Intuitive and entrepreneurial... an eternal learner

 

It’s hard to believe that a decade and a half has passed since I met Deborah Watring-Ellis. In all that time, I’ve never stopped being inspired by what Deb has achieved, but more importantly, by how she achieves what she does. In a word…

But how to pick just one word for Deb? Confident? Driven? Sure, but there’s also just as much groundedness and humility.

Determination? I’m inspired by her ability to shrug off perceived barriers in pursuit of ambitious goals. I mean, this is someone who not only dared to start a virtual business in pre-internet 1986. She made it a North American success story. And did it all from a lakeside mobile office in the middle of nowhere Alabama! That takes something more than vision. It also requires a do-whatever-it-takes pragmatism.

Actually, that’s probably the thing about Deb that I’ve been most grateful to have seen and integrated into my own work over the years. Not pragmatism itself, but witnessing how her sense of “what-it-takes” revolves closely and sensitively around clients’ needs and challenges. She builds excellent relationships by tuning in to what she herself would need and want if she were in the other person’s shoes – and then she always delivers on that. What Deb practices is a special blend of care, intuition, and commitment.

Maybe the word that sums it up best is integrity. That’s what has shone through from the beginning of our relationship. Warm, welcoming, and generous integrity.

Way back in 2004, I was working as a contract facilitator with a company called Learn2. An unusual assignment came my way. Deb and her business partners were the client. They wanted a team-building session. Right up my alley. The twist was that the executives were meeting two hours north of Toronto at a lakeside cabin.

Deb met me in the driveway as I arrived. She then led me through the building, and when we arrived at the back deck, she said, “This is where we want to do it.” I had a blast working with Deb and the team that summer afternoon, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Afterwards, I gladly accepted Deb’s invitation to collaborate on a series of client projects for her company, Trajectory Business Performance. With her team, we delivered cutting-edge sales training programs at Rogers and designed a complete overhaul of the customer service modules for Aviva Insurance.

Since those early days, we’ve stayed in touch and our paths have continued to criss-cross from time to time. Most recently, we’ve collaborated closely again. In 2019 we re-imagined the process of training and certifying facilitators on new programs. The results were groundbreaking. And oddly enough, our stories had come full circle as we were both working on contract with Learn2.

For all her transformations – from American to Canadian, from Ontarian to East Coaster and back again, from business to business to semi-retirement – the essence of Deb Watring-Ellis never changes. She’s always kind, perceptive, conscientious, and deeply, wisely experienced. We can all learn a lot from her, not just about training and facilitation, but about life.

~ Moe

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Deb’s #SHIFTsauce Ingredients

  • Facilitation is a microcosm of life
  • Put yourself in the learner’s seat
  • Listen to your instincts
  • You can’t control how people learn
  • Set the spark then guide the fire
  • Don’t let tech define your outcome

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Deb Watring-Ellis talks to #SHIFTsauce

#SHIFTsauce:  How did you get your start in facilitation?

Deb:  I started in facilitation, and learning and development, in 1986. I had been a business development person with BellSouth and then AT&T. A couple of work associates and I started talking about how consultants were coming in, just asking us for the answers, and making a lot of money. It seemed like, why don’t we do it?

The game plan was to transition out of the corporate world one person at a time until we had the business built up to a point where it would support all three of us. I was the first to go out full-time. Then my partners decided it wasn’t for them, and I was left on my own. So I affiliated with another learning and development company and started facilitating regularly with New York Telephone on how to sell various telecom systems.

I didn’t have a lot of expertise on how to structure learning, so I started affiliating myself with others who had that expertise. We built a company, Watring & Associates, and became known all over the world as the experts in how to sell a large business telecommunication solution. Our custom designed learning made the content relevant to a sales audience. We merged the technical knowledge with the understanding of the customer’s needs and sales skills.

In those days, Nortel was selling switching equipment all over the world. They had a training fund earmarked to help their clients. My company was the only authorized company they could spend that money on because Nortel saw us as very good at bridging that gap. So we built our business on that strong relationship.

#Ss:  It sounds like it was dynamite.

It was. I mean, I’m very proud. And I did it more or less on instinct because I was just really trying to sit in the chair of the learner and do what I wish had been done for me.

I had been a salesperson and the sales skills training I had received was extensive, but it wasn’t very relevant to the job. The case studies used in my sales skills training were on how to sell heavy equipment, and my product training was very technical. I wished someone would have given me the information I needed to do my job. So in spite of not having any formal training or credentials, I set out to give students the experience I wish I would have had.

What evolved was, I had the great privilege of working with some really smart people and the good fortune of having developed this relationship with a major client. For 20 years, we worked with most telecommunications companies in North America, and with several in South America, the Caribbean and Latin America. And I learned so much because I was in literally in the classroom in front of thousands and thousands of salespeople.

