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ATD Blog

Time to Take Our Own Advice: Q&A With Elaine Biech

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

As ATD marks its 75th year, we want to take time to talk to industry luminaries about where the field of talent development has been, where it is going, and what professionals need to succeed. There is no better place to start than a conversation with Elaine Biech, whom many consider an industry treasure.

As president of ebb associates inc, a strategic implementation, leadership development, and experiential learning consulting firm, Elaine has helped organizations develop their talent and navigate change. She has presented at dozens of national and international conferences, is the author of more than 80 books, and has been featured in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Management Update, Investors Business Daily, and Fortune. A long-time volunteer for ATD, she has served on its National Board of Directors and been the recipient of numerous awards. More importantly, Elaine has led the charge in the evolution of training and talent development—helping it transform from an order-taking function to a fully realized profession and strategic partner that businesses need to excel.

You’ve been practicing in the field of talent development for 30+ years. How did you land on this career?

Like most in this profession, I came through the back door. I was returning to college as an adult, and I needed a job. I found one working with an internationally renowned group, using its model to teach special needs pre-school children and their parents. I started as an observer in the research department, but rapidly climbed to training leaders and teachers across the United States. We would train a group of people each week, but we were really just giving lectures. I started to interject relay races, crossword puzzles, and games (when my boss was not observing me). Soon I was receiving some of the best evaluations.

However, I still didn’t know there was a profession called “training,” and I’d never heard of Malcolm Knowles, Don Kirkpatrick, or of the other thought leaders in our field. In fact, with all my successful “adjustments” to the lectures, I thought I’d invented adult learning! So like most talent development (TD) professionals, I didn’t set out to be a trainer.

With all your experience, what do you see as the must-have skills for industry professionals today? What skills do you predict will be more important in the future?

The beauty of being in the TD profession is that you need to know a lot about many things and a little about everything else. There is a long list of skills, a large amount of knowledge, and a broad span of traits required to be successful. It’s certainly no cookie-cutter job.

Many of us generally learn our skills by observing others or just diving in. Practitioners who lead formal training sessions know that they’re supposed to present objectives, put participants in small groups, encourage discussion, not just lecture, and so on. Unfortunately, they rarely know the reasons why they do these things; they don’t know the research behind their actions. So, although knowing what to do is important, it’s equally important to know why we do it.

To that end, I encourage everyone in this profession to learn more about the research behind what we do. To start, you could learn about the work of each of these people are and how their work influences our work: Albert Bandura, Benjamin Bloom, Jerome Bruner, John Dewey, Hermann Ebbinghaus, Robert Gagné, Howard Gardner, Robert Glasser, Malcolm Knowles, Christopher Langdell, Kurt Lewin, Rensis Likert, Michael Lombardo, Robert Mager, Abraham Maslow, and M. David Merrill. In addition, professionals must understand cognitive science, which is an interdisciplinary study aimed at better awareness of learning and our brain and its processes. It explores such subjects as artificial intelligence, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, education, and computer modeling, to name a few.

Practitioners also need to understand how to facilitate and guide learning, as well as design, conduct, and debrief experiential learning activities—all with an ability to focus on the learner. They must have excellent verbal and written communication, public speaking skills, and interpersonal skills. They need to understand different instructional design and learning models like ADDIE (assess, design, develop, implement, and evaluate). They should know why feedback is critical, and how to give and receive it. They also need to stay abreast of new learning technologies and be able to use them appropriately. As you can see, there is a vast array of skills required.

Those working at the highest tiers also will need to reskill talent development to include even more capabilities. Consulting skills to diagnose, evaluate, and advise. Skills on communicating with the C-suite, partnering with senior leaders, and networking across the organization. Add to that strategic planning and project management, not mention coaching and change management. The list goes on. If you are looking for more about the skills required for our profession, I suggest that you revisit the ATD Competency Model.

And let us not forget about the knowledge necessary to do a good job for our individual organizations. This includes a deep familiarity with the business and industry, and knowledge about the topics you need to cover via learning solutions. There’s also a need for general business intelligence and analytics, a sense of creativity, a global mindset, and know-how about curation. Then, although these are not skills or knowledge, many attitudes and traits are absolutely critical in our field. Namely, you need a sense of humor, passion and enthusiasm for learning, credibility and trustworthiness, compassion and empathy for others, resilience and optimism, and flexibility.

