L&D podcast Matthew Gjertsen
Training & Learning

Air Force Instructor Pilot to Learning Leader: Supersonic L&D with Matthew Gjertsen

In L&D, we have the chance to take our inspiration from many different places. We might look to top sports teams for examples of excellent collaboration in pursuit of a common goal, or to leaders in science for the right formula for impactful learning.

And sometimes, to identify the best way to make a powerful impact with our learning initiatives, we need to look to the stratosphere. Enter: Matthew Gjertsen.

In this podcast recap (check out the full episode here), I speak with Matthew Gjertsen, owner of Better Every Day Studios, about how his former roles as a T-1 Instructor Pilot in the US Air Force and Training & Development Manager at SpaceX shaped his L&D perspective of impacting performance by identifying behaviors within the organization. 

Read on to hear about Matthew’s journey from US Air Force Instructor Pilot to learning and development and how he applies his unique perspective to make an impact.

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Air Force jets to space exploration: a unique L&D trajectory

Matthew’s journey started in the US Air Force, where he was an instructor pilot for about nine years, getting the opportunity to instruct in a couple of different planes.

“I actually had the unique opportunity that immediately after completing pilot training, they kept me back,” he explains, “and I became an instructor right away. They call it a fake–a first assignment instructor pilot–unique in the Air Force.”

“I entered the Air Force because I wanted to go into space. And so I was getting increasingly interested in SpaceX, following them very closely, and wanting to work for them,” says Matthew.

So, when the opportunity popped up for Matthew to leave active duty, he set his sights on SpaceX. “I wasn't sure how I was going to do it. Never in a million years did I think my time training people how to fly would have anything to do with what I would do for the rest of my career,” he says. “I didn't even know L&D existed.” 

By networking on LinkedIn, Matthew connected with someone who ran SpaceX’s launch site at Vandenburg in central California for SpaceX. “And then I fell down the rabbit hole a year later. I found myself moving to LA to take over the learning development team for all of SpaceX, which was a ton of fun.”

“I was at SpaceX for over four years,” he says, “then went to another startup for a couple of years. I recently went out on my own and now run my own consultancy called Better Every Day Studios, where we work with companies to build learning solutions that produce business results.”

So, what was it that Matthew exhibited as a pilot student that had him picked up as an instructor so quickly?

Inspired by Matthew's story? Find out how learning in the flow of work can take your learning supersonic, too.

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How a pilot instructor can offer a fresh L&D perspective

Early on, Matthew noticed he could clearly identify when and how he made mistakes that affected his performance. 

“I could pinpoint the moment where there was a lack of understanding. I could find the gaps in my understanding and in others' understanding. And I think that's one of the key things of good trainers, instructors, and learning development professionals.” 

In Matthew’s experience, in L&D, we often talk a lot about helping achieve business outcomes and not taking orders. And yet, we often end up being order takers because we're not good at finding the gap and making sure it's a gap that L&D can help with. 

“And so I think that's one of the things that I seemed to be pretty good at early on,” he says. “And to this day, one of the things that I most enjoy is analyzing where the breakdown is. Is it a knowledge gap? Is it a motivation gap? Is it a skill gap? And how do we close that gap?”

So, how does Matthew recognize the gap between incomplete and ineffective performance?

I could pinpoint the moment where there was a lack of understanding. I could find the gaps in my understanding and in others' understanding. And I think that's one of the key things of good trainers, instructors, and learning development professionals.

1. Identify the behavior you really want to change

For Matthew, it all comes down to identifying a behavior. It’s a straightforward question: What behavior are you trying to change? 

“We talk a lot about identifying the business outcome, the ROI, and what you're trying to change. You need to talk to the business and figure out the outcomes they want to achieve. But if you are going to be effective, it's identifying the behavior we're trying to change.”

For instance, when Matthew sat with a subject-matter expert, like a health and safety professional at SpaceX, he’d let them explain what they were trying to accomplish. And then, to look at the big picture, he’d ask: what’s the behavior you are trying to change?

“And everything else flows from that because that behavior will dictate the modality and whether or not eLearning is effective at all, or if it needs to be some kind of practical training and how complicated that training needs to be,” explains Matthew. 

Next, it comes down to practicing the right attributes. 

2. Be creative when practicing

From both a flying and a fitness perspective, Matthew adopts some creative approaches to practicing. 

“Fitness is a great example,” he explains. “I remember doing these weird drills throughout high school, such as swimming and treating your elbow like a fin sticking out of the water. None of that was because you would ever swim that way, but it was trying to practice and strengthen a particular attribute.”

