Things I Learned From Being a Motorcycle Instructor

This blog post was originally published internally at a previous employer, as part of a series on learning to coach and provide feedback to employees.

Introduction

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that one of my interests was motorcycling. In fact I was a volunteer instructor with the Ottawa Safety Council’s motorcycle rider course for about 10 years. I’ve retired from that now, although I still keep in touch with my fellow instructors as friends. That’s me in the back row, right hand side, behind the yellow coat.

The instructors with that organization are a group I was proud to be part of.  They are serious about riding and about teaching riding, and there is extensive training and coaching for the instructors on how to teach and coach.

In this blog post I’d like to share a few things I learned about teaching and coaching from this role. I note that the same lessons seem to apply to other training activities (such as dog training, and teaching martial arts), and I imagine that anyone who teaches or coaches a physical skill, like hockey or skiing, has similar experiences.

Teaching approach

First I’d like to share a couple of the most basic principles the group uses for teaching.

PARDED

The first was called PARDED, an acronym for a process that ensured that instructors spent a minimum of time talking about how to ride, and a maximum of time coaching students who were actually practicing riding.

PARDED stood for Preview, Aim, Reason, Demo, Explain, Demo. It was an approach to teaching a lesson segment, which might go like this:

Instructor: “In this lesson we’re going to learn to turn while starting from a stop. [Preview] By the end you’ll be able to turn right or left immediately after starting from a dead stop, while staying in the marked lane. [Aim] This is important because you need to be able to turn left or right from a stop sign or a traffic light without stalling your bike or losing control of your lane position. [Reason]

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” (Instructor, on a bike, demonstrates the procedure. [Demo]) Then, instructor quickly points out 3-4 important points of the techniques he just demonstrated. [Explain]

“Ok, now that you know what to look for, watch while I demonstrate again.” (Does it again). [Demo]

Then the students get on their bikes and spend time practicing and getting individual coaching.

The idea of PARDED is that a certain amount of theory and explanation is needed, but what we’re really trying to do is establish “muscle memory” so good techniques happen automatically when there is no time to think. And that happens by doing not by listening. So, if half an hour is allocated for a lesson, the students would be doing hands-on practice for 20-25 minutes of that half hour.

I found this teaching technique to be very effective, and I have successfully used it in other contexts. It is very effective for hands-on technical training of computer skills.

Teach the skill, not the test

This was a fundamental policy of the course – and sometimes controversial. Our course ended with a test that served as the student’s road test for their license. However, we consciously did not “teach them to pass the test”. Instead, we “taught them to ride well, and then tested if they had learned that”.

Some of them didn’t pass the test (although our success rate was high – I think something like 95%). Some of those who didn’t pass probably could have passed if they had been drilled on the actual test during the training.

We thought doing that was not in their interest. If a student really isn’t ready to ride in traffic on the street, but we help them pass the test (an artificial, controlled environment), how would we feel if they were then injured in an accident?

I think this applies to career coaching too. We could probably coach people on job interview skills to an extent that they would pass interviews for jobs for which they weren’t really qualified. But that would not be in anyone’s interest.

I’ve had conversations like the following both with people who didn’t pass the motorcycle test, and with people who didn’t pass a job interview:

The motorcycle version:

(them) It’s not fair. I can ride just fine. I just don’t take tests well.

(me) What do you mean?

(them) I can ride perfectly when it’s “for real”. But when I’m under pressure or being watched – the situation in a test – I get flustered and forget.

(me) So you’re saying you can drive a motorcycle just fine unless you are under pressure or being watched. Like, say, driving on the street in rush-hour traffic.

The job interview version:

(them) It’s not fair. I’m qualified for this management job. I just don’t take interviews well.

(me) What do you mean?

(them) I can do the job perfectly when it’s “for real”. But when I’m under pressure or being watched – the situation in an interview – I get flustered and forget.

(me) So you’re saying you can do the job of a manager just fine except for managing your time, responding to questions, defending your point of view, or dealing with pressure? (What did they think a management job was?)

When you are helping someone learn a skill on which they will then be tested, teach the skill, not the test.

Coaching lessons

Aside from the formal methods that we used to teach, I learned a number of things about coaching people who were practicing a skill. These things I learned from watching other good coaches, or being coached myself, or, in a few cases, by watching people doing it badly.

Positive coaching

This is certainly the most important thing I learned about coaching a skill: tell the student what to do, not what not to do.

Telling a student what not to do is not useful. They could do something else, still wrong, and yet be obeying your command to not do that first thing.

