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Leadership Development

Obama Kicks Off ATD 2018, Foreshadows Session Themes

This year’s ATD International Conference and Exposition started with a bang, featuring a keynote by former President Barack Obama.
ATD International Conference and Exposition
President Barack Obama was the keynote speaker at the 2018 ATD International Conference and Exposition in San Diego. Photo courtesy ATD.

“Worry less about what you want to be and more about what you want to do,” said former President Barack Obama to learning and talent professionals from around the world at this year’s ATD International Conference and Exposition. More than 10,000 people attended the conference, which kicked off May 7, 2018, in San Diego.

A line formed in the early hours Monday morning and wrapped around the conference center to see Obama speak with ATD President and CEO Tony Bingham. When the 44th president took the stage, many cheered and shouted “We miss you!” to which he replied, “I miss you too.”

Obama’s opening general session remarks focused on the importance of values. He said values transcend any issue or situation and become the foundation and baseline of what gets people through both the hard times and the good times.

“When I get worried about our country or the world, it is not about a particular issue … I worry when our values are not being upheld,” he said. “Our democracy doesn’t work if we can’t agree on facts,” he said, alluding to the country’s current polarized political climate.

When presented with a problem, Obama said the best decision can only be reached with an honest, transparent, rigorous process that listens to diverse viewpoints. He shared that during his presidency, the most knowledgeable people in many given situations were those seated along the outskirts of the White House Situation Room, not just those with a seat at the table. He advised leaders to bring to the table the people who have actually done the work and research and know the situation intimately. He said their perspectives are often the most reliable and appropriate in finding the best solution.

“Where I see failure, it is because you didn’t have all the information you needed,” he said. “People, no matter how junior, must feel they can speak up or you risk failure.”

On learning and development, Obama said training is most successful when it’s about getting people to tap into their best selves. Helping people overcome insecurities, being open to new ideas and being respectful of everyone is vital, he added.

Obama said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the future. “The arc, the trajectory, of human history is progress,” he said. “But I’m cautiously optimistic because that progress is not inevitable. It’s the result of each of us trying and committing to do a little bit better.” He ended the general session with advice he said he gives to his daughters: “If you’re kind and you’re useful, you’re probably going to live a pretty good life.”

Many of the former president’s talking points were echoed and expanded upon during the variety of education sessions attendees were able to choose from throughout the rest of the day.

During the keynote, Obama referenced former President John F. Kennedy’s quote, “There is no problem that man cannot solve,” but added, “by listening to women, primarily, or so I’ve observed,” which elicited applause from the audience. The moment was lighthearted, but an education session on gender parity in the workplace, “Amplify: #LeadLikeAGirl and Ignite the Impact of Women Leaders,” led by Development Dimensions International’s Tacy Byham, drew an appreciative crowd.

The session shared some powerful statistics: Women make up 57 percent of college graduates and 53 percent of the workforce but less than 20 percent of C-suite executives and only 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Byham also shared a finding originally reported by The New York Times in 2015, that of the chief executives heading S&P 1500 companies, those named John and David outnumbered the total number of females.

Byham argued that gender parity in the workforce is not just a women’s issue or a social issue, but a business issue, as the top performing companies have substantially more women on their leadership teams than average.

She said the perception of the problem is vital to improving it and pointed to research that found that 50 percent of men and 33 percent of women think one woman on an executive team means the team is “diverse.”

The majority of the session focused on “four power moves to ignite impact,” which included encouraging women to declare themselves (don’t defend, ask for what you want in your career); radiate confidence (do not apologize yourself into a conversation, amplify other women’s voices); fail forward (give yourself permission to fail, act on the learning, take risks); and superpower your networks (find a mentor or sponsor).

Byham said women with formal mentors are more likely to receive stretch assignments, be promoted and encounter fewer barriers to growth, but it’s reported that 56 percent of women have never had a formal mentor.

Workplace biases and diversity and inclusion were also highlighted subjects of the day. Obama spoke on the importance of diversity and inclusion and respecting differences in his morning keynote, stating, “America has a leg up on every other country because we are a nation of immigrants.” The conversation was carried through various morning and afternoon sessions.

Daniel Radecki, co-founder of the Academy of Brain-Based Leadership, dissected the neuroscience behind how biases can be maladaptive in his session, “T.R.I.B.E.: A Model of Managing Biases and Building Psychological Safety.”

Radecki pointed to a Google study that found the No. 1 predictor of high-performing teams to be psychological safety. He cited Harvard Professor of Leadership and Management Amy Edmondson, who defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Radecki outlined the social motivating drivers of behavior: security (consistency, commitment, certainty); autonomy (a need to feel we have control over our environment and have choices); fairness (a need to engage in and experience fairness); esteem (a need to be regarded highly); trust (the brain responds differently to in-group versus out-group and sees strangers as a threat) and you (your personality profile, your biases, how you are influenced).

He proposed the TRIBE model to reflect, reappraise and embed a new mindset to rise above biases:

TRigger: Have self-awareness about what’s driving your behavior.

Interpret: Reappraising emotions versus suppressing emotions.

Build: Take a first-person perspective of others and expose yourself to people who are different than you.

Engage & Embed these principles to manage biases.

The Association for Talent Development conference continues through May 9 and will feature keynote speakers Marcus Buckingham and Connie Podesta.

Ave Rio is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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