This is part of our ongoing series, Interviews with Learning Leaders.
Patti Guenther is the learning and development leader at MaxYield Cooperative, a farmers’ cooperative grain elevator in north-central Iowa. She works with fellow leaders and team members to assess and identify training needs and develop learning strategies and solutions. She is passionate about helping people improve and innovate with an eye focused on creating relevant solutions and effective results. Patti has a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University in business and marketing, and a master’s degree specializing in pastoral care counseling from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. She is an active member of ATD–Central Iowa.
Are there specific challenges to training in your industry?
Agriculture is a seasonal business, and many of our team members work long hours during the spring and fall months. What that means for learning and development is that we must time our training initiatives and major software changes to coincide with workflow around crop planting and harvest, as well as the main variable of agriculture—the weather.
Staying current with advances in technology is important in agriculture. Most positions at MaxYield come in direct contact with technology, such as application machines, fertilizer and chemical recommendations, seed treatment machines, accounting software, and fuel distribution management. Supporting team member learning around technology is important to our success.
You do not work with other learning and development professionals where you work. Does that pose challenges? How do you learn and grow in the field?
MaxYield senior leadership and HR team are very supportive of my role, so I feel integrated into the mission and leadership decisions. In fact, because of this level of support I have been able to develop my personal style of L&D leadership, and bring team member learning to the forefront of MaxYield’s culture. The only isolating factor for me is that I don’t know of any other learning and development professionals at the neighboring Iowa farmers grain elevators who focus on L&D 100%. Because of this, I truly value my professional peers at ATD of Central Iowa and the training and networking events the association offers.
There is a definite upside to being a one-person department. Namely, I get to experience it all. Throughout my 10 years in learning and development, I have become proficient at needs assessment, curriculum design and development, training presentation, and post-training evaluation. To grow professionally, this past year I learned how to produce training videos and began to integrate this technology into our training. I love bringing together business learning needs and creativity, so stretching myself to learn and grow in this way has been really fun.
As learning and development is increasingly seen as an essential part of MaxYield’s culture, pulling in fellow SME team members is vital. My role is to facilitate the learning/training process and provide a stage for their expertise to shine.
It’s magical when team members actively learn from one another and SMEs are vital to this process. To encourage knowledge transfer, I started “Learning Exchanges.” Last summer MaxYield acquired seven locations, and new leaders needed to come up to speed quickly on MaxYield procedures and expectations. In one instance, a leader at one of the new locations went on a site visit to an established location whose leader runs a well-managed warehouse. The next week they reciprocated the site visit experience. This is an example of a Learning Exchange. My role was to provide guidance by setting clear expectations about preparing questions ahead of time, what to look for during the tour, and how to follow up. The initial feedback I received was that it went great, and these leaders continue to build upon the connection they made during the site visits. When word of this experience spreads to other team members I always hear, “Can I do that, too?” I take training envy as a sign that a training initiative is effective, and, of course, the answer is yes!
Any favorite books, resources?
The Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace by Cy Wakeman
Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko
Can you share a successful initiative?
This summer MaxYield’s CEO, Keith Heim, and I co-facilitated a Leader Development Series for our mid-level leaders, focusing on the fundamentals of leadership. The underlying theme running throughout this series was challenging our leaders to think bigger, becoming more creative and agile in their approach to leadership.
The group met weekly for three months. The individual sessions developed organically, growing out of the experience of the previous session. One key element of the design was built-in accountability during the sessions and their individual work in post-session assignments. The assignments supported the face-to-face training and challenged our leaders to dive deeper into the subject. We provided feedback on their work. Early on in the process, we received feedback that a portion of the leader group wanted additional challenge beyond the group sessions so we created Next-Level Achievement. The need for this tells us that we have leaders who are hungry to learn and willing to push themselves to the next level. We plan to continue the Leader Development Series this coming winter.
I cannot say enough how Keith’s commitment to this training series is instrumental to its success. From my perspective, it’s unusual for a CEO to take such an active role in facilitating learning, and I believe his actions speak volumes about his dedication to MaxYield’s future success.
What trends do you see in learning and development that you love?
Something I really enjoy about my job is being in a front-line position with change, and being able to influence the process. Of course, my background in business has always been relevant to my current work. An added bonus is that my background in chaplaincy work taught me how to listen to others and ask open-ended questions in a way that helps team members listen to their inner voice in order to capitalize on their strengths, and that training is directly transferable to the L&D profession.
A special area of interest to me is one-on-one leadership development coaching. Working with leaders in a way that helps them become better at how they relate to their team in order to improve results gives me a lot of satisfaction. Listening and asking questions for the purpose of guiding is a natural out-growth of my professional training in chaplaincy and pastoral care counseling.
The neuroscience of creativity is a new interest of mine. I am especially intrigued with combining tools for creative thinking and strategic planning to help bring about innovation in the workplace. MaxYield is a solutions-oriented company, and I believe this falls in line with who we are as a company.
Does your organization use eLearning? How? Have you had struggles with it you can share? Successes?
Purchasing an LMS is beyond my current L&D budget, so I get creative with the technology we currently have. To me, the important factors with eLearning are to have training available when the learner needs it, to assess the results of learning, and to provide meaningful feedback to both the learner and the supervisor.
To make training readily available, we first needed an internal webpage, which our IT Leader created. The first posts were the many written handouts I’d created over 10 years of training. We then moved on to training videos. One of our IT team members and I have become self-taught, in-house, training video production gurus. We utilize Camtasia to create the videos, which can be on anything from computer usage tips and tricks, to software procedures, to business processes, to interviews with SMEs. Learning assessment is through observable skill usage. With only 210 full-time team members, open communication between leaders, and a common goal of learning, it’s possible to know everyone and to observe who knows what and to what skill level.
When it comes to training support materials, videos are more popular than written handouts. If you’ve ever surfed YouYube for help on a DIY project, you know this is a no-brainer statement. Roughly speaking, MaxYield team members click on training videos 10 times as often as written handouts; so we create training videos that support learning and deliver it in a way that they can access it when they need it. It’s a “learning win” when I hear team members say, “Whatever you do, Patti, don’t take that video down.”
When it comes to classroom learning, I developed a post-training questionnaire administered via email to monitor learning and provide meaningful feedback. After a training event, I send an email to the team member and cc their direct supervisor. The team member is responsible to “reply all” to the email within a week after the training event; that way the supervisor also gets the opportunity to read the team member’s responses. The survey questions focus on what the team member learned and how they plan to implement that to better themselves and their team. In my individual response back to the team member, I always say something specific to him/her about the answers. I can’t lie, this process takes T-I-M-E. But, it serves a three-fold purpose: 1) they know they are held accountable for their learning; 2) it gives me a chance to have an on-going, individual dialogue about the subject, and, if needed, redirect their thinking about a concept; and 3) I have a front-row seat to assess learning.
Total cost? Most of the production, creation, and follow-up costs are in personnel time. The hardware and software costs for everything we need came in at under $1,000. MaxYield’s commitment to having a mindset of continuous learning? Priceless.
Most importantly, nothing can replace human connection. MaxYield is a company made up of people, and tech is a partner that supports our people and our progress. We want to encourage a mindset based in learning and developing and tech helps us achieve that.
What is MaxYield doing right?
MaxYield does a lot right. When it comes to our human resources, the thing that stands out is that our senior leadership and Board of Directors believe in the value of our people, which is evident through the support of job skills development and professional growth.