ATD 2018: Barack Obama on Values, Being Inclusive, and the Future

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During his opening keynote, President Obama told conference-goers why he’s cautiously optimistic about the future.

Talent and development professionals from all over the world waited in a line that wound around the entirety of the San Diego Convention Center, many since the wee hours of the morning. And when the doors finally opened on Monday, May 7th, they poured in by the thousands to see President Barack Obama officially open ATD 2018, the Association for Talent Development’s 75thannual international conference and exposition.

The 44th President of the United States was greeted with a standing ovation and a lot of love when he arrived on stage to sit down for a casual Q&A with ATD president and CEO Tony Bingham covering topics including learning, resilience, and trust. And during the conversation, Obama shared some interesting anecdotes about his presidency that illustrated his leadership approach and also revealed some key lessons about what it takes to create a modern workplace learning culture.

Values and the importance of purpose

A modern workplace learning culture is about engaging employees with tech-enabled learning tools and strategies, but it’s also about much more than that. It’s about inspiring, motivating and supporting them in their ongoing development. It’s about investing in them. Learning and development said Obama, is about getting people to tap into their best selves, and that starts with having the right values.

There are a number of key values Obama said he’d inherited from his family that he’s come to appreciate more and more throughout his life: the importance of hard work, being honest, kind, useful, responsible, and carrying your own weight. Good values, he said, give meaning and purpose to what you do and encourage people to go above and beyond.

“Worry less about what you want to be, worry more about what you want to do,” he said.

It’s the basis for the kind of values-anchored, purpose-driven culture that he noted organizations need to build from the top down, something he did when he mobilized young volunteers during his presidential campaign. He doled out a lot of responsibility, held them accountable, and gave them a mission—a sense that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

“People respond when you expect a lot of them.”

Obama also made sure to create an environment where it was ok to fail as long as there were lessons to be learned.

“Most things that are worth doing are hard,” he added.

Feedback and collaboration

Being inclusive was another important point that Obama touched on, particularly the importance of collaboration and feedback, two critical components of a modern learning culture.

Touching on what you can accomplish through teamwork, Obama made sure that people working on his presidential campaign felt free to constructively contribute to a conversation. It was an approach that he said he carried with him into his presidency, pointing out that he would always seek out diverse perspectives, including diverging opinions, in order to help solve complex situations, some requiring in-depth planning and others snap decision-making.

“When we work as teams we can achieve extraordinary things,” he said. “If you set up an honest, rigorous, transparent process where you hear all sides of the debate to make the best decision possible, you can be confident in having all the data and facts.”

A good system for feedback is also critical, he added.

“Allowing people, no matter how junior, to feel free to give feedback can help you achieve that.”

To that end, Obama explained that, during meetings in the White House Situation Room, he would often call on folks from the “outer-circle,” the staff of the high-level leaders that sat with him around the table. Not only did it show them that he valued their thoughts and opinions, but it also sent a message to the other leaders in the room that they should also be asking for feedback. Creating that kind of culture, he said, will put you in the best position to make good decisions.

 

 

CTA: Learn how you can use Social Assessment™, a modern framework for feedback, in the workplace.

Obama on the future

Obama concluded the Q&A by addressing his thoughts on the future, confiding in conference-goers that he’s cautiously optimistic—cautiously, he said, because of some of the major challenges currently facing the world: big trends such as how technologies like artificial intelligence are driving disruptive change at a pace the world has never seen before, on pace to upend entire industries.

“Whatever mission your organization is involved in, it is going to be changing quick,” he said.

Workforce change is indeed the new normal. Today’s school children will graduate into jobs that do not exist yet and 375 million workers will need to switch occupational categories due to automation by 2030. Upskilling and reskilling workers while maintaining performance levels is becoming an increasingly important priority as organizations prepare for the future of work. However, while the trajectory of human history has been progress, progress isn’t inevitable, said Obama. It’s the result of each of us trying and committing to do a little bit better.

“It means that in your organizations, you’re taking responsibility to make sure that the people you work with are treating each other with respect.”

Creating modern workplace learning culture can be a big part of that—promoting progress by considering the expectations, needs, and preferences of modern learners, and leveraging values, purpose, and inclusiveness to encourage greater employee engagement, workplace efficiency, and organizational agility through always-on learning.

Drop by and visit us on the ATD 2018 EXPO floor at booth 1841. We’d love to talk to you about how we can help you create a modern workplace learning culture.

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