Success Coaching: How to Turn Training into Action

Success Coaching Photo of Two Colleagues Discussing an Action Plan

How do you make sure that what you bring back from a conference gets followed up on and leads to action? How do you get more return on that investment and really build your capacity? Often the missing step is to pair training with success coaching. Here’s what that can look like.

Take a moment to think back to the last time you researched a conference or workshop that you wanted to attend. If you are like most, it was probably an exciting experience, an opportunity to get “off campus” and meet new colleagues who are more than likely experiencing the same challenges you are. As you reviewed the content of the offering, you considered the changes you could implement when you returned from the training. After you registered and then attended, that feeling increased to the point where you could almost envision the changes already made and how those changes would impact you, your team, and maybe the entire institution.

Having spent much of my career managing and facilitating training and development programs, there have been countless times when I would feel a high level of satisfaction observing participants’ energy and enthusiasm as each program concluded. In most instances, participants discovered a solution to help manage competing priorities, conduct a difficult conversation with a co-worker, or take action to achieve a personal goal. Each time, I’m optimistic that most participants will follow through to take the necessary action to make their current situation more desirable.

After all, why wouldn’t they? Why would they want to continue functioning as they did prior to the training—achieving the same results which led them to the conference in the first place?

Yet, all too often, the action they envisioned doesn’t occur. I use the analogy of a rubber band being stretched temporarily only to immediately take the same shape as before. Similarly, training participants stretch their minds only to return to the same thinking after arriving back on campus. I have seen many trainers, including myself, dismiss rubber band effect as the result of a lack of willpower by the participant. Or maybe we blame the campus culture or the participant’s supervisor for the inaction.

But is there more we—as trainers—could do to help participants translate their learning experience into action?

An Initial Step: Crafting an Action Plan

As trainers, we do what we do because we want to make a meaningful difference in the careers and lives of our higher education colleagues. Subsequently, we want that difference to impact the institutions they serve. Participants (and their institutions) invest time, effort, and financial resources because they want to experience a different outcome for themselves, their teams, and the institution as a whole.

One strategy that Academic Impressions employs at their training events and that I have used throughout my career to help participants create a positive change following a training is to develop a short-term action plan at the end of a training session.

  • This can be conducted as informally as a five-minute reflection at the end of the training.
  • Alternatively, participants can select a partner, and the two participants can, hold each other accountable to the plan they created.

I love sharing the stories of participants who have let me know how the training experience created a positive difference in their lives. Quite frankly, I wish there were more of these stories. With each year, it has become increasingly clear to me that more is needed to facilitate participants to take that action. As trainers, we must become more self-aware in our roles to help produce a different outcome.

My own moment of self-awareness came last fall. I had the opportunity to co-facilitate Academic Impressions’ Fundamentals of Leadership program, a two-day experience for higher education professionals relatively new to a supervisory role. The energy in that room from the forty-plus participants was at a high level throughout the program, yet I could almost visualize each of those participants returning to their campus, putting their conference binder on the bookshelf, and morphing back to their original state…the dreaded Rubber Band Syndrome. All of these participants had action plans—but they also needed a critical next step.

The Missing Step: Success Coaching

When I am approached by clients, the request is either to facilitate a workshop or conduct individual coaching sessions—or, not and. However, Academic Impressions, however, has included success coaching sessions as part of the package on an ad hoc basis in a variety of training programs. While designing the Fundamentals of Leadership program with my partners at Academic Impressions, their team and I discussed how we could ensure that participants capitalized on their new knowledge, insight, and energy once the program concluded. How, for their benefit (and their institutions’ benefit) could we include an element of accountability that would result in positive change? The key is to combine the power of training with the power of coaching—a one, two punch if you will.

At the conclusion of the Fundamentals of Leadership program, attendees were invited to participate in a sixty-minute individual coaching session, scheduled 2-4 weeks following the training program. The purpose was to check in on the actions participants identified at the end of the training and consider those actions in the context of further reflection that had occurred after the training.

More than half of the participants from the program took advantage of this complimentary coaching session. Once a date and time were determined, participants were asked to send an agenda of 2-3 topics they wished to address in the session—key areas where they wished to improve their performance as leaders. Topics varied from how to increase accountability among staff members to blocking personal time for more strategic initiatives.

During the course of the sixty-minute coaching call, a participant reengages in the material to identify gaps which exist between their current state and their expectations. With the coach to guide the conversation, the participant completes the call with a realistic action plan they feel comfortable implementing in the weeks ahead.

Even though these sessions occurred only 2-4 weeks after the workshop, we often heard the same comment at the beginning of the coaching call; the participant would say, “Before the call, I had to page back through the conference binder to remember all that was covered in our workshop.” The participant’s binder and notes had been sitting idle on a shelf during the intervening few weeks. I would suggest that this is a typical experience for training participants…the rubber band returning to its original shape. This isn’t necessarily the participant’s fault; rather, this experience exemplifies the power of our institutions’ cultures.

More than a Call: A Full Success Coaching Program

A single, one-hour coaching session is often not enough to resist the pull toward inaction. To offer more thorough assistance in translating learning into action, Academic Impressions has launched the Success Coaching Program, a three-session, post-conference experience that is available across all of Academic Impressions’ training programs for participants whose institutions are partnering with Academic Impressions to provide their staff with training and leadership development. Having delivered thousands of conferences and workshops, Academic Impressions has found that the best way to build the capacity of an institution’s employees is pair training opportunities with consistent, follow-up success coaching.

Participants from member institutions are partnered with a success coach shortly after the conclusion of the Academic Impressions conference. Each of the coaching sessions are conducted at approximately two week intervals with each session lasting between 45-60 minutes.

During the first call, the success coach helps the participant reflect on what was most meaningful from the conference they attended—and how they can leverage the conference content to address an existing challenge. The second and third calls follow up on their work in addressing that challenge. Throughout this process, it is the success coach’s role to ask questions that will lead the participant to identify possible actions and ultimately take those actions. At times, the participant seeks advice (which we are happy to provide), but a good coach allows the client to identify their own path to success.

I was recently asked the three criteria to being an effective coach. I believe building trust with your client is first and foremost. Second, coaches need to be empathic listeners. We must listen to truly understand our client. Finally, coaches must facilitate action to help our clients achieve the results they desire. This is the framework of the Success Coaching model.

Summary: Finding the Return on Professional Development

As is often the case across sectors, supervisors in higher education often don’t know how to determine if a training program that an employee attended was worth the investment. The supervisor may ask the participant to lead a group discussion on what they learned—but that alone rarely results in either the participants or their colleagues taking action.

Donald Kirkpatrick was famously known for his four levels of training evaluation. The ideal level, Level 4 or Results, is when the participant (and the supervisor) can see that performance improvement was achieved through the training and development provided. However, in a significant majority of training programs, the evaluation starts and ends with a Level 1 tactic, in which participants complete an assessment at the end of the training experience (e.g., answering questions such as “Did you enjoy the conference?” or “Was the facilitator effective?”).

Success coaching can support institutions to reach a Level 4 outcome. When Level 4 is reached, you know the time and money spent on a person’s development was truly an investment. The chances of an employee taking action that will produce measurable results will increase significantly when you combine the training with a personalized coaching package.


Photo above by Rawpixel on Unsplash.


You can also learn more about Academic Impressions’ leadership development programs here.

And you can hear more of Steven Riccio’s philosophy and read his series Habits of Highly Effective Higher-Ed Professionals here.