#Ss:  I’m hearing that you love to learn.

What I love about facilitation, and the learning and development business, is that I’m always learning. I’m easily bored, and I haven’t ever been bored with facilitation. I learn so much every time I’m in a classroom interacting with a group of learners. That keeps me fresh and has kept me challenged.

#Ss:  Can I ask about your education?

I ended up with a religion degree and a psychology degree, and the equivalent to a degree in educational administration, because I was trying to learn things that I was interested in. I was a gay person going to a Southern Baptist college in the 1970s. And there was a bunch of family baggage in the mix too. Those degrees came from me trying to figure myself out.

Of course I learned valuable things about people and human nature. I think a liberal arts education in general, and specifically those majors, would have assisted me in any career I would have chosen. They were really relevant to sales and learning and development because those are people activities.

#Ss:  That points us toward relationships. You’ve always had very successful relationships with clients. What underlies that?

I’m a big picture thinker, but I’m also very detailed oriented. I’m always looking at things from the client’s chair. I started by sitting in the student chair. Then, as a facilitator, I tried to be the facilitator that the students wanted to have.

Selling to my clients was the same thing. If I’m a product manager in a phone company, what do I need? What do I want? What am I trying to accomplish? I tried to meet those needs. My instinct said, if I had these responsibilities I would be thinking about it like this.

#Ss:  What came next for Watring & Associates?

I met my future wife, moved to Canada, and merged my practice with a small interactive marketing company in Toronto to form Trajectory Business Performance. That was an interesting merger because I was in the training business, primarily in telecommunications. They were in the interactive marketing business and were working across a number of industries.

#Ss:  It seems like an unusual step. Was that something that you felt instinctively would work, or are you the type of person who does a lot of analysis?

That’s a great question. I’m so intrigued by it myself. I am a person of faith and I believe that there is a plan for people’s lives. I’ve always trusted that.

In hindsight, I look back at my life and think, how did I know to do that thing? How did I have the courage? Like when I resigned from my job and left the corporate world to go out into consulting. That first step, it was my instinct. My gut led me there.

When I came to Canada and then merged to form Trajectory, we were exploring how to use marketing techniques in the learning business. I can’t take credit for having a strategic plan and deliberately doing that. It unfolded in the relationships that I had and the doors that opened along the way.

I do believe I’m a person who sees opportunities. I need to be thorough, but I’m not an analyzer, I’m more of a visionary. I think in big pictures and in connections. When I see an opportunity, I’m usually able to see a way to fit that into something that I’m doing.

I see positive potential everywhere. I trust my instincts. I will follow the feelings that I have about a person or an opportunity.

#Ss:  Could you tell us about meeting Moe?

When I was at Trajectory, I hired him to facilitate some workshops at a retreat. Our leadership team was developing our strategic plan. We were all together up at a cabin by a lake in the Muskokas, about two hours north of Toronto.

He did a great job with it, like he always does with everything. After that first experience, I kept hiring him to work on projects with Trajectory clients.

#Ss:  What was it that made you want to work with him?

I think what made me hire him was his sweet and pleasant and funny nature, and just who he is. He’s comfortable, easy to be with, and smart.

When I talked to him more deeply about what he would do to help with our team building, I was impressed with his recommendations. They were physical and they drove home the points at the same time. They were fun. You couldn’t possibly be bored.

And then when he did the team building with us, all of those things came true. It was very engaging and a terrific experience – not just fun but truly developing new skills and perspectives. So he was very successful in achieving those outcomes.

There are a lot of people that are interested in facilitation that have a different perspective than I do about what it ought to be. That’s not true with Moe. We think very similarly about what it takes to be a successful facilitator.

#Ss:  What does it take, in your view?

It’s been my job at times to certify other facilitators. The most common flaw that I observe is facilitators who like the stage and are there for the attention or to be the expert. A facilitator who wants that spotlight and wants to have all the answers is just not one that meshes well with how I want to see facilitation done.

I’m looking for someone who can perceive what’s going on and what’s needed and can sit back and light a spark. And let the fire burn without being in control of it.

You also need to contain it. So, to me, the facilitator does set parameters and boundaries, and guides where the energy is going. It takes a tremendous amount of trust in the people in the room and in the content. If you know what your message is and if you trust the people in the room and you set that spark, then something amazing is going to happen. You can’t know what that’s going to be. You just have to keep tending the fire and know that there’s a message you want to get across.

There was a time in my career where I got very frustrated trying to control how we got to the outcome. Eventually I figured out that you can’t control how people learn. You can’t control how someone hears you. So when you’re facilitating, you’re entering with a target end result in mind and with an attitude of openness.

#Ss:  How did you go from Trajectory to where you are now?

Trajectory was successful for a few years and then we three partners sold it to a fast growing marketing company. I was offered a job to stay with the team, but instead I decided to make a bigger life change and I moved out to Nova Scotia.