This is especially important when correcting an error. Don’t point to or describe their error and say “don’t do that”. Instead, tell them what they should do. Ideally, give them simple targets that they can follow that will cause the desired behavior, and have them repeat that several times so they are developing the habit and muscle memory of doing the thing properly.

Here are a few examples drawn from motorcycle training:

“Don’t look down!”

Students often have trouble balancing a bike when riding very slowly – like crawling along in a traffic jam. Often the biggest cause of this is looking down at the ground just in front of the bike.

We could say “don’t look down”. How is the student supposed to know what that means? They could close their eyes – that’s not looking down. They could look straight up over their head – that’s not looking down. Is that what we wanted?

Instead, tell them what to do and give them a target. I might pick a suitably- placed landmark in view from our training site, and say something like “See that low building over there in the distance? See the chimney on the roof? I want you to look at that chimney while you do this exercise.” Now they are looking level to the horizon and focusing into the distance, which is the behavior I wanted.

The other time students have a problem because of looking down is when turning (especially to the right) while starting from a dead stop. Think, for example, turning right from a stop sign.

“Don’t look at the ground” is not useful feedback – see above. Instead tell them what to do, and give them a target. I would walk 10 or 12 metres away, along the side of the road, point to my own face, and say, “Look here! Look at me!”. Then they would generally have no trouble with their balance or lane position while starting and turning. It was quite remarkable.

“Don’t Pop the Clutch!”

Most motorcycles are standard transmission vehicles, and students would have trouble stalling because they were letting the clutch out too fast. “Don’t Pop the Clutch” is not useful advice. Do students even know what that archaic phrase means?

Instead, tell them what to do, and give them a target. I’d put a cone on the ground about 5 metres away, and say, “Start letting out the clutch until you feel the bike just start to move. Continue to let it out, slowly, at a rate that results in you just finishing letting it out as you pass that cone.”

It might take them one time to work out how slow that is, but after 2 or 3 times, they would be starting perfectly with no stalling.

“Don’t look at the obstacle!”

One of the lessons was to swerve around something on the road – an oil slick, a squirrel, or, in our practice, a traffic cone and, later, an instructor – without hitting it. Beginners would often hit it, or at least come frighteningly close.

An interesting phenomenon called “target fixation” was at play. If you stare at an obstacle while riding, you will likely steer towards it. Realizing you’re going to hit it makes you stare harder, which makes it worse.

Shouting “don’t look at the obstacle” doesn’t help. It only raises the student’s stress level and makes the obstacle even more attractive to stare at.

Instead, tell them what to do, and give them a target. We’d put a small mark on the pavement – a leaf, a bit of tape – in the safe path, such as 1 metre to the right or left of the obstacle, then say “look at this mark while you are swerving”. They’d ride right over the harmless mark, and not into the obstacle.

There are many other examples, but this is not an article on how to ride a motorcycle, so I’ll stop. But I’d like to repeat that this is the most important thing I learned about coaching: Don’t tell them what not to do. Tell them what to do, and give them a target.

Correct one thing at a time – more important first

It’s common to see a coach giving someone feedback in which they list every single thing they saw done wrong, as though there will never be another chance.

Here’s a paraphrase of feedback I once heard an instructor trainee giving a student after a braking exercise.

You were looking down, and your wrists were bent, and you gave it too much gas, and you shifted gears too soon, and your knees weren’t against the tank, and you stomped on the rear brake, and you were sitting too far back on the seat, and your foot wasn’t centered on the foot peg.

What did they think the student would do with this feedback? Make a list and consult it while riding?

One of those errors was far more serious than the others (stomping on the brake). The senior instructor working with the above trainee stepped in and corrected just that error, giving the student instructions on what to do instead. Once they were braking safely, they tackled the next most important problem, and so on.

Never demonstrate the wrong way to do something

Our teaching method made heavy use of demonstration, showing how to do a given skill, not telling how to do it. This was supported by an important rule: always demonstrate proper technique, never demonstrate incorrect technique.

Why on earth would one ever demonstrate incorrect technique? It seems obvious. But, sometimes, a novice instructor would think along these lines:

I’m trying to teach that a certain technique (like using only the rear brake when stopping) is a bad idea, and the students aren’t convinced. Why not do it wrong so they can see it’s a bad idea?

e.g. to show people how ineffective it is to use the rear brake alone, I’ll demonstrate trying to do a high-speed stop using only the rear brake, and they’ll see that it doesn’t work well.

We were very firm that instructors should never do this, for several reasons:

Liability: How would we explain it if your demo goes wrong and you are injured, while doing something that you know you shouldn’t do? What if, in crashing, you injure someone else?

