Reinvention in the Year of Living Disruptively

Insights from Training’s Learning Leaders Summit.

Writer Ann Patchett recently described a story in her own life that “started without my realizing it.”

This made me recall our Learning Leaders Summit in February 2020, where we met in person in Orlando, acknowledged that the “far off” 2020 Workplace had arrived, and explored what we thought mattered for the future workplace.

But the story of 2020 also had begun without our realizing it.

“The Pause”—aka COVID-19—forced many changes in the workplace. Some things we thought mattered most were temporarily (we hope) removed from our lives, while we created new ways of how and where we work; how we integrate work, families, and life; and how we keep ourselves healthy, both physically and emotionally.

So it was no surprise this February that the Learning Leaders Summit at the Training 2021 Virtual Conference focused on reinvention in the year of living disruptively.


Irish poet Anne F. O’Reilly noted, “The world slowed down to the pace of the poem.” Poetry, like the COVID-19-imposed pause, “helps us not just slow down, but to become present. Poetry brings us back to the breath. It brings us back to the moment,” O’Reilly explained. This capacity makes poetry a useful creative leadership tool.

Telling his own story as a leader, author Mark Crowley said that leaders need to “appeal to the hearts in people, not just their minds,” and he emphasized how important it is to “love your people.” He recommended focusing on “emotional currency” and not just how much we pay people.

Choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw shared insights from her performance work between horses and humans. “It’s important to lead from a place of groundedness and honesty,” she said, adding that leadership requires engaging listening in dynamic ways, a heightened sense of noticing, expressiveness of your body and your hands when communicating (even online), and learning in an embodied way.

Amy Avalos, global lead for Blue Dot at Google, asked: “How are we creating safe virtual spaces for one another? How are we truly connecting, despite the fact that we have a screen between us?” Her answers included destigmatizing conversations around mental health, being open to the conversation, and making a conscious effort to fully listen rather than simply passively hearing.

The murder of George Floyd last summer, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, gave rise to more open conversations about race and equity.

Verizon is using a learning journey to move beyond identifying unconscious bias. “We knew we had to move from understanding our biases into conscious inclusion, [which] can spearhead how to put that allyship into action,” said Kristy Singletary, Verizon’s Global Diversity and Inclusion manager.

“This approach has been about meeting people where they are,” added Matthew Braden, former associate director at Verizon.

Summit co-moderator Rita Bailey, founder of UpToSomething, acknowledged Verizon’s “courage to call it out and say, ‘We are an anti-racist company,’” while also creating safe environments where people can engage in this difficult topic.


These shared experiences put us in an “in between” space in 2020.

“We are in a threshold space,” O’Reilly said. “These are places of possibility, where we can imagine the new. Leaders are thresholders—people who hold threshold space in organizations.”

Several Summit presenters shared how they reinvented their work in the threshold.

Shradha Prakash, vice president at Prudential Financial, stressed that “work is changing faster than we can comprehend, and COVID-19 sped this up even more…[and] the skills needed to do the work are evolving even faster.” In response, she said Prudential is using an interconnected ecosystem of organizational capability to prioritize learning.

IBM is undertaking transformation through the promise of trusted AI—or augmented intelligence —which means not just seeing human beings in four or Eve dimensions driven by HR categories “Imagine seeing each human being in 100,000 dimensions—looking at predictors of what makes a human being good in theirjob,” said Beth Rudden, principal data scientist at IBM.

Rebecca Bettencourt, senior program manager at E. & J. Gallo Winery, noted that “when the harvest is ready, grapes have to be done.” And like the grapes, training didn’t stop, though it changed dramatically. “We’ve realized that agile approaches and turning on a dime are so important for us. Now we have to…recalibrate going into 2021, 2022, and the future.”

UPS shifted its new driver training to a “trainwhere- you’re-at” local experience that couldn’t take advantage of the company’s usual hands-on, peer-to-peer learning centers around the world, which include real trucks, a built neighborhood, and a “slip-and-fall” station.

Microsoft revamped new hire training for its call centers, requiring a signihcant shift of the trainers’ classroom skills into virtual teaching skills.

J. & J. Taylor looked beyond Zoom and implemented audio-based learning through a new podcast program that delivers fast, informal training.

The Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute codeveloped 10 Principles for Digital Leadership— including setting the intention, creating the container, and tapping into generative listening. “In order to face disruption, what is it that we actually need and how will we hold that in a virtual space?” asked Executive Director Antoinette Klatzky.

2020 put a spotlight on people’s relationships with each other and their organizations, as we reconsidered what kind of work we want to do and where we want to do it.

Trane Technologies was ahead of this curve. With core values tied to innovation and a CEO who is passionate about sustainability, Trane aligns its purpose with culture, talent, and learning to activate business strategy. “Sustainability is at the heart of what we do,” stressed Trane Chief Learning Officer Lisa Gary. Lor example, “we challenged ourselves to reduce our customer carbon footprint by one gigaton of CO2 and we are educating around what this means.”

As part of wider conversations about stakeholder capitalism and the purpose of organizations, Visa CLO Karie Willyerd asked: “What happens when a company’s purpose aligns with an individual’s purpose? When looking at learning programs, how can we tie anything [employees] are learning not only to their own purpose…but how they’re serving a greater purpose?”

Summit co-moderator Chuck Sigmund, Microsoft senior manager of L&D, concluded: “We’ve had much more focus on purpose, connection, and the relationships between us and the people we work with. Make sure to cultivate those connections and reach out to each other.”

That’s a message the continuing story of 2020 has taught us, as well.