In 2015, I attended a panel of remarkable female learning executives who came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities women face in learning leadership. I sat in rapt attention as four women in C-suite level positions talked about what lessons they’d learned along the way, what they would have done differently, and how they coach other women to build careers in learning leadership. What stuck with me and drove me to immediate and sustained action was the discussion that emerged while they related how they handled stress when their careers were really hopping. One executive without 10 pounds to lose lost it, another suffered a heart attack, another’s marriage and home life suffered, almost irrevocably.
As the session went on and these accomplished, self-aware, strong women were asked what they would have done differently, three of the four wished they’d established an exercise and self-care routine earlier in their careers. Feeling rather stuck in my current role, I heeded this advice and went to my first Zumba class one month later. I sought self-care through exercise, and unexpectedly found clarity, confidence, and firm footing in my learning career.
This is what Zumba taught me about my eLearning career.
On focus and balance
? Don't concern yourself with what someone else is doing—you might not know what challenges they're facing or what they're trying to solve.
When I started Zumba I worked in an environment where most of my colleagues had a passion for business leadership, while I have passion for learning technology leadership. While my teammates and managers did exercises to advance their careers towards business management, I found that exercises that strengthened my understanding of xAPI and the learning ecosystem were effective in advancing my career in the direction I wanted to go. Good Zumba instructors will show modifications to tailor your workout, and it’s very tempting to judge what you’re doing against what others are doing… but the right exercise for someone else might not be what gets you what you want.
? It's harder to balance in the dark.
? To maintain balance, focus on yourself.
Our stretching routine at the end of class involves a series of moves done while balancing on one foot, and our instructor sets a calming mood by turning off the lights in half of the room. If I’m on the dark half, I will falter. The same thing happens with your team’s capacity management—if you don’t know what your business has coming up, that is, if you’re operating in the dark, it will be harder to maintain balance while meeting the team's needs. Either your work-life balance or your project work balance will suffer.
Similarly, if I’m paying too much attention to someone next to me who is unsteady, I’m more likely to be unsteady myself. The same thing goes for your career. It’s tempting to look left and right at your peers and be influenced by their experience or their performance. Keeping focused on your performance, and the things that are important to you—not to the person next to you or even the leader in the front of the room—is crucial in achieving the outcomes that you want.
Know the basic moves
? It's easier to do the next move if you know what's coming.
? If you don't know what's coming, it's good to know the kinds of things that regularly come your way. If you know the standard moves very well, you can catch up quickly.
I had the hardest time picking up new Zumba routines for the first six months or so. But after a while, I started to realize that a lot of the routines are the same or similar steps in a different order. Even routines that have a unique move became easier to pick up once I’d mastered the standard cha-cha-cha and grapevine. Even when I didn’t know what the next move would be, I could catch up quickly as I built my repertoire of oft-repeated exercises. When you’re partnered with the business to support their initiatives, it’s always easier to perform if you know what move they’ll need you to do next—but when the unexpected comes up, it’s also easier to perform if you have a well-practiced set of responses you can pull from.
On gear and tech
? You don't need specialty gear to be effective.
? The gear you have can be used in lots of different ways.
? Having gear helps.
The learning technology market is exploding with new tools and services but keep in mind that most of a learning or behavior change program’s success or failure is riding on its design and implementation, not its technology. You can work your triceps using the machine at the gym but absent a machine, you can also use hand weights. In lieu of hand weights, you can use a milk jug, and without any equipment, you can do dips on a park bench. The important part is to do the exercise with the right form.
? Sometimes the most effective exercise only takes one-to-three minutes.
Planking two minutes a day will change your entire core. It’s microlearning for your abs.
On metrics and impact
? Metrics matter, and varied metrics matter a lot.
? Training doesn't act in a vacuum.
Because muscle is more compact than fat, you can drop two or three pant sizes without the scale budging a bit. If you only ever look at the scale, you might miss that you actually shaved off four inches across your body without ever losing a pound. And if you’re not tracking everything that contributes to your progress, you’re likely to misdiagnose the impacts. Maybe the scale hasn’t moved because your medication has changed, you haven’t been drinking water as much as you did previously, or you had high-sodium food twice last week.
Similarly, learning’s traditional metrics focus on consumption but we need to be looking at other metrics to find the real story. That’s true even when it comes to consumption. For example, in one project, we evaluated training attendance by role and found that employee attendance was positively correlated with frontline leadership attendance. If managers attended, their employees were more likely to have attended. In other initiatives, we evaluated different training delivery modes with the performance of a book of business to determine which was more likely to drive faster conversion, and which was more likely to drive higher quality business. If we just looked at completions alone, we’d have missed those key insights.
Exercise doesn’t act in a vacuum, and neither does training. You can’t eat whatever you want and expect exercise to carry the responsibility for lack of weight loss. We can’t expect a training program to carry the weight of behavior change by itself. Culture, change management, and business process effectiveness are all going to dwarf the impact of a learning program. Use your varied metrics to ask richer questions and really find out what’s getting in the way of the change you want to see in your audience.
On imposter syndrome and expectations
? You're able to do more than you think.
There are always moves I’m sure I won’t be able to do—knee lifts that are just too fast or that song with 100 jumping jacks—but quieting that voice in the back of my head is usually all it takes to actually do the move. With enough practice I was able to apply that silencing to my designs and products also—xAPI compliance without an xAPI-enabled LMS? Check! Custom graphics in SnagIt? Check! Convincing the attorney that their compliance training could be condensed into a single-page app? Check!
Too many of us suffer from imposter syndrome —we worry that what we’re about to suggest is crazy or that it won’t be remarkable—all evidence to the contrary. Silence or ignore that part of your brain that says you can’t, because you actively are.
? If you're doing it right, it should feel like a (dance) party.
The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. That’s a third of your life, and if the pandemic has taught us anything it should be that time is precious. Don’t spend time doing things that don’t fulfill you. Many organizations have tuition reimbursement to pursue college or grad school within your current line of work. Burnout prevention programs are developing and rolling out in organizations that recognize the impact of stress and worry on employees’ career progress and satisfaction. There is support to help you follow your path!
Not every day is going to be a dance party but take an assessment of your work: Are you in the right role, in an organization where you feel supported to pursue your career goals? Are you measuring things that can help you understand what’s working and what’s not? And are you giving yourself the best shot at figuring that all out?
Wrapping it up
? You have to take breaks to build new muscle.
It might feel like you’re building new muscles during your workout but you’re actually breaking them—it’s the recovery after the workout that builds muscle mass. The impetus for going to my first Zumba class was a panel at a learning conference.
I listened to four executives who had arguably reached their dream jobs, the pinnacle of their careers, empowered and embracing the opportunity but each wishing they’d taken better care of themselves in the process, specifically wishing they’d built an exercise routine earlier in their careers.
Building that exercise regimen in my mid-career has not only improved my physical and emotional health but it’s also given me the opportunity to develop clarity around my career goals, self-confidence to create opportunities where they didn’t exist previously, and insights that I believe have made me a better learning professional. So if you’re not where you want to be today—or even if you’re on the way to your dream job—maybe an actual dance party could help you get there!