How can we make the learning from professional development stick?

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

Dr. William Glasser. developer of Reality Therapy and Choice Theory

Making learning stick requires repetition and practice until a new skill is ingrained.

Athletes know it takes thousands of repetitions of a movement to generate unconscious muscle memory and perform a new behavior at an expert level. Psychologists know it can take a minimum of 3 weeks to 3 months of repeating new thought patterns just to begin to change one’s thinking and then it takes practice to unconsciously carry out the resulting behaviors.

Like the athlete and the clinician, the executive coach knows change takes awareness, repetition, and commitment. So why would we, as leaders, expect ourselves or our staff to absorb a new skill or behavior without lots of practice?

As a professional athlete, leader, clinician, and now as an executive coach, the common thread to success for my clients is practice. If you want a particular development goal to adhere with you for the rest of your life, try practicing it again and again… and again.

Learning happens in four stages.

Stage 1: Aspiration – desire for new skill.

Stage 2: Awareness – understanding capability to perform skill.

Stage 3: Application – practicing skill in a wide range of situations.

Stage 4: Acclimation – successfully applying and teaching skill.

Moving back and forth and reflecting among the stages of Awareness and Application are the stages that make learning stick.

Awareness in leadership means learning sensitive things about your self, creating vulnerability. It takes courage to seek out our blind spots, whether physical or cognitive, and it takes time to accept them as opportunities. It then takes time to find the tools, the courage, the will, and the stamina to apply and practice until the learning sticks.

Fortunately, there are resources to support professional growth - no matter if you are seasoned or new to professional development.

The stages of learning present a process and Assessment-Based coaching presents an efficient and effective professional development process: combining your Aspiration to learn with your new Awareness from the assessment and Applying it until you have Acclimated the new skill as part of your natural behavior.

Assessment-based coaching is a useful resource because it promotes the two important stages (Awareness and Application) to make learning stick as well as provides accountability for implementation, which often gets lost in the business of life.

Assessment-based coaching is:

•      Efficient - providing awareness of self and others quickly, objectively and thoughtfully.

•      Descriptive and prescriptive - providing transformational information as well as concrete tools to practice.

•      Direct - holding you accountable to apply and master new actions.

The coaching relationship ensures accountability for ongoing application—letting you become the owner of the skills and behavior so you can do your own team building every day.


Emily Bass coaches leaders to build organizations where everyone knows they matter. You can learn more about Emily and her upcoming Adventure Leadership Summits, Essential Skills Workshop, and coaching packages at This article was first published on LinkedIn by Emily Bass.

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