that can be adopted, adapted, and put into place by each generation of leaders. There’s an inherent assumption that a new leader can live the existing strategy, but that’s not the case. There needs to be a shift in how we create systems of learning, experience, and exposure that help build not just knowledge but skill sets and application in any leadership cycle.
- A strategy is something that helps advance a greater cause, population, or membership. But is the strategy to do something for a group or with a group?
- There needs to be an invitation mindset to build alliance around the vision and journey of the strategy to create a different future. If that vision and journey are not well known or has a single silo view, then the full potential of the journey is never going to be realized. Organizations need to build bonds of input, of invitation, and of alliance so that more people can be on the journey together.
The places that I find that we have the strongest ties to, that we feel the most embedded, that we feel the most loyalty, that we feel the most like we belong, are the places not where things are done to us or for us but the places where things are done with us…. Strategy that works isn’t just something that a central organization does in a bubble…but [instead it] finds methodologies of visioning it, of implementing it, of innovating it, of evaluating it, that includes a more inclusive means to have, hopefully, many voices that find interest in that topic, in that area, to be a part.Lowell Aplebaum
New Professional Development Offerings from Us
[10:13] – We have two offerings that can help get your presenters and your internal team on the journey with you.
To help learning businesses, Leading Learning offers a range of complimentary educational resources, including this podcast. Leading Learning’s parent company, Tagoras, provides in-depth, customized consulting services to help learning businesses assess their markets, formulate strategy, and select appropriate technologies. We’ve provided relatively little between these two options historically. In 2022, we aim to change that with the launch of two new offerings.
- If you’re looking for a practical, concrete way to help your presenters to deliver more effective, impactful learning experiences, we have a course called “Presenting for Impact” that can help you do just that.
- If you’re looking for a structured, intentional way to make your learning businesses perform better, the Maturity Accelerator Program is designed to help organizations effectively leverage the Tagoras Learning Business Maturity Model in a way that aligns with their specific situation and needs.
If you’re interested in either or both of these professional development offerings, you can read more about the “Presenting for Impact” course and the Maturity Accelerator Program. Or you can always drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Strategy and the Evolving Role of Education and Learning
[11:35] – How have you seen the role of education and learning evolve within the broader organizational strategy of the organizations that you’ve worked with?
It has evolved in a few ways:
- There’s been an expansion of opportunities and options in terms of what kind of learning is available.
- Organizations that once had dedicated audiences that came exclusively to them for the learning they offered are facing more and more competition. And many organizations aren’t yet built for this idea that they have to compete in the learning space. (Listen to our related episode “Blue Ocean Strategy for Your Learning Business.”)
- Having the knowledge that you want to transfer is the minimum threshold now. You need instructors that aren’t just wise in the topic but can express it in an engaging way and have some idea of how educate an adult learning population. Note that our “Presenting for Impact” course is designed to help with this.
- Organizations need to have a learning mindset and take people on a learning journey, where learners can see, feel, and taste that they’ve grown and shifted by the end.
As we shift to greater platforms of virtual and to hybrid, how do we really create learning experiences that go beyond just what the subject matter is, that are going to engage the learner, that are going to make the learner want to come back, and hopefully learn more but are also going to hopefully start to shift learning from a place of check the box, I watched that video, to some demarcation of progress, to some demarcation that lets the learner be able to see, to perceive that there has been a shift in their potential.Lowell Aplebaum
The Growth of the Learner
[16:04] – Learning is for growth—thought growth, experience growth, applicability growth. How much is that responsibility of growth on the learner, and how much is that responsibility of growth on the organization providing the learning?
According to Celisa, we need a partnership, and she goes back to Lowell’s point about things being done with us not for or to us. The learning business that’s providing the learning experience has significant work they need to do to hold up their end of the bargain, but the learner also has to engage, participate, and put in the effort.
Lowell concedes that there are times when one-off learning experiences are perhaps good for the bottom line and can be used as a library of plug-and-play resources. For the long haul, however, there are implications related to building a partnership around learning on a journey.
At the beginning of the journey, there are a few agreements that you should have between those offering the learning and the learner—for example, a shared understanding of what you’re hoping to achieve by the end and a commitment to sticking it out together.
What I think people are looking for, if they’re willing to invest in the journey of learning, is what actually are they going to be able to demonstrate as a place of growth and achievement that allows them to tell a narrative of how they’re able to make a greater impact, how they’re able to bring a greater skillset? Part of the learning provider’s offer has to not just be the knowledge transfer; it has to be how do you help the learner be able to demonstrate the knowledge they just gained in applicability? How do you help to make them aware and be able to tell the story of what that growth has been along the journey?… I think the most successful, constructed learning experiences I see are more holistic and care about the whole learner and not just the class they’re taking.Lowell Aplebaum
An Organizational Learning Mindset
[19:29] – There’s organizational application to this as well. If we don’t encourage the boards of our organizations to enter into service with a learning mindset, rather than to simply discuss and decide things, we limit the voices at the table and the perspectives they bring. It limits the robust inquiry and conversation that can lead to better discussions and decisions.
We also need to think about how to access the skill sets or points of view that would build our own learning and allow us to have better discussions. Learning is not perfection. It’s a process of improvement and growth. We need to have a pilot mindset, an experiment mindset, for leadership to try things, learn from them, and then make better decisions because of them.
This kind of iterative process is a different approach than when the judgment of success is by how well you decided things. Instead, it’s about how the leadership of the organization—and therefore the organization itself—is on a continual improvement cycle by adopting a learning mindset, experimenting, learning, and recognizing setbacks. It’s about reinforcing places of strength and passing that on.