Finally, if you want to be prepared for a leadership role in your organization, you’ll need another layer of competencies. Organizations want to promote from within, so ensure that you and other talent development employees are prepared for leadership positions. Determine what will set yourself and others apart to be leaders. Ethics is number one, and the aforementioned passion for learning runs a close second. Other factors include vision, critical thinking skills, confidence, emotional intelligence, and the ability to learn from and own your mistakes.

How is the field different than when you started practicing? How is it the same?

These are two intriguing questions because some things are very different and other things are really the same things packaged under a new name. For example, I just finished reading an article that presented the idea that every employee is an entrepreneur. Although the technology is different, the concept of “intrepreneurs” (employees as entrepreneurs) was presented back in 1984 by Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot. In another example, I like to think that the 70-20-10 concept that originated in the 1980s was the first nod to blended learning. And microlearning? Haven’t we been using job aids and task analysis to chunk content into small morsels since World War II?

Unfortunately, much of the change has been in name only. What’s old is new again—but usually under a new name and with a new tech twist. And that can make it confusing for everyone.

When I first started, training departments were almost all within an HR department. Since developing employees was not getting the attention it required, L&D was pulled out to stand on its own with a chief learning officer as its head. Now, with the expanded role that talent management requires, it makes sense that several traditional HR responsibilities such as recruitment, pre-onboarding, engagement, and others are again being combined with talent development under one central umbrella. As we look at the talent continuum from recruiting excellent employees to transitions out of the workforce or company, we can see that talent development should be a part of the entire employee experience.

Here’s what’s really different, though. For decades, many training departments complained that they didn’t “have a seat at the table.” Well, now we do. Our organizations are not just giving us a seat at the table, but they are expecting us to lead the talent development efforts from the table. It’s time we stepped up and took our seat—not to just add our opinion, but to lead. Yes, we must lead the effort to ensure all employees have the skills and knowledge to ensure our organizations achieve their goals.


A book that I am currently working on, ATD’s Guide to Talent Development: How to Launch, Leverage, and Lead your Organization’s Talent Development Effort (to being released later this summer) is entirely based on the concept that talent development professionals need to become trusted advisors to the C-suite. It’s a huge responsibility. And it’s time to do it.

The concept that talent development needs to lead is the first half of an equation that I have been promoting: Trainers must lead and leaders must train. The other half is that we must help our managers, supervisors, and leaders be able to train and develop their people. Many managers cannot make that change themselves; they need talent development to coach them, provide job aids, and demonstrate what techniques will work.

Are you noticing any trends or developments that may shake up our industry now or in the next five years?

The future is here already. Fortunately, the talent development profession has been preparing for a shake up for some time. I think we are heading toward a time when content is personally curated and learning is individually customized and available on-demand to each employee. There are more prevalent discussions about learning ecosystems, and a few organizations are experimenting with holographic rooms, virtual reality, and augmented reality.

With the advent of AI, machine learning, and robotics, every profession is looking at which roles will disappear in the next five years. Insurance underwriters, travel agents, law clerks, and sales clerks are jobs that are being—or have been—eliminated. What about our profession? Which roles will disappear? Will it be facilitators? Instructional designers? LMS administrators? Content creators? Talent development is in a transformational role. It would be wise for us to work closely with the people in our IT and other technology departments.

Positive trends exist, too. The first and most important trend is building stronger partnerships between talent development and the C-suite and leaders. You might be thinking, “It’s about time!” But you also need to be prepared with expertise. You need to understand what your organization needs and lead the way from a talent development perspective. You’ll need solutions that are high quality, flexible, and fast.

Another positive trend is the recognition that as a profession we need to put work where the learning is and learning where the work is. “Put work where the learning is” means to ensure that every learning event is connected to the work, such as solving real work problems or using role plays that simulate real scenarios. “Put learning where the work is” means that learning professionals need skills to coach managers to develop their people and to initiate and implement the social aspects of learning—ensuring that employees are learning while they are working.

