Summer 2022
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CTDO Magazine

A Multitude of Learning Pillows

For training programs, I learned to avoid a blanket approach and instead embrace each participant's uniqueness.

"You think that everyone needs the same training, Fernando. You will waste people's time and the company's financial resources. There is a pillow for each type of leader and team member, and you pretend to conduct this initiative using one type of pillow and blanket for everybody."


That is in part what my colleague, the company's human capital manager, shared with me after I led a leadership skills program. I was even more shocked at this response after I recommended she take a refresher on basic talent management fundamentals: "I already mastered those concepts and competencies, Fernando. I don't need right now to attend that workshop. I have other activities that are more critical at this moment."

She was not arrogant or rude. She was straightforward, candid, and direct. Still, I was upset. I felt she had challenged my authority and questioned my directions.

I was wrong.


Prior to that experience, I had newly arrived in the US as an expatriate executive. I relocated from Belgium, where I lived while working between Venezuela and Malaysia. In the US, I was assigned to serve in a newly acquired oil and gas equipment manufacturing company located near Houston, Texas.

Among my responsibilities were human capital management, L&D, government and strategic relations, and community outreach. Based on my experience and the level of expertise I thought I had, I believed I could determine the right solution to develop leadership skills for emerging managers, new supervisors, and high potentials.

Even though my colleague dared to speak up, challenge my idea, and open my eyes, my ego prevented me from listening and increasing my self-awareness and understanding of the reality that I was not seeing.

I was not humble enough to accept it and do something to improve my ability to see and listen to her and those around me. Instead, I used my administrative power to enforce my decision and conducted the talent development program.

Wrong turns

Here's the truth. I made mistakes. I assumed that my previous experience and expertise enabled me to know the problem or challenge, define and implement solutions, and measure results from my perspective.

I did not listen to my colleague who courageously spoke up to make our work more effective, productive, and profitable. Nor did I empathize with the learners and the learning experience end users.

I did not discover their views, thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires. I assumed I knew.

I did not conduct a pre-experience assessment to understand the learning gaps and individuals' learning and thinking styles and preferences to design a more effective learning experience.

I did not use the inclusive and innovative power of the teams in that manufacturing facility to improve results.


Consider a hotel that offers guests a choice of pillows to rest and restore their energy during their stay. Guests can select pillows made with down feathers, down feather alternative, quilled feathers, or memory foam.

They can choose different sizes: standard, super standard, queen, and king. They can also select based on softness, temperature, allergens, loft, weight, and cover material. While most of the blankets, comforters, and covers at the hotel are the same, guests can choose the pillow they need and want.

Had I approached my training program similarly as the hotel in the above metaphor, I would have done so in a way that met individuals' personal needs. My mistake was wanting all the new leaders and supervisors to use the same "learning pillow" because I was not fully aware that each person has a particular way of thinking and learning.

People process data differently and use it to behave and perform uniquely. Pretending that a single approach or curriculum will serve the needs of all the learners in a particular audience is a sin. I confess it, and I repent.


Repenting is not enough. Servant learning leaders—those dedicated to their team—need to humbly recognize their mistakes and courageously take action to improve their behaviors and outcomes. 


The best way I found to atone for my mistakes as a learning leader has been to write and share the lessons I have learned, no matter how challenging and embarrassing they are.

As talent development leaders, we are committed to serving every learner and respecting and appreciating their cognitive, cultural, gender, and generational diversity. At the same time, we design and deliver learning experiences to help them work and feel better.

That requires leaving our egos at the door, shutting our mouths, listening, and being humble inquirers. Without effective probing and listening, we will never know what type of pillow someone needs or wants.


Being reconciled means coming to terms with a new way of moving forward. How can we start listening better to our customers and colleagues? How can we start asking instead of telling to effectively detect learners' and other stakeholders' needs so we can offer and deliver the learning pillows they require to do their jobs better?

Sometimes it's OK to use the blanket approach for talent development—for example, when deploying culture and strategy messages, aim to have a consistent foundation of tacit knowledge about how to work in a particular organization and where that team is going.

However, using the pillow approach is a wiser choice for most competency and capability development initiatives. Here are some practical ideas that can help you move forward positively:

  • Use the seven Ds of design thinking to discover (empathize), define, diverge (ideate), develop (prototype), do (test), deploy (implement), and determine (measure).
  • Encourage a candid and caring conversation style in your team so people can have the freedom to voice their thoughts and feelings with total emotional safety.
  • Include the end users, learners, and critical stakeholders' voices in finding solutions to their learning gaps. Involve subject matter experts, designers, and learners in design thinking teams.
  • Assess participants' learning preferences and their personalities. Use that information to create your learning strategies, select the technology and media, and design the exercises and activities to meet and exceed your expectations objectives.
  • Consider alternatives to traditional in-person or digital learning experiences to solve behavioral or performance problems. Sometimes changing a role, adjusting the structure, acquiring new software, improving the workspace, or enhancing norms and procedures can correct situations without involving significant L&D efforts.

Final truths

No matter the program's positive effects of increasing leaders' knowledge, attitudes, skills, and abilities, I could have achieved far better had I listened to my colleague's constructive feedback.

More than six years have passed since that moment, and I remain full of gratitude that she spoke up. She gave me a long-lasting lesson.

Now as I see people in L&D and other business functions and situations, I remind myself to ask what their favorite pillow is—the one they need to sleep better. That enables me to sleep well with my learning pillow.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

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