August 2009
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TD Magazine

Ed Betof

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ed Betof has held many roles: leader, teacher, coach, mentor, and author. He is currently an academic director for the doctoral program designed for the preparation of chief learning officers, sponsored at the University of Pennsylvania. Betof retired at the end of 2007 as vice president of talent management and chief learning officer at Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), a global medical technology company. He is the author of Leaders as Teachers, available from ASTD Press.

Q| What was your first job, and what lesson did you take away from it?


My first job was actually as a teacher and also as a coach. I coached a varsity basketball team and a varsity baseball team in addition to my teaching.

There were a number of lessons I learned right away as I launched my career in the late 1960s. First, I learned how important it is to nurture the learning process. Once you're able to really get to know your students and learners as much as possible on an individual basis, you're able to much more skillfully and attentively nurture their learning.

Second, it is so important when you are in teaching and coaching roles to help learners and students to explore their capabilities and potential. Because, many times, somebody can see things in a student or a learner that they do not yet see in themselves. It occurred that way with me as a result of a great professor that I had in undergraduate school who saw things in me that I had not yet seen in myself.

Third, it's very important that as you nurture learning, you also set limits and boundaries about what's okay, whether it's in the classroom, in an ongoing helping relationship, or in a work setting. Limits and boundaries are not restrictive. They actually tend to be much more helpful than not.

That lesson is one that I have carried throughout my career. It has served me well as I worked in leading many change efforts in corporate settings. People respond to structure as long as they have an opportunity to help create that structure and have input on how to make things better.

The fourth and final lesson is that I discovered very early on that I really do love teaching, coaching, and mentoring.

Q| Do you have any memorable anecdotes from your experiences working as the CLO for BD?

I have many, but two immediately come to mind.

One is carefully building the "leaders as teachers" process step by step - working with dozens, and then later, hundreds of BD leaders who became leader-teachers.

The second is the sheer joy and sense of fulfillment that comes from working with a wide variety of leaders and executives to co-teach programs around the globe that they would have never taught had we not created the leaders as teachers process at BD. The most interesting factor for me is that even when you take individual and cultural differences into account, the key motivating factors of why people choose to become leader-teachers and coaches are much more similar than different.

Q| Can you explain what the term learning agility means?

Learning agility is a term that came out of very important and seminal research at the Center for Creative Leadership. It means the ability to learn from experiences and apply what you have learned to new, different, and often, unmapped situations.

That's what leaders do. They take organizations, individuals, and teams to different places, heights, and levels of achievement. And learning-agile leaders do it in a way that helps their people to trust them based on what they've learned in the past, their instincts, and their process. There's a growing body of evidence that learning agility is one of the top predictors of leadership potential.

Q| How did the Wharton CLO program, the first of its kind, come into fruition?

Doug Lynch, who you have previously profiled in T+D, is the vice dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. The program was Doug's idea. Close to five years ago, Doug came up with the idea of creating a formal, first-of-its-kind program for the education and preparation of chief learning executives. He approached Jon Spector, who, at the time, was the vice dean of Wharton Executive Education, and the two of them quickly linked arms on this concept and were able to have the program approved at both the master's and the doctoral level at the university in almost record time.

The power of having a world-class graduate school of education and a world-class business school working together was very consistent with and very supportive of the leadership platform of the president of the university, and with good, hard work, it gained support from the Graduate School of Education, the Wharton Business School, and the university as a whole.

The credit really lies with Doug Lynch and Jon Spector. My role was to serve on the initial advisory board for this program, and I did that while I was still at BD. One thing led to another, and in late 2007, I joined the university as a senior fellow and as one of the academic directors of the program. That coincided with my planned retirement from BD.

Q| What are your thoughts on informal learning?

There are many different types of learning. Traditionally, we think of classroom learning. During the last decade in particular, technology has added a lot to the learning process. Now you see approaches such as learning communities and Web 2.0, which we could only dream about decades ago. All these methods and platforms are important. They help enable self-initiated or informal learning.

For centuries, people have learned in both formal and informal ways through reading. People also learned in many other ways such as through observing role models. These, and many other methods, are still very common.