“It highlights how we can isolate particular parts of a behavior we want somebody to exhibit, things that often feel really awkward. And from the fitness and flying world, I've learned that that's okay. That awkwardness is kind of the point.”

And so, as Matthew explains, in areas like the military and fitness, where they have spent a great deal of money and resources figuring out how to do practice, they get creative to practice the one aspect of a behavior to move the ball forward.

We can isolate particular parts of a behavior we want somebody to exhibit, things that often feel really awkward. And from the fitness and flying world, I've learned that that's okay. That awkwardness is kind of the point.

Key L&D lessons from flight simulation

In Matthew’s experience, most eLearning is good with knowledge transfer as long as you pair it with something else.

“I often think of eLearning as a preparation for some other engagement,” he explains. “A preparation for the classroom or on-the-job training, and I think that's fine. We use that a lot in the military to get that initial foundation. So, you don't have to spend quite as much time in the classroom doing.”

So, when it comes to simulation and the potential for digital to transform learning and development, Matthew finds two crucial aspects are needed to make an impact.

1. Put the brain to work in your content

First, Matthew finds it crucial to understand how low fidelity you can be when using simulation. 

“The human brain likes to fill in the gaps and create patterns. That's really what it's designed to do,” he explains. “We like interacting with cartoon characters, and it's one of the things that we do a lot.”

“We create a lot of videos that no one would call realistic, but we've found that when it comes to teaching people how to give feedback, it can be better to watch a very obviously cartoon animation than a video of a person talking. Because it's not real, you're not judging their acting capabilities or any of that kind of stuff,” says Matthew.

2. Emotion strengthens our brain pathways 

Next, Matthew explains that the other important element is the emotional aspect of simulation, which is something the military does very well. 

“The military has these leadership courses, a part of which is going through obstacle courses. It's not an electronic simulation, but a simulation in that they assign roles to the people on the team,” he says. “So, you're creating a simulated leadership environment.”

As Matthew says, a big part of what made that simulated leadership environment successful was that the obstacle course was very clearly made in the eighties, with a lot of concrete and metal with scant areas of padding. 

“So, there was a visceral fear that you would feel about it, and that emotion is one of the ways that you strengthen pathways in the brain. And so, amping up a simulation's emotional element is key to being effective,” he says.

The human brain likes to fill in the gaps and create patterns. That's really what it's designed to do.

Colonizing Mars: what does L&D look like at a space agency?

At SpaceX, Matthew explains, L&D is very decentralized. He learned a lot from working in that environment, having just come from the very top-down military.

“SpaceX is an amazing place,” he says. “It is probably one of the most definitionally folk goal-oriented organizations there are.” 

Many of the early-on priorities and initiatives Matthew was involved in at SpaceX were about streamlining. “Much of our focus was flipping L&D’s use of time spent learning on its head and how we limit it, especially with things like compliance.”

One of the early interventions he got to work on was dramatically reducing employees’ time commitment to compliance training. “It's one of those things–because it's a relatively low-level pain–that's felt lightly across the entire business where once a year you're like, ‘Oh man, really? Do I have to do that again?’” 

“But it adds up,” he explains. “With a company of 5,000 to 10,000 people, you save about 15 minutes an hour on training. That’s focusing on what behavior you are trying to change. Even if it’s a knowledge transfer course, does that relate to the behavior you're trying to change?”

The small savings in time all add up. With a company of 5,000 to 10,000 people, if you save about 15 minutes an hour on training, that’s a big deal.

The importance of context for impactful L&D

Matthew breaks the learning design for behavior change into three critical components: specificity, connection, and context.

Specificity is being very specific about what you're trying to achieve, and connection is how you build connections within the brain.”

“But context is that we are all designed to remember things in context,” says Matthew. “There's a reason why when you're in the kitchen, you have an idea, you go to the living room to write it down, but you get there, and you can't remember it anymore. And so, you return to the kitchen and remember it.”

“And so, making all learning contextual is incredibly important. The more contextual it can be, the better. This is one of the reasons why I think learning in the flow of work is so important.”

Making all learning contextual is incredibly important. The more contextual it can be, the better. This is one of the reasons why I think learning in the flow of work is so important.

Thanks to Matthew for sharing his unique Air Force pilot instructor perspective and insights on identifying behavior with us! Keen to learn more from L&D experts? Check out my conversation with Bob Mosher about what learning in the flow of work means for the types of learning people prefer.

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