Episode #2

Power of Community. Interview with Pia-Maria Thorén

What does a solid and engaged community of trainers give to your training business?
How can you create and support a global movement with just a small core team?

In this episode of Training Business Anatomy, Pia-Maria Thoren, the creator of Agile People, shares how investments in the trainer community allowed a global Agile People movement to thrive and her business to grow.

Summary

Agile People is a global community passionate about bringing agile to as many companies and countries as possible and making the world of work better. We are primarily targeting HR and leadership.

Right now there are about 80 trainers all over the world.

Pandemic has shown us new opportunities. We have to move to a digital space, which took some time, but the result was worth it. Now I am not sure that I want to return to entirely physical training sessions. By working online, we could stretch training for many days, allowing knowledge to sink in and people to get to know each other.

It all started with my own training sessions, after which people asked me if they could teach it themselves. Then there was a book and the ICAgile certification. I was travelling a lot and meeting a lot of people.

I think the turning point which led to creating my own business was the combination of all those factors plus good timing. Pandemic showed people that change and adaptability is crucial, and agile has become much more popular because of it.

My goal is to improve organizations and to change people’s lives. And I could not do it alone, that’s why I need a network of trainers. But my core team is really small - just me and two more people.

I don’t tell trainers what to do. Everything they do comes from intrinsic motivation. I just support and inspire them.

I consider myself successful when people I work with are successful. And I always try to follow the principles I teach because only then you can come across as honest and authentic.

I am more of a visionary so to run my business better I need someone who can stick to structure and order. That’s the piece of a puzzle I am missing myself. While my focus is helping my trainers and making all processes easier for them.

Transcription

Sergey Kotlov

Hello everyone, it's Sergey from Workshop Butler, and this is our second episode of building a successful training business podcast, and today we have a great guest – Pia-Maria from Agile People. Pia-Maria is a coach, a writer, a prominent figure in Agile HR space and a thought leader, without a doubt. Nice to meet you and nice to welcome you here, Pia-Maria.

Pia-Maria Thorén

Thank you, Sergey. Very nice to be here and good to see you again. It's been a while since we’ve met. I think it was a few years ago, wasn’t it? Was it Agile People Sweden last time?

Sergey Kotlov

Yes, I think it was the Agile People conference a few years ago when I was at Accelerator. I don't actually remember, so it was a long time.

Pia-Maria Thorén

But we've been working together via digital tools since then, so we have regular contact anyway.

Sergey Kotlov

Yeah, so nothing has changed since a pandemic started actually for us.

Pia-Maria Thorén

No, it's the same, isn't it? All the same online business and digital tools. A little bit less travelling, maybe, but business as usual.

Sergey Kotlov

Yeah, business as usual, I would say. So, Pia-Maria, could you please tell just a couple of words about Agile People and what it actually is. For the listeners to understand more about the topic, you're working on.

Pia-Maria Thorén

Okay, so Agile People is a global community consisting of people who are passionate to combine agile and people to create engagement in the workplace. And we are targeting HR and leadership because we think that HR and leadership are influences in any organization, and we are creating awareness in these groups. We are offering training to these groups and we are also offering coaching services.
So awareness training. That's how we see it. It's the order that we need to work in to increase business agility because that's what we want to do. Increasing people and business agility will ultimately, we believe, create better organizations where people are performing happily.
So this is Agile People we have around. Maybe you know better than me, between eighty and ninety trainers, I think, something like that right now, spread out globally, from Japan to South America, South Africa, Canada, U.S, Europe, Singapore - different countries everywhere in the world.

Sergey Kotlov

Yeah, it's all around the world actually.

Pia-Maria Thorén

And we do different projects or initiatives together. Last time we wrote a book together during the pandemic. It's called the “Agile People principles: Your call to action for the future of work”. It's about the Agile People principles that you need to increase to be able to increase business and people agility.
And this book was very fun to write, I would say. It's very beautiful as well, so I'm very proud of that. It's a great co-creation project that we’ve done together.

Sergey Kotlov

Oh, that's impressive. How many people participated in the project, I mean in writing this book?