Meetings and Events vs. Education in a Post-Covid Era
[22:07] – The COVID era has exposed the shortcomings of the historic bifurcation of meetings/events vs. education that existed in many organizations. What are your thoughts about the ideal approach to meetings/events and education going forward?
The ideal approach for organizations going forward involves a few things:
- Transition from a crisis mindset to a strategic mindset. Even if we’re still in what’s considered to be an ongoing crisis, we have to get beyond the crisis mindset.
- Step back to evaluate our content strategy. Figure out what those we represent need to know. Think from a place of intention, creativity, and experience about how to offer what they need.
- Map out the strategic approach to the content we want to offer and the platforms we’re offering it in. This content should be coordinated, integrated, and make the learning journey easier for the learner.
- Shift our mindset of who the learning audience could be. There’s a greater potential for inclusion than ever in the COVID era.
The integration between meetings and learning is about how to balance this moment of opportunity for market share increase by thinking about the differentiated audiences that our content could impact. Also creating excellent, rather than subpar, experiences as we prioritize those audiences across platforms and integrate hybrid.
If we’re going to have a future-focused mindset, the concept that it’s not just virtual, it’s not just in-person, but that there’s some integration of those two, and that hybrid doesn’t translate to we have to do everything on both, but instead we have some content strategy that allows us to have a purpose for the content we’re offering, a recognition of which populations need that content, and then a decision of what are the right platforms to offer that content in the right way.Lowell Aplebaum
Measuring the Success of the Learner
[28:37] – How do you think organizations need to measure success of the learner today?
Celisa answers by returning to the idea of partnership discussed earlier. There has to be a partnership in figuring out what the right metrics for success are. For a learning business, revenue is important, but that shouldn’t be the only metric. Impact would also be very important. Where are the successes of the learners actually applying what they’ve learned back on the job or at home or in life more broadly?
There also has to be some aspect of working with the learner to understand why they’re engaging in the learning. Hopefully it is beyond checking a box to complete a certain number of hours in a given year, and they’re thinking about something beyond that.
Lowell shares about a massive open online course (MOOC) that both he and Celisa took in the initial part of the pandemic related to equity and inclusion in the workplace. The class had over 100,000 people sign up, and he talks about the many ways you could measure the success and impact of that class. It could be a great case study in how we define success for the learner—from a place of clear initial interest to how far down the line we have definitions of success.
Even though MOOCs have abysmal completion rates, that still might not tell you anything because perhaps someone got what they needed in one small part of the overall offering to make a real impact. This illustrates the importance of agreeing to what success is beforehand because it’s harder to define success afterwards.
See our related episode “Evidence-Based Evaluation with Rob Brinkerhoff and Daniela Schroeter.”
Partnering to Achieve Greater Impact
[34:43] – How do you think different learning organizations can work together in partnership to achieve success and impact?
The mindset of partnership is good in terms of potential, where one plus one can equal three. However, all too often, partnership has become a frame for how something can benefit us rather than a frame of finding right fit partnerships. The point isn’t the magnitude of quantity of potential or actual partnerships. The point is the magnitude of strategic quality.
As we think about planning for partnerships, we need to ask:
- What are the priorities we’re trying to pursue?
- Who are the potential partners that are closest aligned to the future we’re trying to create?
- How do we have meaningful conversations about what we would each get out of a partnership that feeds into what each of us deems as a successful iteration of the future?
This goes back to radical curiosity except, instead of an individual mindset, we have an organizational mindset. The radical curiosity needs to lead to structured and meaningful listening, so that a partnership emerges because two organizations can have a blended narrative of the future, one that they could create together, including what they’re willing to risk to create that future. Partnerships need to be built on shared metrics of success that can align to the resources each organization is willing to contribute.
There’s a difference between an incremental and an exponential mindset. For instance, traditional membership organizations define who belongs to the organization by a single factor: who pays dues. Instead, there could be a greater institutional affiliation mindset that would allow those that are in the pipeline to inherently have a tied relationship to that organization.
Rather than seeking one-off members here or there, they could expand community by hundreds or thousands through places of organizational affiliation with academic institutions. There’s the potential, at this moment, for this kind of exponential mindset to advance us beyond just incremental successes.
Advice for Learning Businesses
[42:03] – What advice do you have for organizations that are in this business of continuing education, professional development, and lifelong learning to help ensure that they’re going to be able to thrive in the coming year and beyond?
Prioritize the experience of learning as highly as you value the quality of content. You may have great content, but consider how much user experience testing is part of the process and how much your investment is in capturing the user experience and journey. Gradation of success shouldn’t only be the number of people that complete the course, but also the qualitative experience of the learning journey and whether it made an impact.
[43:32] – Is there anything that’s come to mind that you haven’t had a chance to say?
If the mindset you see of the people you’re working with and the people you’re serving through crafting meaningful learning experiences is one of fatigue and exhaustion from the overwhelming nature of the world as it exists at this moment, it’s an opportunity for a little grace and space. Give everyone a little bit of care.
I hope that in the great value that we are able to produce as companies, no matter what our mindset or purpose is, that there’s a greater empathy and priority of care that we give to those that work with us as well as those that we’re working for. Because I think a greater empathy of care and a curiosity mindset would help improve our world and culture across the board.Lowell Aplebaum
[44:49] – Wrap-up
As CEO of Vista Cova and a Certified Professional Facilitator, Lowell works with senior leadership to develop the skills of visioning and foresight and to set priorities and goals. You can learn more about him and his work at vistacova.com, and he welcomes connecting with you on LinkedIn.
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