Lopker is a trainer and performance consultant with a focus on organizational performance improvement as well as leadership and employee development. She is president of her own independent performance consulting, training, and instructional design firm, which was started in 1995. Her strengths include facilitating focus groups; conducting needs analyses; designing learning solutions, courses, and materials; and speaking to diverse groups. She holds both CPT (Certified Performance Technologist) and CPLP (Certified Professional in Learning and Performance) designations and is an adjunct professor for both Chapman University and ASTD, where she teaches Human Performance in the Workplace certificate courses.
Q| What was your first job, and what lesson did you take away from it?
My very first job out of college was as an occupational therapist at a rehabilitation hospital. I learned that I liked uncovering what is really causing the issue that the patient is experiencing, so that I can help solve the problem and make sure that it stays solved.
It was many years after I was an occupational therapist, and after I had gotten my master's degree in human resources and organization development, that somebody asked me to describe what organization development is, and I ended up describing organization development just like occupational therapy. When there is a challenge in a company, the organization development specialist is trying to figure out what's causing the problem, what is getting in the way of the solution, and what solutions can be applied. The specialist then applies them, evaluates them to see if they work, and then figures out what's going to help the solutions sustain themselves, which is exactly what I did as an occupational therapist.
I realized I really like getting in and discovering what are the nuances of the problem, what are the barriers, and what are the enablers. In that sense, I have not completely changed professions even though I have changed professions. I think that the fun part of being a performance consultant is being able to see the forest for the trees: figuring out companies' problems and helping to solve them.
Q| How did you initially become interested in performance and leadership development?
At a very early time in my professional career as an occupational therapist, I was offered my first supervisory position. I was just 27 years old and I wanted to be a supervisor, but I was woefully underprepared. I didn't get any kind of training or support. I'm not even sure that my manager met with me to clarify the expectations and the responsibilities. I stepped from a frontline position as an occupational therapist to a supervisory position that included supervising people with many more years of experience than I had. In essence, I was bad at it. I was not a good leader. I just did not know how to interact with people. I didn't know how to give them feedback. I didn't know how to disperse the work. I didn't even know how to change my approach.
Eventually, the CEO of the organization pulled me aside to help me, and she became my mentor. She got me to see that the way I was leading people wasn't as effective as it could be. She mentored me for a number of years so that I could become a good leader. I saw how important the leadership development side of things was as to whether or not you had a team that could accomplish its goals. That is where I began a lifelong search of what's a good leader, how am I a good leader, and how do I develop and lead other leaders. That has been my quest since I was that 27 year old.
Q| What was the inspiration behind starting your own company?
I didn't ever set out to start my own company. Actually, I initially intended to retire from each of the companies I set out to work for. So, at the time, I was working as the director of operations at a company and I was finishing up my master's in human resources and organization development. My company offered me the CEO position of a spin-off company, and I turned it down.
I realized that I loved the development of the people who do the work. I loved getting up in the morning and helping people to get better at what they were doing. I didn't like going out and landing the project, managing the project, or finding the contracts as much so I decided that I wanted to work inside of organizations to help them do better. I didn't want to be the one who does the MBA-focused, analytical side of things. I wanted to focus on internal development, leadership development, team development, and performance analysis.
So I became a consultant, and becoming a consultant when you're making a total change is not a very smart thing to do. It took me a number of years to build the credibility to establish my current firm of 15 years. Initially, I didn't have the inspiration to have my own firm, but I simply knew that I wanted to follow my passion, which was inside of an organization, developing their leaders and their people to be better. As it turns out, I am CEO of my own company now, and it seems that I made the right choice.
Q| What is one change you hope to see in the training industry within the next decade?
My belief is that the training industry needs to stop seeing itself as the training industry. I think that the training industry is really the performance industry, and we need to start seeing ourselves that way. I do not dismiss training. I think training is an inordinately valuable solution, but it's one that is only prescribed for a problem that's called "lack of knowledge or skills." It can't be prescribed for a lack of incentives or consequences, poor processes, or a lack of good feedback. It's not the right solution.