#Ss:  Why Nova Scotia?

Oh, because my wife Kathy and I had this dream. We were looking for where to build our handcrafted log home and we found 30 acres with 4,000 feet of waterfront in the middle of old growth forest.

I wanted to be in the wilderness. I am very introverted, although I can do the stage thing. I like quiet nature and solitude.

At that time, I formed Clever Rabbit, which I operate under now. I freelanced from our place in Nova Scotia for 15 years. Then my wife couldn’t tolerate the solitude anymore, and it was a lot of property to take care of. So just last year we moved to Perth, a small town in Eastern Ontario.

#Ss:  Where did the name Clever Rabbit come from?

We spent a few days brainstorming, then one morning my wife woke up and said, Clever Rabbit.

We did some research. There’s a long history of cultural, verbal history in China and in Africa about clever rabbits. You know, the clever rabbit is always a little character who outsmarts the big lions that are wanting to eat him. We liked it and the domain name was available, so we went for it.

#Ss:  What’s your main business focus these days?

I am transitioning into semi-retirement. I’m picking projects that I want to work on with very special people like Moe. I’m mostly facilitating strategic sessions with the leadership of non-profits. I help them figure out and articulate their vision and mission and key messages to their stakeholders. It’s very rewarding and my way of giving back or paying it forward.

I’m also working with a group where the focus is workplace mental health. They were a client last year through a training company that I was working with, Learn2. I worked with Mental Health Innovations to redesign a curriculum of training for peer supporters. I’m now a contract affiliate with them, continuing to work on instructional design of that training, and will eventually do some facilitation.

It’s a good fit because I’m so passionate about workplace mental health, and there’s a business development role as well.

#Ss:  You’ve been involved in training and facilitation for quite a while. What are some of the changes that you’ve seen?

Fundamentals about human beings and how they learn probably doesn’t ever change, but what I have observed are two big pieces.

One of them is technology. Of course, technology is always evolving and making new things possible, like moving from a classroom to virtual facilitation. I started the first virtual business I’ve ever heard of, before there was an internet. Watring & Associates was housed in a double-wide mobile home on a lake in Alabama and we operated all over North America, virtually, starting in 1986. I was written up by the New York Times – front page of the business section, back in 1994 – for having been a pioneer in that area.

Technology keeps changing, but people are slow to do anything with it. There’s some fine work being done with virtual facilitation, but only in recent years. Facilitators and instructional designers have been really slow in figuring out how to leverage and use those technologies.

#Ss:  What approach do you think people should be taking to technology in this field?

Don’t let technology drive what you do. Start with the need, then figure out how to fit the technology into that.

If you’re going to go from a classroom facilitation to a virtual facilitation, you have to change the way you achieve your outcomes, but you still need to start with what you want your outcomes to be. You still have to start with “What does the learner need in order to master this or to learn this, or to change their behaviour or their beliefs?” And then, “How can I deliver that using this technology?”

#Ss:  What’s the other big change?

The audience. An audience that has grown up on technology has a shorter attention span, is more driven by passion. My boomer colleagues were driven by different motivations. The younger folks in the working environment today have a whole different set of constraints, parameters and expectations. What is effective in dealing with the younger folks is mobile apps where you can program a 30-second message that pops up in a particular context.

#Ss:  Do you find it exciting to be part of the threshold generation that understands the older ways and, at the same time, can use technology the way younger generations do?

I’m constantly excited by what’s coming and what’s new. And I’m also an old fogey. I don’t get it sometimes and start to feel intimidated that I can’t keep up. But there’s been a lot that I’ve seen in my 65 years on this earth. I feel really privileged about it.

#Ss:  Would you say that that reflection is important in this business?

Well, what I’m reflecting on is life, and then how is that relevant to what we’re talking about here in terms of facilitation and learning and development? I’m not sure what the difference is.

Honestly, as a facilitator, all the same life skills that make me rich are what I take into the classroom and I believe that helps me create a rich environment. It’s a microcosm of life. I have a hard time separating them.

I think the same skills just to live a good life are probably many of the same skills that are going to make you a good facilitator.

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Deb’s #SHIFTsauce Ingredients

  • Facilitation is a microcosm of life
  • Put yourself in the learner’s seat
  • Listen to your instincts
  • You can’t control how people learn
  • Set the spark then guide the fire
  • Don’t let tech define your outcome

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Curious to learn more about Deb and her work… Check out the Clever Rabbit website or find her on LinkedIn.

 

 

About the author…
Moe Poirier, Founding Partner, Shift Facilitation

Moe Poirier is the Founding Partner of Shift Facilitation. For over 15 years, he has honed his craft as a facilitator and a designer of training. He is on a mission to have corporate trainers reinvent themselves as change agents and value creators for the people and organizations they serve.