Anne Kelly is a certified mentor and coach who specializes in helping federal executives grow in personal awareness and performance. In addition to running a coaching consultancy, she also volunteers in the Metro DC International Coaching Federation chapter. She founded and facilitates a free monthly webinar focused on best practices in accelerating learning through the creation of a safe and affirming learning environment.

Anne Kelly is a federal executive coach and a trainer and mentor to other coaches. A retired federal employee and leadership specialist, Anne finds great joy and fulfillment when the worlds of coaching, facilitation, and training intertwine. As a coach, she seeks to provide a safe environment where federal workers can disconnect from their day-to-day workplace chaos and reconnect to their most authentic selves as they explore their goals.

In your practice, you create for clients what you call "affirming, safe learning environments." Where did you learn this approach, and what does it entail?

I have a startlingly clear memory of the first time I experienced an affirming learning environment. I was 50 years old and attending a weeklong, in-person coach certification training. By then I had been educated through high school and college and completed hundreds (or even thousands) of hours of training as a long-time federal employee.

This was different.

At first I asked, "Can I attribute this feeling to the excellent facilitators? The subject matter? Or maybe the delightful physical environment?" Only later would I realize that it was the learning environment's focus on continued mastery rather than criticism that flabbergasted me.

Who can benefit from learning to create safe and affirming environments?

Anyone. I have created and witnessed this affirming learning environment in classrooms, on teams, with coaching clients, even with my family and community. We are all lifelong learners.

My experience tells me three things about why focusing on continued mastery rather than criticizing works. First, people learn more and learn faster when they are open to learn. Second, for people to be open to learning opportunities, they must feel safe. Third, as a facilitator, coach, or trainer, it is my primary role to model and create an environment that helps them feel that way.

Some of your work entails helping current federal coaches and other federal leaders prepare for retirement. What are some common challenges that they face?

Most of my clients are passionate about their country and their careers. They have sacrificed to serve. They hate to think about leaving. It's scary.

Some of their challenges are financial: Retiring feds must calculate when their retirement income will become sufficient to cover living expenses, and they need a backup plan. Others deal with self-fulfillment: They must relearn how to fill their time in a meaningful way and how to describe themselves to others. Finally, retiring workers need to ask whether they're healthy and what they can do to maintain their health.

How might a focus on mastery in an affirming environment be especially helpful to leaders in the federal government?

In my 27 years as a fed, I experienced lean times as well as (a few) times of plentiful resources. Today, we might be heading toward a lean era, depending on which agency you're in.

This model of learning is great for public managers because it doesn't require a huge investment of time, personnel, or money. And powerful shifts are possible with even the slightest increase in perceived safety among colleagues, or between supervisors and employees. Remember, the goal of an affirming learning environment is to keep your audience open to learning, which leads to benefits such as problem solving, open-minded­ness, innovation, and enhanced morale.

Do you think it's important for learners to know that their environment is safe and affirming?

I do! My experience, and the experience of the hundreds of people I have taught or coached, confirms that learning is accelerated when we know we're in a safe environment. We all learn through risk, after all, and who wants to risk stretching, trying new skills, or voicing a belief when the likely outcome is derision or rebuke?

Flip that coin and experience tells me that in a safe environment, people will take a risk to get to the next level of learning. They will be inspired to test their knowledge and experiment. Let's measure the return on investment of that benefit to our workforce!

What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to create a safe and affirming environment for classroom participants, coaching clients, or direct reports?

I recommend the Inspired Learning Model. It was created by Peter J. Reding, the founder of the nonprofit Foundation for Inspired Learning. There are many free resources available on the foundation's website. In-house and web-based training is also available through the nonprofit's faculty.

Another resource is the free monthly webinar I facilitate on the second Saturday of each month. We attract coaches, trainers, leaders, facilitators, parents, team leaders, and more. Check out the International Coaching Federation Metro DC Chapter's website to learn more.