Like many 8-year old girls my daughter Hayden is fascinated, even obsessed with horses. Because we live in the ‘burbs in a cookie-cutter master-planned no horses allowed kinda community, the odds of her getting a horse of her own are nil. Hayden understands the practical barriers to horse ownership, but the heart wants what it wants.
Eventually Hayden’s obsession manifested in a new fascination with treating our two dogs, Logan and Scout, like horses. She relentlessly pursued them with curry comb in hand to brush their pathetic excuses for manes. She buffed their tiny hooves (claws) and bandaged imaginary leg injuries with masking tape. She enticed them to come to her with offers of apples and carrots (Scout fell for it every time) and once in her grasp, made them don tiny toy saddles and bridals hand-crafted from folded duct tape.
All of these things – saddling, brushing their fur, taping their little legs – were all superficial activities. Yes, she had the satisfaction of carrying out all of these busy tasks that made them look more like miniature horses, but they were still not behaving like horses and that was unacceptable. Thus Hayden reached the conclusion that the dogs simply needed to be trained to act like horses. Convinced in her ability to mold them to her vision through rigorous training, she stacked pool noodles on our patio to create a horse obstacle course and over several afternoons she cajoled, badgered, and coaxed the dogs into occasionally doing a series of half-hearted leaps over her horse jumps or balancing, ever so briefly, on an over-turned planter. These mini break-throughs were rare. For the most part, rather than feeling inspired to improve their performance, the dogs would seize every opportunity to get away from their oppressive trainer, who always demanded a level of transformation from them that they were unable to make.
Then last week after a particularly fruitless afternoon of training our dogs to be horses, Hayden was forced to admit that it wasn’t working. She came inside sweaty and frustrated with panting dogs trailing behind her. And then she said it:
Mommy, no matter how hard I train Logan to jump over pool noodles he’s still not a horse.
Even as I comforted her, inside I was THRILLED to hear her acknowledge the obvious: no amount of training will turn a dog into a horse. Not only does this have serious implications from a future dating standpoint (no “project” partners, I hope…), but it also means that my 8-year old girl grasps a fundamental truth that eludes many adults I’ve worked with: you cannot train someone to be something they’re not and don’t want to be.
How often do we as L&D professionals encounter adult humans (looking at you, HR) who are convinced you can hire a mutt and, through the power of training, turn it into a stallion? How often do we subject people to relentless training that demands a level of personal and/or professional transformation nearly impossible to achieve? How often do we marvel at the unwillingness of people to transform themselves and then blame the quality of the training they receive?
One could argue that there are no easy parallels between a child’s observation of animal nature, and the world of L&D. After all, we’re focused on human behaviors, right? But I would argue that ultimately it is the human, not the animal, who changed her behavior. Hayden grew to accept the limitations of her dogs. Yes, they’re not good horses, but they are wonderful dogs.
As L&D struggles to provide access to meaningful opportunities and tools, we always need to keep realistic expectations for our audience in mind. Developing talent starts with acknowledging what those talents are. How can we help them identify their goals, their strengths and weaknesses? How can we enable them to plan their future? Sure, training may or may not be an outcome of those efforts, but it shouldn’t be the focus of those efforts – and even my 8 year can tell you that.