January 2013
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TD Magazine

A Champion of Change

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Pat McLagan is an advocate for organic and systemic organizational change.

Pat McLagan

Founder, McLagan International

Pat McLagan is founder of McLagan International, an advisory firm specializing in organization performance, development, and change; and GoalStreams, a company devoted to strategy implementation and management process transformation. She has had extensive experience implementing large-scale change projects within major corporations such as General Electric and AT&T, as well as large government and international organizations, including NASA, SABMiller, and the State of Georgia. She is the second woman to be inducted into the Human Resource Development Hall of Fame and recently received the 2012 Thought Leader Award by the Instructional Systems Association.

Q: Did you begin your career in the workplace learning profession? If not, how did you break into the field?

During my college years I worked as a utility infielder for Economics Laboratories where I was exposed to every business function. Simultaneously I was an English major teaching writing and reading at the University of Minnesota. In the latter capacity I realized that many smart students coming into the university lacked confidence and learning skills. I became interested in helping them to develop the capacity to learn and succeed in a challenging intellectual environment.

In the early 1970s, when the learning and development field was starting to really flex its muscle, I developed a program for businesses focused on self-managed learning and brought it into some big corporations like 3M, GE, Honeywell, and General Mills.

I joined ASTD locally, eventually was elected to the ASTD National Board of Directors, and took on several competency studies (in 1983 and 1989) on behalf of ASTD. It was an evolutionary process.

Q: What skills have you needed to advance your career, and how did you gain those skills?

I have taken every opportunity to learn about a range of industries because I believe it is vital to understand the worlds in which my clients live. Beyond that, I continually work to develop critical process skills: thinking systemically and finding patterns in the complex social-organization world; bringing people together around a vision; and having patience (spiced with a dollop of idealism and optimism) with the complexity and chaos of change.

Q: How have you seen the profession evolve?

I have seen the human development side of business change from a primary emphasis on teaching-focused training and education to learner-centered and more systemic approaches. Today we are more likely to see performance as a multifaceted issue for which individual learning and development are only part of a web of factors that lead to personal, organizational, and societal success.

Also, with the proliferation of information, search, social, and learning services, individuals are managing their own learning and performance without needing teachers, facilitators, or lots of management oversight.

Q: From your consulting experiences and ongoing research, how do organizations achieve sustainable change?


Transformational leaders at the helm are still incredibly important for accelerated change: They can sanction big initiatives and changes in direction. Having products and services that meet real needs and solve real problems also is critical. No change will happen if there is not a need for it and a pretty good store of energy that wants to go in the direction of the change.

I think that the best change leaders draw on a variety of mental models and theories as guides for action. When we have a deeper awareness of how social systems operate and how people make decisions and interact, we can advise more effectively.

I am not a big supporter of cookie-cutter, step-by-step methods for change management unless the changes are quite straightforward and clear—and there are obvious success precedents to follow. Even then, because organizations and people are organic systems, there are no absolute formulas for guiding change.

Q: What advice would you give to those wanting to advance their careers in the learning field?

Prepare yourself to simultaneously be a great supporter of self-managed learning and to be an advisor on larger organization dynamics. Help people develop learning skills. Design learning support systems that engage rather than teach.

Study and understand organizations as systems and know that, if you want to make a difference, you have to facilitate change at a variety of levels: in individuals, team interactions, and the organization itself. Develop yourself as an emotionally intelligent person who continually learns about how people and organizations succeed and change.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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