Anchoring: There is a psychological phenomenon that people tend to remember and recall the first things they see or hear, more than other things. Demonstrate the wrong way to do something before demonstrating the right way, and we risk that the student will remember only the wrong way, and will forget that it is wrong.

One-upmanship: Your demonstration won’t convince people who are already convinced that the technique in question is, in fact, the right way to do things. There is a risk they will try to demonstrate that you are wrong by using the bad technique and making it work. Then there is a high risk they’ll be injured.

Diversity in class

We taught in small groups, two instructors with 5-6 students. In every group there were “good” students and “less good” students – those who easily picked up the skills and excelled, and those who struggled.

It was tempting to spend the majority of coaching time working with the lowest- performing students. After all, they need the most help. But this would be an error. Don’t neglect the good students.

  • The good students are also paying customers, and they deserve time and attention. Our objective isn’t to bring all students to the same level, it’s to improve them all. Even the good students should leave the course better.
  • The bad students are learning by watching you coach the good students too. For some students that’s actually more effective, since they are not defensive about feedback they hear you giving to someone else.

Peer performance is powerful. Every time a good student executes a technique properly, that’s like you doing another demo, and the bad students are learning from that.

I used to have the students in my group take the test in what I said was “random” order. I put “random” in quotes because it wasn’t quite random. I would secretly pick the student who I considered the best rider to go first, so the other students were seeing a demonstration of the test being done well by a peer – good for a final clarification, and to establish the confidence that it can be executed successfully.

Others?

I learned a lot from teaching adults a physical skill, and a lot of what I learned has been applicable in other coaching situations. I bet others who teach or coach have similar experiences, and I’d like to invite you to share – in your own blog, in lunchtime presentations, or in the comments section here.

Making Better Presentations

I’ve been working on a document for the last twenty years, consolidating my notes from presentations that I thought were especially good or bad into a set of advice on presenting well.  This has become my own approach to making presentations, and it works well for me. I’m making the document available publicly here, in case it can help anyone with an idea or two to improve their own presentation skills.

The document is free for personal use, with some restrictions.  Here is an excerpt from the “usage rights” page:

Use and Distribution Rights

Personal use Commercial use
This document may be used (unmodified), copied, and distributed free under the following conditions:

  1. You may make personal, non-commercial use only.
  2. You are granted the right to use, no right to modify.
  3. Author retains all ownership rights.
  4. You may not sell this document, distribute it through a service that charges access fees, or use it in a course or service that charges fees.
  5. The file must be distributed in its entirety with no changes or subsetting.
  6. This rights paragraph must be included in the file.
Contact me to arrange licensing for any commercial uses including

  1. For-profit resale or inclusion in collections;
  2. Distribution via any aggregation system that requires a membership fee;
  3. Use in any course or service that charges a fee;
  4. Right to modify;
  5. Right to subset or create derivative works.

Download

Click here to download the current version of this document in PDF format.

Depth vs Breadth

At my last few employers I used to blog regularly and encourage other executives to blog. I will be reproducing slightly modified versions of some of those blog posts here. This one, on the subject of when and how to expand skills and knowledge, was first published in early 2019.

Depth vs Breadth?

In this article I would like to share some thoughts about professional development, especially whether and when one should focus on increasing one’s depth of knowledge or breadth of knowledge.

Disclaimer: This is not anyone’s official policy. It’s a set of personal opinions that have guided me in my career, and that I’ve given as advice to people I’ve mentored from time to time. Consider it just that: advice from a mentor, for your consideration. Take it or leave it as you wish.

Career advice

I’ve written that I think mentoring others is an important responsibility of senior managers; and, indeed, of everyone. In a mentoring role, I often end up discussing career paths and personal development plans with people – often technical people, but not always.

One common topic is the kind of training or continuing education to take, or the kind of on-the-job learning to seek in job assignments. Should I work to deepen (or update) my skills in a given specialty, or put effort into learning a new one?

First, you should certainly do one or both of those things. The worst choice would be to do neither – to just stagnate, neither getting better at what you do nor learning something new. Don’t do that.

We need skilled experts, and whatever your field of expertise, you need to remain up to date. And when you are at the beginning of a career, you probably need to get better at your field before you start worrying about learning something new.

Nevertheless, I still feel that people tend to under-value breadth. We need specialists. But we don’t need everyone to be one.

To an Olympic Silver athlete, getting to Gold probably seems like the most important thing in life. I, on the other hand, would hire anyone who made the Olympic team to coach me in that sport in a heartbeat. They’re already so much better than me that I don’t need to hire a medalist, little less the Gold – and probably can’t afford them. In fact they’re probably too good to coach me – they may be out of touch with how bad someone can be at something, or they may find it frustrating to lower themselves to my level.

