5 Key Learnings from the ASTD 2014 International Conference & EXPO in Washington DC

Close to 18,000 attendees and vendors from around the world descended on Washington DC from May 4-7, 2014 for ASTD's International Conference & EXPO 2014. Being immersed in learning for 4 days and surrounded by people focused on developing themselves and the talent within their organizations was a heady experience and a huge thrill. Here, in no particular order, are 5 learnings from my time at the conference:

1) Name Change


The big news from the conference is the name change from ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) to ATD (Association for Talent Development). The change reflects not only the international make-up of the group, but also a shift to a broader understanding of the role of our profession in the development of human capital.  Training is not just classroom learning anymore, it's farther reaching in both scope and delivery. People are now learning through a wide range of mediums from face-to-face to virtual classrooms to modules accessed via handheld mobile devices. The content has also shifted from task-based skills and data to a greater emphasis on leveraging that knowledge through more effective leadership and use of existing personnel. David Kelly has written an excellent blog with several interesting insights on the name change. I highly recommend it.

For professionals who facilitate change for others on a daily basis, this change hits close to home and is very personal. Some are truly struggling with it. I had several conversations with other attendees who were concerned about the removal of the word “Training” and a loss of identity as a “trainer”: “I’ve been a trainer my entire career, I don’t want to give that up.” “What separates us from HR then?”

Personally, I think either the change will quickly be deemed a misstep and we'll eventually see the word "Training" somehow re-enter the name (the Association for Training & Development, maybe?) or, and much more likely I believe, in 10 years we'll all look back and be amazed at how prescient and forward-looking the organization was for its time. Regardless, the switch from ASTD to ATD will be the subject of debate for the next couple of years, at minimum.

One possible upside to all this: perhaps this bit of disruption and upheaval will be the trigger our profession needs to deeply re-evaluate what we do and how we do it and move us more pro-actively into the 21st Century.

Learning: In biology, as it is in so many things, there is no static state – we’re either growing or decaying. I’m hopeful this name change is a sign of growth.

2) TV leads the way

Change and growth were two reoccurring themes at the conference. To kick off his session on "Big Learning Directions" and illustrate the change that needs to go on in learning & development, Elliott Masie contrasted how we watched TV in the past vs. today. 

 In the 1950-60's:

  • few choices, only 3 networks/channels
  • had to watch it on the big, bulky TV set
  • had to go to a specific place to watch it, like the living room
  • had to be there at a specific time -  for instance, the Ed Sullivan Show was only on Sunday night at 8PM
  • shows targeted large, mass audience appeal


  • many choices, many channels
  • can watch on many devices (TV – broadcast, cable & satellite; Computer; Tablet; Phone)
  • can watch anywhere (not just at home)
  • can watch anytime (when it airs, recorded on DVR, downloaded from Internet, on disc)
  • shows target smaller, focused audiences

In the past, everyone watched the same shows and there was cultural connection in that. I remember everyone on the school bus talking about what had happened on "Happy Days" or "Welcome Back, Kotter" the night before. Today, there is less of that shared experience which adds to a lack of connection in our society.  However, there are some exceptions to that norm - shows which draw a mass audience to watch as soon as it airs, shows like Mad Men or Game of Thrones.  The reason people tune in and are anxious to watch is that these shows are engaging. This has implications for the design and delivery of training - engage your learners and they'll show up, fail to engage them and they'll desert you.

Training & Development is struggling to move out of the 1960's TV model of one size fits all, with limited choices and channels for delivery. We can't imagine in today's world watching TV the way they did 40 years ago - so why does the delivery of so many of our programs follow that same limited mindset?

Learning: The future of training needs to mimic the transition that TV has already made.

3) It's not about them, but should be

Marcus Buckingham spoke about the need to revamp the traditional performance management system. Citing a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, he showed that the majority of rating scores had more to do with the rater themselves than the person being assessed. For instance, if the rater was better at a skill they tended to score the ratee lower, however, if the rater was not as good at a skill as the ratee they tended to score them higher. So, scores were more a subjective reflection of the differences between rater and ratee than an objective measure of the ratee's actual skill level.  There was also data to suggest that positional differences (whether you were a manager or subordinate to the ratee) also impacted scores. 

Buckingham suggested focusing more on impacting future performance by increasing communication about the work the person was about to do rather than a long look back at what they had done. By using weekly Check-INs (not Check-ONs) and having a FeedForward mindset (to borrow a term from Marshall Goldsmith) the conversation could more easily be tailored to the needs of the individual and their work.

Desired qualities for a new performance management system would be: 1) it's real-time, not delayed by weeks or months, 2) it has a light touch, rather than being a ponderous process, 3) from the performer's perspective it is "for me, and about me", 4) is strengths based, 5) has coaching which is future focused, 6) it uses reliable data.

Learning: To truly accelerate, evaluate and reward performance, we need to change our approach and create a new system that is focused on the performer not the rater.

4)  Bad Bosses

Joe Folkman's session on Bad Bosses shared some interesting research that challenges how we often think of the strengths and weaknesses of good vs. bad leaders. His data showed that most Great Leaders have just a few profound strengths, rather than being universally strong, and that Bad Bosses often have just 1 or 2 Fatal Flaws. 

What was surprising was how devastating those 1 or 2 Fatal Flaws could be. Bad Bosses have staffs with:

  • an average of only 21% employee engagement
  • a 50% turnover/quit rate
  • only 13% highly committed employees

Equally scary is that Bad Bosses often create other Bad Bosses, creating a domino effect throughout an organization and negatively impacting performance on a much larger scale.

That's the bad news, the good news is that with concentrated effort those Bad Bosses could work on those flaws and change, and 74% are able to do just that. While the difference in performance between Great Leaders and Bad Bosses is enormous, the gap between them is not as insurmountable as we might have thought. By eliminating a Fatal Flaw and developing just one or two strengths, a leader could move from the bottom 10% of performance to the top 10% - and their people along with them.

Learning: The difference between a Great Leader and Bad Boss is slimmer than we thought, and the consequences are bigger than we feared. If there was ever any doubt about the positive bottom-line impact of leadership development and why we should do it, Folkman’s data clearly makes the case.

5) Belief drives performance

Susan Goldsworthy's session, Olympic Leadership Lessons, shared a valuable equation:

P=p-i   (or Performance equals potential minus self-interference)

Our brains are primarily wired for a focus on the negative (pain) which makes sense from a survival standpoint. However, we can switch our mental focus to the positive (gain) and this is the key for leadership and success. It's the negative focus that can hamper our performance. Believing a task is impossible tends to make it so. Believing something is achievable by contrast makes it doable. 

She shared the examples of mathematician George Danzig who solved two previously "unsolvable" equations because he mistakenly thought they were simply "homework"; and Roger Bannister, the first person to run a sub 4-minute mile, shattering what was thought to be unbreakable time barrier. Interestingly, shortly after Bannister's record run, several other runners also ran sub 4-minute miles - once it had be accomplished, the others then knew it was possible and did it themselves. 

Learning: You need to believe you can change before you can actually change.



The best thing, and also the worst thing, about ASTD 2014 was the sheer volume of fantastic presentations in each round of concurrent sessions. It made deciding which one to attend very difficult at times. Of course, there were far more than 5 things I learned, but I'll save some of the others for a future blog.

If you attended, what were your favorite moments or key learnings? If you didn't attend, which of these 5 resonates with you?

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