Pia-Maria Thorén

35 Agile People. And we did it for six months. Everybody wrote one chapter each about one of our Agile People principles. And it's beautiful to have so many people working together. We didn't have a project manager, anything like that. Nobody told anybody what to do. It was just happening like that, from intrinsic motivation. We set up a meeting, where we made all the decisions once a week and we did peer review. We had a Trello board, and that's where we started from. We finalized the project and the book launch in six months. In September 2020, we were ready. We started in March and finished with this book.

Sergey Kotlov

Considering all the craziness of these first months of the pandemic, many businesses, especially training businesses, were going through a huge transformation. I personally know many trainers who were thinking: “What are we going to do?”, because many events got cancelled, many gigs got cancelled. I am not just talking about training, but also about consultancy, gigs, etc. So this is really impressive.

Pia-Maria Thorén

In March, everything was cancelled, six month ahead. All the training sessions, all the keynote speeches, and all the travels were cancelled within two weeks. What we had to do was to move online and learn the digital tools even better: the Mural Canvases, the Zoom sessions, Slack. Everything online. We started only communicating via digital tools.
We recorded videos and we set up a learning management system where we have all the steps of each of the training sessions: how do you perform it before, during, after. Everything was made digitally. And then I started to train my own trainers to become proficient in these tools, how to move from mainly focusing on physical training to focusing only on digital or online training.

Sergey Kotlov

How long did it take?

Pia-Maria Thorén

Two months.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay, so there was a thriving business, and there was just boom! - the pandemic and a pause. You had to recreate yourself and your approach to the business. When did you realize that you’re going to survive and get out of this epic event stronger than you were?

Pia-Maria Thorén

In May - June we realized this is going to work. That was when the first batch of trainers were ready with their training, and they started to schedule their own sessions.
It took a couple of months, and then in June, we started to see that people were starting to get acquainted with digital tools instead of physical training and physical meetings. From there we increased the number of trainers.
Actually, I think it’s more than we could have done if the pandemic didn't happen, because we were so focused on developing online and digital training capacity and capability with our trainers

Sergey Kotlov

So does that mean that the pandemic actually sharpened your focus and allowed you to open another opportunity for your business?

Pia-Maria Thorén

Yes, definitely, this was a new opportunity for us and it proved to be very successful. I'm actually not sure that I want to go back to the old way of doing training again. Probably we will go back to have a blend - one day in person, then you do a set of sessions online, and maybe then you also meet in the end for one day or so. But I don't think it will be entirely online or entirely physical training. Maybe entirely online.
We will keep the entirely digital training, but not entirely physical, because it has so many advantages with having the content and the canvases and all the work that we are doing online. It's so good to have that as a repository to go back to. Even if we meet in person for one day, you can then go to the material, can have a look at what we did here, what we said here, what was the result of our online sessions. And it's so valuable to be able to find all the resources: videos, training materials, articles, links, and everything else in the space that we call our campus, our learning management system.
I would be hesitant to offer only the physical training with that experience because it's when you stretch the training during several months, that's when learning sticks. When you visit the material after training, the learning sticks. During the actual sessions or the actual training itself, you are presented with new concepts. But then you need to practice and you need to digest, you need to apply your learning. So, that's when something starts to happen in people's minds, and that's when the learning sticks, we say.

Sergey Kotlov

You said that you don’t want to go back to the old way of giving offline training sessions only. And what I remember is that before it all started, so many trainers kept saying that it's just impossible to move the training sessions online because they would lose connection with people and valuable interactions. But when the pandemic started, we saw that it was not actually happening. There is definitely a difference between online training and offline training. But in your opinion, do students lose anything when they do not go offline? Do they lose these interactions?

Pia-Maria Thorén

We lose the immediate physical interaction obviously, but we win a lot more. It also depends on how you do the training. We work in two-hour sessions, and we do this during twenty sessions, so you get to know each other for life. We spread it out over twenty days, and the twenty days could be during one month or several months. Maybe three times a week, two hours every time, or we meet two hours every day for twenty days in a row.
And when these twenty days are finished, people say “Oh my God, I'm going to miss these two hours every day that we were hanging out together and sharing and discussing and interacting. What am I going to do on Monday?” They're very sad that it's over.
You get so used to the people. Even though it's an international group and often we are people from all over the world, we bring all different kinds of perspectives. That's so rewarding. People get to know each other and make friends for life. Because of online training, because of digital training, not because you are at the same place for two days. Because then you forget about each other after a while. But if you stick to the same people for twenty sessions, then some people will actually get closer and they will share more and more and more gradually, and they will get to know each other deeply, which is one of the Agile People principles, by the way - getting to know each other deeply. That means that they create this bond and have shared so much, so that they will keep on meeting even after the training.
We have seen groups who have been in training together. For example, one such group is the Agile People Collective. They continue to meet after the training without me, the trainer, and they still meet regularly and talk about how we can work together, how we can support each other in different ways. This is a very nice side effect that we see from the online training.

