Barbara Grant – Management Practices for the Social Sector

I admit it, going into an all-day training called “Management Practices for the Social Sector” I was feeling, uh, skeptical.  I’d heard great things from colleagues who’d done the training, but I was suspicious.

Man was I wrong.

Barbara Grant has been running her own training and consulting practice since the early 90s.  Before that she had roles of increasing seniority at Microsoft including her last job running all of training and development for Microsoft’s most senior executives.  And before that she worked in the prison system.  She’s been there and done that.

Barbara was tough, funny, and insightful.  She was practical and dynamic in going where the group needed to go yet also keeping us to our agenda.  She presented a number of frameworks that we could and will actually grab on to and use, and gave us a shared vocabulary that will allow us to have different conversations internally.

In short, if you work in nonprofits and are looking for a great trainer, I’d recommend looking Barbara up (and no, she doesn’t even know I’m writing this post).

We covered a lot in just one day – a coaching formula Barbara calls, simply, “heart, tree, star;” a situational leadership framework; a model for task and work prioritization; a facilitated conversation around decision-making styles, all of which I found impactful.  But probably the thing that hit me hardest over the head was her presentation of Argyris’s Ladder of inference:


The basic notion is that, as human beings we have a natural adaptive mechanism to filter out information based upon past experiences, and in so doing we create a self-reinforcing worldview – about people or about situations – that limits our ability to really see  what is happening and draw new inferences or conclusions.

So, for example, I clearly have a ladder of inference about group training sessions: based on experiences in the past in which I didn’t find management training valuable, at the start of the session with Barbara, rather than just taking in the observable data I’m sure I selected data that affirmed my worldview, added meaning and then made assumptions based on that worldview…and on and on up the ladder.   And of course every time you get up the ladder you use that information to reinforce the ladder, further narrowing the data you choose to see and the stories you choose to tell yourself around those data.

So it could be stories around how so-and-so doesn’t prioritize the work we’re doing together; so when she’s late for a meeting I retell that story to myself rather than consider that her flight might have been delayed.  Or how another person is always getting the plum assignments; so when she goes on a work-related trip to Paris it must be because she’s a favorite and not because in her prior job she worked in Paris and has a lot of business contacts there.  And on and on we go up our ladders.

It’s such a simple framework, yet just being talked through it by Barbara I quickly saw it everywhere, and I realized how my ladders could be short-circuiting my ability to really listen, to process new information, to be adaptive in my worldview.

The bit that really hit me in the gut is that I know that I’m generally quick at processing information.  And then I got to wondering: could it be that I do this not only because I objectively process things quickly but also because I’m really quick to build ladders or use existing ladders? A sobering thought, but also freeing when you have a new framework to carry around, one that gives you the freedom to check your ladders at the door.

Just a glimpse of a great day in which Barbara gave us real gifts, ones that I know I’ll carry around and use for a long time.  Maybe she can help you too.