Enabled by technology, information and knowledge sharing today takes place at unprecedented rates. One of my personal favorite forms of informal learning is listening to books and podcasts on my MP3 player. This happens to be a form of informal learning that fits my learning style. I go through several books a month in this fashion after downloading them.

I think it's important that people never stop learning, including learning through people, through reading, by listening, and by comparing many different points of view.

Q| Do you think anyone can be a coach or a leader? Do you think the two roles are mutually exclusive?

I do not think everyone can be a coach or a leader. Let me take leader first. People who become effective leaders have to be inclined to take on management and leadership-type roles and responsibilities. There has to be a certain vocational inclination toward leadership as a prerequisite. Secondly, they must have solid intellectual or cognitive horsepower. They also must have a pretty solid level of emotional intelligence. If those three basic requirements are there, then both management and leadership skills can be learned. They are learned best through experiences, especially challenging ones. They're also learned through other people, support, feedback, and coaching.

Coaching also requires a vocational inclination to want to help others. It requires certain levels of intellectual and emotional intelligence. I also believe that the most effective leaders I've seen are leaders who teach and coach. I do think one could be an effective coach, but not necessarily be a leader of others.

Q| Do you think enough companies today are aligning learning with business strategy?

The simple answer would be that I don't think enough companies do. But the most effective learning executives and learning leaders are finding ways to ensure that the functions and the processes that they lead in their organizations are aligned with business strategy and objectives. In today's world, you cannot be a highly effective learning executive or learning leader unless you're aligning just about everything you're doing with your company's primary strategies, goals, and values.


Q| Do you think there are any aspects of learning and teaching that, despite any advances in technology, will never become obsolete?

Yes, I think that there are elements that will never become obsolete. Technology is not a panacea.

It is hard to replace the learning power of leaders, executives, and role models within organizations who teach, coach, and mentor in live, face-to-face environments with learners. For example, I'm reminded of so many occasions where the chairman and CEO at BD, Ed Ludwig, had such a significant impact by physically being with and working with our leaders in many program locations around the world. I could say that about dozens and dozens of other executives as well.

I think it's very important not to think about technology and face-to-face interaction that leads to learning as "either/or." Rather, they are "and/also," and complementary. I think I will always feel that way. That personal touch in different kinds of programs is very important.

Q| Are you currently working on any new books or projects?

Now that the Leaders as Teachers book is published, I'm going to work on expanding the learning communities of those interested in leaders serving as teachers. I plan to involve others in doing research on the best case examples of leaders serving as teachers, coaches, and mentors in organizations. I can see a book coming out of that, which will be a case book on "leaders as teachers."

The other project I'm excited about is very different. It is a book that my wife Nila and I are going to work on. Nila is a very accomplished executive and a phenomenal wife, mother, and, more recently, grandmother. Both of our careers and lives have been dramatically affected by the role modeling and impact of our deceased mothers. We're going to work on a book that is tentatively going to be called "Moms on Management: Life and Leadership Lessons We Learned From Our Mothers."

We're going to reach out to hundreds of people to write short vignettes about experiences they've had involving their mothers that ended up teaching them vital life and leadership lessons.

The idea of the book came from participants' reactions to many of the stories that I have told in classes over the years about my mother. She was one of the most emotionally intelligent people that I've ever met, despite being just a high school graduate. I am one of four brothers. We always viewed my mother as a phenomenal role model. I also know that Nila feels just as positively about her mother.

In the last five-and-a-half years of my mother's life, during which she courageously battled lung cancer, she taught some of her most powerful lessons. My family had learned lessons from my mother for decades, but during her final years, she was just not willing to give up. We're going to start the work on this book a little later in the year. It will be written primarily from our hearts.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

I've been a lifelong athlete. Now, I am a 62-year-old athlete, and have made some adjustments from my past years. I am an avid tennis player, I cycle, I love to walk and hike with my wife, and she and I are also learning to play golf together. This follows an earlier athletic career of much more rigorous sports and activities, and I have the MRIs and x-rays to prove it.

I also love being a grandfather, and the name Pop Pop feels just right to me.

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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