Sergey Kotlov

Interesting. What’s amusing me is that the pandemic actually helped you to improve how you live by one of your principles - the principle of establishing deep connections between people. Because before that most of your trainers had 2, maybe 3 days training sessions. And it’s also my experience that there are cool interactions during 2-3 days training, but I try to remember any person who I did several training sessions with and I barely can remember them.

Pia-Maria Thorén

Yes, that's true. The way we do digital training is an advantage. I don't believe in doing digital training two days in a row for eight hours every day. That's not a good way of doing it, because you get too tired when you sit all the time in front of the camera. You have too much attention on yourself. It’s too much to sit for eight hours in front of a screen like that.
But you can chop it up in smaller sessions and we even have a break in the middle as well. We have found that two hours is a perfect time. And then we have a blended approach - it's a bit of discussion, a bit of exercise, a bit of movie, it’s a bit of everything, so that all the time you change the way you learn.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay, I see. This is interesting. What I want to do right now is actually get out a little bit over learning and get back to the business itself. When we first met, I believe, it was when I was travelling around Europe, visiting some companies. And during that time as I remember, there were just Agile People conferences and nothing else. But right now you definitely don't have conferences.There are at least two books and a global business. So how did it all start and actually come to this point?

Pia-Maria Thorén

I think I started to do my own training in 2012-2013. I did my first Agile HR training, and we started a conference in 2013 .We did the conference, we did meetups, I did training myself. But then people started to ask me about the content and the material that I was using, if they could use it.
After that, I wrote the book and did the certification with the ICAgile as well. I accredited my Agile HR course according to ICAgile’s learning objectives, which I also had contributed to. It was quite easy for my course to get accredited, because I was the one making learning objectives.
After that, I had demand from people who had been through my training. They wanted to do it themselves. They said: “This is so good, we want to do this ourselves”. I started quite small, and this was back in 2017-2018. It’s only 3 years.

Sergey Kotlov

It’s only 3 year and you already have more than 70-80 trainers around the world teaching people. This is impressive!
So you started giving your own training in 2013, but you actually got your first trainer in 4 years. What was the turning point? Was it a book? Was it certification?

Pia-Maria Thorén

I think it was a combination of all of that. I think it was the book, that's the one thing. It came out in 2017. The one that I have on the wall behind me. That's the book that has been the most popular for me. And there was obviously the ICAgile certification.
And there was also timing, I think. Agile became more known as a concept or as a way of working in the world. It gradually increased during this time, so I think the timing was quite crucial here as well. Now the timing is even better after the pandemic because people have seen the need for change and adaptability. When things like that happen, it’s crucial. It’s been speeded up by the pandemic.
Actually, the virus made business and people's agility a more pressing issue that more and more organizations understand that they need to move towards, which is a very good coincidence. Or maybe it's not a coincidence, maybe it was meant to be, I don’t know.
There were many different things. I also started to travel a lot after 2017 when the book came, because I got invited to a lot of different conferences and people wanted me to travel around and do training with them in their countries.
Also it brought me a very wide network of people in the world and people who are positive towards my book and my message, and what I wanted to do in the workplace. I want to change workplaces, to improve how we work together, and how we create customer value, and by creating customer value become profitable. It's those good circles that you want to reinforce - psychologically safe people working together towards a collective goal. And this is also how we work within Agile People.
We have some kind of vision that we are moving towards. It feels like work is meaningful, and I know that the book and the course has changed lives and the directions of people's lives. I get a lot of emails and testimonials from people whose lives have been turned around because they had the courage to abandon a toxic organization with a bad culture and start their own business because they believed so much in the message from the book.

Sergey Kotlov

That's huge and inspiring.

Pia-Maria Thorén

That’s inspiring for me as well. You get inspired by each other and it builds up by itself,If you see what I mean.