Probably one of the scariest trends is the concept of the chipped person. It has started—not for learning, but other things. This past summer employees at Three Square Market, a technology company in my home state of Wisconsin, were offered the opportunity to have a chip the size of a grain of rice injected between their thumb and index finger. Once chipped, any task involving RFID technology—swiping into the office building, paying for food in the cafeteria—can be done with a wave of their hands. The program is not mandatory, but of the 85 employees, 50 decided to have the small chip implanted in their hand. Although this is the first example in the United States, Epicenter, a company in Sweden, has also chipped its employees.

This raises issues for our profession. Can we completely skip the training/coaching/development process and just implant what employees need to learn? What ethical and privacy issues are incurred? Are there any health concerns we need to consider? Even if the chip is encrypted, what are the chances of it being hacked? And what happens to all the data being collected? Who uses it, and for what purpose? Even if the learning chip is far into the future, we can have fun imagining some potential new roles. Can you envision yourself as talent systems optimizer or an experience designer? What about the roles of innovation implementer, AI strategist, automation optimist, or corporate curator? Or how about a MOOC master or a chip changer?

The bottom line is that all of us need to stay on top of the trends so that we can plan for a future role. An article last year by MIT Sloan reported that its research identified three new categories of AI-driven jobs. They label them trainers (no kidding), explainers, and sustainers. Trainers will teach AI systems how to perform everything from speaking correctly to how to sound empathetic. Explainers bridge the gap from technology to business leaders to explain a complex algorithm to nontechnical professionals or the rationale and trustworthiness of a machine prediction. Sustainers ensure that AI systems are operating as they were intended. Sound familiar? Clearly, each of the MIT-identified AI jobs have a strong element of talent development to them. I am sure this will be a part of the shake up for our industry. Is training a robot in your future?

Why do you think the field of talent development is so important to business?

Business is all about people. Businesses hire people because they can't grow without employees. Of course, there are employee-less hotels like Henn-na Hotel in Japan, which is run by 140 robots, or the fast food Shake Shack in New York City, where robots have replaced humans. But that means other creative jobs will open up for humans. A recent report by Gartner contends that more jobs will be created due to AI than lost, citing that 1.8 million jobs will be eliminated by 2020, but 2.3 new jobs will be created. 2020 seems to be a pivotal year in the dynamics of AI employment issues.

So a big part of business will always be about developing people. New employees rarely have the skills and knowledge required for a specific job. Consider a report published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that noted wide disparities in career readiness between students and employers. The survey revealed that 65 percent of students were confident they’d get a job that fit their interests, and three-quarters thought their school was doing a good job providing skills they needed for their first job. However, although six in 10 students thought they were well prepared, only two in 10 employers agreed.

This study focused on college grads, but the same is true for bringing anyone new into an organization. Businesses need to be thoughtful and deliberate about hiring and developing new employees. Even experts in a particular field still need to learn about the strategy, structures, and compliance requirements unique to their new companies. More important, there are the informal elements that might not be found in employee manuals, such as the corporate culture and politics, or perhaps the relationships between departments or the fine nuances of the jargon used.


And the learning process doesn’t quit after new employee orientation. The most successful businesses recognize how the rapidly changing world we live in requires investing in employee development to ensure that they have the knowledge and skills to continue to improve their performance and the organization’s productivity—and ultimately maintain a competitive advantage over competitors. Development—formal or informal—generally leads to higher sales and improved customer retention. For example, a 2016 CSO Sales Enablement Optimization Study found that regular coaching processes improved sales’ achievement by as much as 10 percent.

An organization's success depends on its employees' performance; poor performance is detrimental to an organization’s success. But it’s not just about performance. In my experience, I’ve found that happy and productive employees who feel they fit with the company can save time, energy, and money in the long run. By increasing efficiency, creating new ways of doing business that boost revenue growth, and representing the brand well, productive employees draw in customers--even if they have no direct contact with clients. Employees who contribute to their organization’s success are more engaged and satisfied with their jobs and more likely to stay in the company.

Turnover is costly and developing talent can increase retention. Businesses on the Fortune 100 “Best Companies to Work For” list invest in almost double the number of training hours for full-time employees, compared to companies that aren’t on the list. In fact, most Fortune 100 companies report 65 percent lower staff turnover than other businesses in the same sector.

Clearly, employees have a huge impact on the success of a business. They affect the brand, financial performance, goal attainment, sales, customer satisfaction, innovation, and almost everything else that is important to your business. Most successful organizations develop talent as if their business depends on it—because it does!