Outside elite sports, if you’re among the best in the world at doing something, for many purposes that’s probably good enough. With your remaining learning time, moving higher among the best is probably not worthwhile.

On the other hand, one problem we face all the time is change: something will happen that means the thing we’re good at is suddenly less relevant, and something else is suddenly important. For example, I’m an expert in a number of computer programming languages that haven’t been used for decades. Becoming even more expert in those would be a waste of time and energy.

(This reminds me of a time I was recruiting at a university campus for software development jobs.  I asked on applicant, “which programming languages are you familiar with?” and they responded, rather indignantly, “both of them!”  I didn’t ask what they thought the two programming languages in the world were, and we didn’t go much farther.)

Suppose you’re an expert in some field, and you can routinely score 97% on a skills evaluation. Further suppose that you have a training budget and some time to take training. Should you use that training budget and time to study more in your field, to move from scoring 97% to 98%? Or should you use that training time to learn something entirely new?

I think generally the latter. Be 97% in something and 70% (and rising) in another thing – that’s much more valuable (to society, to your employer, and to you) than being 98% in one thing.

We need experts in many fields. But in a world where change is so rapid and continuous, we need people with a wide range of skills. We need, even more, people who can learn new things quickly, and quickly become quite good at them.

In my mind, this is the real value of formal education: not just what you learned, but that you developed the skill of learning. Whatever you learned might well become obsolete – in the technology field it will definitely become obsolete. But the ability to learn new things will always be valuable.

Being really good at only one thing is:

  • Not only a waste – missing all the other things you could be good at;
  • It can also be an actual problem. If you’re only good at one thing, you might resist change, because change is a threat. I watched people who were really good at ATM networking protocol resist the move to IP, which was a threat, not being their field of expertise. Their expertise became obsolete, rather quickly. Those who adapted are now successful in a new field. Those who resisted to the end are not.

What’s in a name?

Gartner Consulting, a few years ago, offered a label for this concept that I found interesting. They suggested not using the word “generalist”, because that has come to mean (according to them) a person who can do many different things, but is not an expert in any of them. Instead, they coined the term “Versatilist”, defining this as “someone who is a specialist in a particular discipline, but can change to another role and become an expert there with ease” – someone who is, or can be, an expert in many fields, and can adopt to change. I think I like that concept.

Quotes that inspired me

I had this philosophy about professional development – about breadth vs depth – for many years before I even realized that it was a philosophy at all.

Then various quotes from literature caught my attention. Here are two: one short one long.

  • Miyamoto MusashiFrom Miyamoto Musashi: one of the greatest Samurai – who were, in turn, among the greatest warriors in history:

    A Samurai should cultivate a wide interest in the arts. Become acquainted with every art.

  • From Lazarus Long, a fictional hero in Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein:"Time Enough for Love" book cover

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    Maybe that is a little harsh, but Heinlein was famously a very prickly character,

Career path for a typical specialty worker

What’s this mean in practice? This is what I think is a pretty good career path for a typical worker with a specialty skill:

  • Start by being good at your field. Become skilled enough to be more than qualified at entry-­level, and then spend time increasing your depth.
    • Get better than “good enough”, get really good.
  • But then switch strategies.
    • Dedicate some effort to maintaining your current skill; and
    • Dedicate some effort to developing a new skill, quite different.
      • Not learning version 2 of a product where you’re already an expert in version 1.
      • Pick a new field, then develop depth again.
  • Repeat. Discover new capabilities and interests.
  • Most important:  learn something, frequently.  If it has been more than a couple of years since you took a challenging course or read a new manual or otherwise learned something new, you probably have a problem that should concern you.

This develops valuable breadth while retaining your expertise, and it hones your ability to handle world-shaking paradigm changes. Some of the things you know will be useful no matter what happens; and, more important, you are keeping alive your skills as a learner.

As an employer, I know I can hand you a new problem and you will figure it out. You’ll even enjoy it.

Thoughts on Mentors and Mentoring

At my last few employers I used to blog regularly and encourage other executives to blog. I will be reproducing slightly modified versions of some of those blog posts here. This one, on the subject of Mentoring, was first published in 2014 and re-published in 2018.

Original post follows

I thought I’d share some thoughts on a topic that has been the subject of several conversations recently: Mentors.

Most people would benefit from having a mentor, and many people would benefit from being one.

What follows are my thoughts on what I think is an important part of management, not specifically on the department’s mentoring program.

… which makes me think it’s worth taking a moment to define what I mean by the term mentor, because I don’t mean just specific processes that may exist for formally having a mentor as part of a professional development program, although those programs are an important part of mentoring.