Sergey Kotlov

Yeah, I see. You mentioned the vision you have for Agile People. It was actually my second goal, my second question. When you decided to grow a network of facilitators, a network of Agile People trainers, what was the goal for you? Because you could easily tell people: “No, I don’t want to do that. I prefer to do that on my own”.

Pia-Maria Thorén

You realize that you can never do alone what many people can do together. So I could never have done it alone. I could never have reached the same number of people If I'm alone.
And a vision and a goal is to grow the network, to grow improvement in organizations, to create a better world of work. That's the vision. And how can you do that alone? It's impossible to do it alone. That's the whole idea - you need a lot of people to be able to do that. So the more we can spread it, the more we can be generous, and the more we can spread the message in the world, the more we can improve the world of work, the more organizations we can touch, and the more different countries and companies in those countries we can help.
The goal was always to improve organizations and create a better world of work.
I didn’t have any specific goals like I need to reach this kind of money in this time or this number of trainers. I never had any numeric goals at all. It's only continuous improvement and learning.

Sergey Kotlov

So your goal was to reach many companies and people to show what is possible, to inspire them. Okay, maybe it’s not your goal, but that’s how I understand it from your words. So how do you define success for Agile People and for you personally?

Pia-Maria Thorén

I am successful when the people who I work with are successful, when my trainers are successful, when we can make a difference. I know that I'm successful, when I get an email saying that you changed my life, or I get an email saying that “Yes, we implemented this psychological safety game and it really changed the way we see our organization” or when I get these testimonials from my customers. That's when I’m successful. Because then I know that I have done something real. Then I know that what I'm doing has made a difference for people in organizations. That’s the proof for me.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay, this is for you personally. And what for Agile People? How do you define it? Because Agile People is more than just a business, it is a movement.

Pia-Maria Thorén

I don't. You have to ask the Agile People. I don’t define success for somebody else. The organization is successful as long as we can survive and do what we do and spread the message even more. That's when we are successful.

Sergey Kotlov

From a business point of view, you have not set any numerical goals?

Pia-Maria Thorén

I never did.

Sergey Kotlov

So how do you operate it in this way? How does the business operate right now without anything like that?

Pia-Maria Thorén

I do Train The Trainer sessions. I have right now two employees who I work with. We are trying to do everything that needs to be done to keep our trainers happy and also doing some coaching. We are all the time doing things that we believe could increase agility in the world and moving in that direction.
Every day is made up of small pieces. This morning, I had 3-hours training. I have just started the new Swedish group of becoming Agile People trainers. I do some podcasts, conferences, and content development. I’m improving the content. I do another certification with ICAgile. Every day is filled up with all those things that need to be done to continue to do what I'm doing.
There is very little governance in my business because it’s very small. The core team is only me and one or two more people. And then we have this network of people who are doing things. They are translating the content, they are marketing. They are working with all these different things.
But the core team is very, very, very small, which is maybe a success factor, I don't know.
I’m not telling people what to do in the network or in the community. They work only from intrinsic motivation. Somebody asked me last week: “Can I translate the course to Ukrainian language?”. Yeah, and then we try to support from a central perspective - to give the rights to do that and the possibility to do that - sending them the templates, letting them do what they feel motivated to do.
This is how we work. We try to stimulate different activities, but most of the time I'm not suggesting to people what to do or “You should start up something in Germany”, or “Why don't you get together and start something in Peru? Because you both have the same vision”. I can connect people with each other and I can create some kind of platform for them to work together and to start up their business, for example, Agile People Brazil. It started because I said: “Yes, go ahead and do it”. And now they’re running with it because it’s their business, their motivation, and they own it. You need to be generous, let people do their own thing and let them own their own business, their own motivation and their own stuff. That's how you can grow a community.
And that's also what we teach in our training. You have to have intrinsic motivation. Different people are motivated by many different things. And when you see it, there is something here. There is a fire. There is a passion. You need to not put water on that fire, right? You need to put the wood on it - help, support. And that's what I do. I try to help and support with what I have and what I can do. To be supportive. That’s the secret, I guess.

Sergey Kotlov

Being a servant, right? I am just using the popular word.