What advice do you have to people coming up in the ranks? For practitioners who have been in the field for some time, what is your advice for staying relevant?

I like to think that the talent development profession invented life-long learning. If that’s the case, then we need to take our own advice. For those new to the profession, read my response to the question about skills, knowledge, attitudes, and traits a TD professional requires. Determine your strengths and the areas you need to shore up. Then get to work.

But don’t stop at a self-assessment. Gather data with a 360-degree instrument, work with your supervisor to create a thoughtful development plan, and find yourself a mentor—today. Attend conferences and take a few classes outside your organization. If a leadership role is in your future, arrange to attend one of the classes provided by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)—even if you have to pay for it yourself. The point: start learning and never stop.

If you’ve been in the field for a while, you need to learn too. Of course, there are huge changes happening in the industry, but TD pros who are grounded in research and best practices have an easier time aligning their skills to how the profession is evolving. Boost your confidence and satisfy your career progress with a plan for your future. Ask yourself: What do you need to learn to stay on the cutting edge? Find a place for you.

Here are three examples. Talent development is getting better at leveraging data to make decisions about what employees should be learning and how to improve the work. Could you become the data guru? Perhaps your organization is exploring the use of wearables or artificial intelligence. Can you become the AI expert for your organization? Or maybe there is a need for someone to be a certified coach to guide others in your organization. Could you become the coaching coordinator for your organization?

There are dozens of opportunities that exist in your organization. Explore the prospects available for you to help your organization achieve its vision. Then prepare yourself for a new role. Begin by learning first.

How has ATD supported your work and career?

No matter what you do, there is always more to learn. Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." I echo that. Figuring out my purpose changed everything for me. And having ATD to support me has been critical to my success. The association has opened the door to relevant content and put it at my fingertips in the form of TD articles, books, industry research, conference presentations, webinars, and more. I can tap into any of these treasures whenever I need them.

One of the greatest benefits of ATD, though, has been meeting thousands of people who have thousands of ideas and perspectives. I’ve found that ours is a profession where everyone genuinely wants to help each other. ATD has provided me with many opportunities to talk to like-minded professionals. And if you’re like me, your family doesn’t fully understand what you do, so it feels good to talk to others who understand 70-20-10 and the value of a learning culture!

No doubt, the association is large and some events like the annual International Conference & Expo can be overwhelming. But I’ve found that these events let us seek out and talk to the leaders in our field—people like Ken Blanchard, Bev Kaye, Don Kirkpatrick, Malcolm Knowles, and Jack Zenger. Where else do you really get a chance to meet the giants of the profession? And it’s so unlike other fields, where people seem to move along the same career path and never have a chance to see—much less connect with—the experts in their profession. That’s just not true at ATD. Every time I attend a conference, I get to see the best of the best plying our craft. There’s a double reward because I’ve been able to learn new insights and observe stellar presentation skills. I remember seeing Dianna Booher present at a conference 30 years ago in Dallas and telling myself, “Dianna is my role model for how to present!” Be kind to these presenters. They put a lot of work and time into preparing for us.

What’s more, ATD creates a laboratory to try out new ideas—whether it’s writing a blog, presenting an idea for a book, or submitting a proposal for a conference. Each of these routes has given me a safe place to put my ideas out there, practice my craft, and receive feedback from others. I still remember a bad case of stage fright before my first national conference presentation 32 years ago. I learned a lot from that experience.

Now, I get to share what I know. ATD provides venues not only to write and speak, but also to coach and mentor others. Through ATD I have been able to give back to a profession and community that have given so much to me. I believe that the more you give, the more you live.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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Elaine is an example of the wisdom that comes from years of practice, and years of learning. Thanks for sharing these insights. Look forward to connecting with our community at ATD ICE very soon.
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Your questions allowed us an “upfront” peek into one of the ATD “celebrities.”
I loved her comment: “If you’re like me, no one in your family truly understands what you do.” Great job capturing
Her essence, practical advice and inspiration.
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As someone working to gain new skills and knowledge in this area of TD I appreciate the list of theorists and scientists that help with "Why?" behind the what, and some of the practical advice. Her reference to new roles associated with AI was interesting and challenges us to plan ahead for change, rather than fear becoming obsolete. Overall a great article. And , as Leah De Souza commented I have two or her books on my shelf ! ( One read, one to be read )
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