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NEO in Milan: When training goes beyond transaction

May 10, 2022

The training session begins. Pens rest at an angle on a sheet of paper, ripped hastily from the notebook of a better prepared colleague. The Wi-Fi is playing up again. The PowerPoint appears, aims, objectives, logos and content. We listen, interact, take notes, and maybe laugh a little. There's usually water, and a croissant if you're lucky. Triangular sandwiches are always provided.

It's all so familiar, whether you are in Education Marketing and Recruitment, Admissions, teaching, administration or pretty much anything else to be honest, we know the drill. But how much of that training is actually about you? Sure, it's usually about learning or improving a skill, deepening knowledge or soliciting input, but that can all be held at arm's length. It doesn't touch the core. They're here, you're here, but the training is essentially transactional between two distinct groups.

A performance or knowledge gap has been identified, and all the effort and resources in the training are poured into that gap. Fill it up, and cross on over. But zoom out a little. Who is in the room, and how do they feel? What is the reality they are dealing with each and every day? How do they feel in their roles, with each other, as part of the organisational culture, and quite simply, as themselves? 

NEO in Milan

In April 2022, we headed to Milan, and experienced training on both ends of delivery. When you talk so often about values, this has to be consistent through everything you do, and the training we offer and request is no exception. When you support progressive institutions who put learners at the centre, you cannot be the trainer that centres the session around themselves. That is not to say any of this is easy or convenient, because it is neither.

We first dived in on the delivery end with a Higher Education client who has engaged us for marketing and recruitment consultancy. The people in that room are not just managers and coordinators, but people first and foremost. This is where we chose to begin.

NEO's Alejandra Otero led the session and started off by talking about culture, communication and values. Who are we, and why do we work the way we do? How do we interact with each other, and what do we value in ourselves and in our colleagues? What does it feel like to be another team member and what makes them feel empowered and engaged?

This was a workshop on sales, recruitment and admissions. Surprised?

We did get to that, of course, but to start there is to completely ignore any sense of a shared journey, any opportunity to hold a mirror up and learn through reflection. This is so often overlooked in training, but yet yields such positive results. We work better the more we know and trust each other, understand and value each other, and know ourselves as individuals and as parts of a whole.

The content bit

We know education, and we know marketing and recruitment. Inside out. The fun part is that as much as we think we know, there are always surprises, and we all learn together in each and every session.

Our colleagues in Milan role-played interactions, and independently produced their visualisation of a student journey through their processes and procedures. When we unpacked the comparisons, there were so many valuable insights in the gaps and overlaps. That can't and does not happen when we do not work together as people, instead of as roles and titles. Roles and titles are fiefdoms, conscious of their job descriptions and the limits of their responsibilities. People, however, want the best for each other.

To see this amazing team work together with such empathy, commitment and compassion was yet another reminder that education is an emotional business, and the people who work in it are the best of the best. They drive and inspire everything we do.

We left the session with clear ideas on what was feasible to change and improve, which conversations were worth having, and which requests could be run up the flagpole. When you understand a culture, you understand the ground on which they stand. Who wants to leave a session like this with a to-do list that is totally impractical and inaccessible? Goals and strategies are bespoke, relative, and essentially human.

If you know something inside out, try looking outside in.

Our turn comes

Can I talk in the first person for a second? Breaking narrative structure is a great way to get your attention, but that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because this bit is personal.

Vulnerability, empathy, trust, empowerment, support. These are all words I have used as the voice of the NEO blog over the last couple of years. There comes a time, however, when you realise that you haven't fully lived them. You can't truly love while holding a part of yourself back. You can't be brave without being terrified. You can't trust someone when you don't trust yourself. You cannot talk of vulnerability when part of you will always remain hidden.

The first two sentences of this story? That was us, the NEO Team, totally prepared for a training session in Milan on something related to team building. Pens ready, and the person who didn't bring their own paper was me.

Our trainer, Daniela, flipped it all on its head. We began with mindfulness practice; breath work, noticing, being present. Grounding. We were still in our shells, happy to close our eyes and meet the requests to move, breathe and feel.

And then we began to talk about fear.

Not phobias, but fears, as Daniela emphasised. This was not the fear of the dark, but the fear of the unknown. Not the fear of the snake, but of the wild. We reflected and then were asked to draw a representation of our fears.

Feeling more exposed now. In a team like ours, we already had trust and the sense that we were all in this together, but this was a new frontier. This went beyond the role and the water-cooler chat, and into our core. It was a sign of the trainer's skill that we kept our guard low, and continued. We cut eyeholes in our drawings, went down to the courtyard, donned the masks and walked with our fears.

It sounds surreal, and it was. We walked, stopped, reflected, and walked some more. Having had the space to internalize, and see what surfaced, we returned to the room, and were invited to share.

This is the moment when you really walk the talk. I was already ordering my contribution in my head, controlling the raw reflection with syntax and structure. Alejandra went first and dug deep. It set the tone, and we all realised, I think, that this was a space we could be vulnerable and open. That, to me, is leadership. So I discarded the structure and talked from the heart, as did, my team; my friends.

I will not say much more here, except that I have never experienced "training" like this, and never did a word fall shorter to describe what took place. As a team, we could not now be closer than we are. As people, we are changed for the better.

Back to the third person

We want to be visible to you. To our colleagues and partners, each other and to ourselves. We are telling you all of this because it is important to us that when we connect, work together or just cross paths, that you know who we are and what we stand for. There's not enough of that in this world.

We tell you this because when we talk about authenticity and vulnerability, empowerment and support, we want you to know we mean it. If you come to us for training, we want to understand you, because we are not interested in transactions that essentially help neither of us.

Organisations are people, and roles are just frames of reference. We are most interested in you being the best version of yourself, to best serve the colleagues and students around you, and to feel empowered and motivated by what you do. We can help with the processes, the automations, the structures and the results, but you come first.

That's it. This is us. This is who we are.

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