Pia-Maria Thorén

Yeah, a little bit, servant leadership. A little bit inspiring leadership, a little bit coaching leadership. Agile leadership. You need to live like you preach. You preach this kind of leadership, because I do agile leadership training as well, then you need to live in that way as well. Because that's when you come across as authentic as well - when you live according to your own values, your own motivation, and what you are convinced is right to do. Authenticity is extremely important. Be who you are, do what you believe in and try to come across as true, honest and transparent as possible.

Sergey Kotlov

That’s an important point. I was thinking about it lately as well. How many people I’ve been following lately and listening to lately, are authentic. That’s what makes them interesting to me, because they are not afraid of being themselves, sharing their own values and living the way they live, because they believe in these values.

Pia-Maria Thorén

Yes, this vulnerability is also extremely important - to be able to be vulnerable and to realise that you're not perfect. Even though you make mistakes, you’re totally okay. You come back, you jump up again, you try again, you don't give up. You haven’t failed until you give up.

Sergey Kotlov

That’s true. With your core small team and with a large network of people, what is the most pressing issue for you right now?

Pia-Maria Thorén

The financial follow-up is my most pressing issue. I don’t have a clue how the company is going. I had a woman working for me. She was overworked already when she started to work for me. So she could not do the accounting properly. But she’s a good friend of mine so I let her continue for over a year. And then we end up in problems because we need to understand how the company is really going and I haven’t got a clue.
Obviously we have money in our bank account. As long as we have, then it's okay, but we need to have a better follow-up. We need to have more structure and order and that's my weak spot. I'm not good at that - financial follow-up and stuff like that. Although I went to finance university, I'm not that kind of person. I realized long after that I really didn't like to do accounting and that's why I guess I'm not good at it - following rules and regulations and understanding about order and structure. I was a project manager for many many years. But I hated it and I know why now. Because I’m much more spontaneous and flexible. I want to inspire, I want to do different things. So I need people with me who are more ordered and structured and can provide that piece of the puzzle that I am missing myself.

Sergey Kotlov

It’s a question from a business owner who also constantly has some pressing issues. And you definitely have one that you clearly see. Are you doing anything to fix it?

Pia-Maria Thorén

I'm bringing in consultants now to fix it. I’m bringing in people who used to work for me a long time ago on a consultancy basis to fix this, so it's going to be fixed. She’s coming tomorrow to help out. We did close the books for 2020 and we did have the profit for 2020. We’re alive and kicking. We have money in the bank account but we also need to have the books in order for 2021 until now. That’s what we’re focusing on.
But that’s not my thing to focus on. Because I'm just focusing on doing more translations, on doing more certifications, on making processes smoother. How can we facilitate for the trainers? How can we make it easier for them? How can we help them to market themselves and build the business for themselves? That's my focus mostly.
We have regular meetings, we are providing virtual coffee, book clubs, coaching dojos and different things to keep in touch with people, to stimulate the community, and to do things together all the time. It’s important.
Because people have so much to share with each other and they have different experiences. When they’re sharing they build on each others’ knowledge.

Sergey Kotlov

I see. Wouldn’t it be advantageous for your business to have someone on a strictly operational part of the business? Because you are definitely not an operational person, you are a visionary and a community builder. So what I was thinking is how would your business change if you have someone with a really sharp focus on making operations work as good as possible.

Pia-Maria Thorén

Actually that's what I'm looking for. Somebody who can deal with these parts because I'm more of an external person, the marketer, the visionary. I know how to be seen, how to be heard, how to express myself, but I need somebody to keep track of all the other stuff, backend stuff. That’s my weak spot at the moment.

Sergey Kotlov

Okay. I think that would be a great place to stop. Thank you very much. I think it was very insightful. For me, it’s for sure. So many ideas, so much thinking. What I found the most interesting is that yesterday I talked to Jason Little. Looking from the outside (even though I am not completely from the outside as I know a little bit about your businesses), in one perspective, they are similar, but then you start talking and you see different values, visions. Of course, you have something in common, but how your business reflects your inner side is impressive. This is what I did miss before I actually started talking to you.

Pia-Maria Thorén

Great. I am happy that you saw something else in me than in Jason. Sure, we have many things in common. I don’t know him very well, just spoke with him briefly. But we have similar businesses, we both have a training network. I think that we have a similar vision to change the world of work as well. But we’re doing it in slightly different ways. I know many people in the world who are doing the same thing as well.
I am happy to have been able to contribute to your podcast. I wish you all the best for your business as well, Sergey.