I do consider myself a human performance improvement consultant. I tell people that it would be medical malpractice for a doctor to prescribe an appendectomy for a patient with a pain in their left side, without asking enough questions. The appendix is on the right side. It's the same thing when we allow a business-line manager to come in and ask for customer service training. As trainers, we ask "how much?" and "for whom?" We simply allow companies to tell us what the solution should be. I want training professionals to become performance practitioners and ask better questions.
They need to ask questions like what do you want the performers to be doing now? What are they doing? How does that impact the operations that you're dealing with? How should that look if they were doing it differently? What does that cost us? What would be the ROI? We need to ask better questions about what is getting in the way in the organizational environment. Do they have good processes? Do they have adequate dissemination of information? Do they have good incentives and consequences? Have they hired the right person? Have they taught him what he needs to know? Onboarded him correctly? Provided a motivating environment? These are the questions trainers need to be asking.
Q| Do you have any memorable anecdotes from your work with team building?
One of the memorable anecdotes connects back to my inspiration to follow my passion as an organization development specialist and human performance practitioner. When I was working for a large healthcare company, I was the area director of operations, and the company was in the decision-making process of divesting themselves of some operations that were not quite in the core line of their business.
I was one of three or four people on a transitioning team to make sure that we didn't lose the operations, the people, the directors, or the departments that we were divesting. We were trying to start a new company with them. I was on this new company's steering committee, and we brought together the directors from eight states to encourage and inspire them to be the architects of the new company.
I planned and facilitated an off-site retreat where everybody came in building attire, so we wore our steel-toed boots or something similar to that. I brought every tool I could find from my kitchen, my office, and my garage, and those were strewn across the ballroom with all these people. Everything was designed with the building scene in mind. I had purchased enough hard hats for all the directors, but they had to earn the hard hats during the retreat, so everyone was competing in terms of how they could keep their people together.
It was one of the most engaging things I had ever done, and it did keep both the old company, as well as the new company, together. The company was successfully divested, and we did not lose any of our operations. Furthermore, our income from this newly divested organization immediately began to make money, and we didn't have to replace people.
Q| What do you think are the crucial qualities of a successful training program
I think that one of the most crucial qualities of a successful training program is that it's for performers who have a lack of skills or knowledge. Training is a solution that's only applicable when there's a lack of knowledge or skills. For everything else, apply a different solution. A training program that is successful can take many, many faces. It can be an approach where the person has a coach or mentor that is helping them learn what they can improve upon in focusing them. It can be an instructor-led training in which everybody is in the same room, or it can be asynchronous learning where employees read, review, and interact. Off-the-shelf training programs have to be scrutinized so that the learner can do something different when he's done with the training.
One of the most important aspects for a successful training program was identified by Mary Broad, who said that the manager (of the learner) before the training is the most important key to a successful training program. If the manager is not supporting the learner coming back and applying his skills in the workplace, then it's a total waste of time, energy, and effort. The manager needs to set the stage for the environment to change.
So the qualities for me are making sure we know what we want the learners to do and designing an interactive, engaging, and applicable learning event. You have to make sure that the manager has involvement once the learner goes back to his department.
I am absolutely against having training that doesn't have a end result that is measurable. I think we really have to do a much better job of that. We need to measure it and we need to be able to know immediately, anecdotally, but also longitudinally over time that the training dollar actually matters because companies today don't have excess money to throw at a solution that doesn't solve the problem.
Q| Are you working on any new books or projects?
I'm collaborating on a book on leadership. It's time for organizations to start making hard decisions about leadership. They need to make sure that they get the right leader on board and that she is able to articulate a leadership vision. A leader also needs to make sure that the other people that are on board are going in the right direction. I'm also beginning a book on generational issues, especially as they relate to leadership. I'm working with a writing coach, and I hope to have a couple books out within the next couple of years.
Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?
I do enjoy reading. I download things onto my Kindle, and I keep it with me. I just wish that I could put all 1,500 of my business books for free onto it.
I enjoy small group discussions with people who have critical thinking skills. I like to be able to have a good debate where, at the end of the discussion, we're all able to agree that we had a good chance to express our different sides.
I also might get involved in politics. I'm in California, and I am very concerned about our dysfunctional state of affairs here. I don't want to run, but I see a dearth of leadership at the top in our state. I was quite energized to listen to one of the candidates recently, and I decided I might volunteer some of my free time to turn around leadership for our state.