Graphic showing various aspects of coaching

When I use the term “Mentor”, I mean any process of establishing a trusted confidant relationship with someone with whom you can discuss career and life issues and from whom you can receive feedback or advice. The mentor is usually assumed to be senior to you (in age, rank, or experience) but that’s not at all necessary – all that’s necessary is that they have some experience, skill, knowledge, or perspective that you lack, and that they’ re willing to discuss it. I do think, however, that it’s best that your mentor not be in the chain-of-command above you, otherwise the line between giving advice and giving direction gets blurred and confusing.

I sometimes encounter people with the concern that, “so-and-so would be a great mentor except for this one aspect of their personality that I dislike.”

This is one of the key things about making good use of a mentor: realizing that it is not about copying the person in question, and most certainly not about copying everything about them. Learn their perspective or habits on things, then take what you like and ignore what you don’t.

It reminds me of the theme of a classic set of old Jokes, which go along the lines of

“go meet so-and-so, find out what they would do, and then don’t do that.”

Those are good jokes but probably not useful advice because not doing something is not an action (or not a usefully specific one), and not doing a thing is no guarantee that you will avoid an outcome that happened to someone who did that thing. So, plan to use your mentor to help you work out what you’re going to do, not what you’re going to not do.

Since I’m emphasizing that the relationship doesn’t have to be formalized and bureaucratic, maybe I’m using the wrong word. Maybe I mean muse or role model or inspiration.

In fact, they don’t even have to know they’re your role model – you can observe and learn from someone without their knowledge. That, I think, would be outside any reasonable definition of “mentor”. Maybe the word “mentor” should at least be restricted to the cases where the coach is a knowing and willing participant in the relationship. Anyway, mentor will do.

Use Mentors Well

Two people having an in-person discussion

Of course, just having a mentor won’t actually do much for you. You need to use the mentor. Some thoughts on using your mentor well:

  1. Build a Relationship: Ask the person in question if they’re willing to be your mentor. They’ll probably be flattered, they’ll probably say yes, and they’ll probably help set some expectations about how available they can be and what they may or may not be willing to discuss. As part of this conversation, be prepared to explain “why them?” What are you hoping they can do for you?
  2. Expect confidentiality, and give it in return: It goes without saying that you’re expecting your conversations with your mentor to be confidential – but that means you need to do the same, and not share with others things they share with you unless that’s clearly OK.
  3. Someone being your mentor doesn’t make your career development their problem. Don’t sit back and wait for them to call you with advice – you need to take the initiative to book meetings, bring up topics, and ask for help and advice. (As an exception, they may have agreed to watch for certain types of opportunities for you, but you initiated that and it needs to be clearly understood.)
  4. Have regular meetings and give them advance warning, if possible, of what you’d like to discuss so they have time to prepare thoughts. But expect schedule pressure – frequent rescheduling, etc. Mentoring you is competing with operational pressures for the use of their time. A person with few demands on their time, who is readily available, and whose schedule never changes is probably not the one you want as a mentor.
  5. Don’t necessarily expect advice. Sometimes just having an intelligent person listen attentively, and perhaps ask some clarifying questions, while you describe a situation you’re struggling with is all you need.

Be a Mentor

Mentor/Mentee conversing

On the other side of the coin, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to be a mentor when you can

  • Managers: it’s your job.
  • Non -managers who are experts at something: it’s your responsibility.
  • And everyone: it’s good for you Ask anyone who teaches or coaches, especially if they teach adults, and they’ll tell you they learn as much or more from the relationships as their students.

Senior and experienced people are probably already mentors and good at it. For people who are new to being a mentor, I offer some thoughts on this role:

  1. Establish ground rules. What can your mentee (is that a word?) expect from you? Promise confidentiality but not concealment – if you learn something that you must deal with, you don’t want to have promised that you won’t.
  2. What you’re initially offering is availability not advice. Your mentee may not need anything more than an audience or a sounding board.
  3. Listen actively. Ask clarifying questions, and ask questions that may lead the mentee to think of their situation in different ways.
  4. Offer advice if asked. If not asked, ask for permission first.
  5. Make it personal. They came to you for a reason. What has happened to you that is relevant, what have you done, what might you do in this situation?
  6. Don’t mess up the chain of command. Don’t let mentoring meetings become out-of-band channels for business decisions. You are offering advice and guidance for employee development, not influence peddling for business decisions. This is why I generally discourage mentors from being in the reporting line above their mentees – it’s too easy for advice to be taken as overriding an intermediate manager’s direction.

Things I’ve Learned from Mentors

I’ve had some good mentors who have made a big difference to my life, more to follow.