Twice-a-Week Essays | Center for Leadership Studies

Twice-a-Week Essays

Dr. Ben Carson has been receiving a significant amount of well-deserved press of late. In some respects, it just sort of comes with the territory. By day, he is the accomplished director of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In his spare time, he is a best-selling author and orator that many believe has significant potential in the highest realms of the political arena. Beyond all of that, it would also appear he has a great sense of humor. As the first surgeon to perform a successful separation of Siamese twins joined at the head, he agreed to make a cameo appearance in the Greg Kinnear-Matt Damon comedy movie “Stuck on You (proceeds were donated to his scholarship fund).

Dr. Ben CarsonWhen you have talent on display like Dr. Carson, people have questions:

  • Where did this guy come from?
  • Why is he so successful?
  • Are there lessons to be learned here?

And putting all politically motivated analysis aside, what you find when you start to look for answers regarding the rise to prominence of Dr. Carson is (if nothing else) hope!

  • Where did Dr. Carson come from? Abject poverty. An African-American youth who, from the age of 8, was raised by a single parent in inner-city Detroit during the 1960s.
  • Why is he so successful? The short answer to that question is – his mother. If you want to read about a true American hero, buy a copy of Dr. Carson’s book “Gifted Hands.” If, for whatever reason, that isn’t in the cards, Google “Sonya Carson.” Spend five minutes in cyberspace reading about who she was, what she did and how that made a difference for Dr. Carson.
  • Are there lessons to be learned here? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. For all of us. Repeatable lessons we can all apply with our families, and in the context of this blog, in the execution of our responsibilities as training professionals to design training that benchmarks off the experiences of successful leaders like Sonya Carson.

Dr Ben Carson Gifted HandsIn “Gifted Hands, Dr. Carson chronicles the approach his mother took early on with his education. The first step was a conversation she had with his teachers every year regarding what was being taught, why it was important and what she could do to ensure Ben stayed on track. Now, we have to assume, given the fact that she was working two to three parallel jobs, that these conversations hit only the high notes and weren’t overly time-consuming. We also have to assume that Mrs. Carson’s voluntary time investment communicated at least a couple of things:

  1. I care about this. The education of my son is important to me.
  2. We are in this together. You have the day watch. I have the night watch. Let’s do this thing!

Mrs. Carson’s night watch duties included several well-documented sustainment strategies. First off, she discussed, in no uncertain terms, her expectations for Ben when he went to school. He was going to pay attention; he was going to learn; and he was going to achieve his potential regardless of who else was doing whatever. Beyond that, she instituted what anyone in the education and training business would have to agree was a brilliant short-term follow-up strategy: “The Twice-a-Week Essay.”

Each week, above and beyond the assigned homework that Ben received from school, he needed to draft (and read aloud) two essays that covered what he was learning in school; why it was important; and how he thought he might be able to use what he had learned. Now, one can only imagine implementing this plan probably came with its share of obstacles (lack of sleep; not enough time in the day; adolescent kid you love more than life itself trying like crazy to convince you what a bad idea this is; etc.). But, through it all, Sonya Carson stuck with the plan. After a while, she actually figured out a way to take the plan to a whole new level. She started following up with Ben on the things he said he was going to do to use what he learned.

There are truly so many things all of us can (and should) learn from the Sonya Carsons of the world, but, as it applies to the transfer and/or sustainment of education and training, we suggest four repeatable steps that give hope a fighting chance:

  • Training should be designed to get the managers of those about to be trained on the same page with the facilitators that are responsible for delivery. Expectations need to be set, and managers (like mothers), are best suited to set them. The objective is complete and total transparency (i.e., here’s a high-level overview of what we’ll be doing; how the skills your employee will learn will relate to his/her performance; how you can prepare this employee for the learning experience; what you can do to reinforce what has been learned upon return; etc. [‘Day watch – night watch – let’s do this thing’!]).
  • The training has to be good! Facilitators need to “stand and deliver.” Learners need to engage. The managers of those learners need to eliminate (or at least minimize) outside interruptions.
  • Managers need to commit to a customized version of “The Twice-a-Week Essay.” What did you learn? Why was that important? How do you see yourself being able to use what you learned on the job to improve performance? What can I do to help you make that happen, etc.? Make no mistake; Step 3 is a key “moment of truth.” Research would suggest that approximately 13% of what is learned in training will be retained without coaching and reinforcement. Retention jumps to 78% with a conscious effort on the part of the learner’s manager to sustain what has been learned.
  • Managers need to consciously revisit the commitments made in Step 3 by learners. In large part, this step is indistinguishable from any ongoing coaching or follow-up a good manager would do on a recurring basis (e.g., “We discussed ‘X’ last time we sat down, get me up to speed on how that has been progressing.”).

Are there obstacles that get in the way of these steps? You bet. Chief among them are the time demands placed on managers to do all sorts of other important things. If that is the case, is it realistic to think that managers have the bandwidth to get completely up to speed with everything their employees are learning in order to effectively implement Step 3? We believe Sonya and Dr. Ben Carson would say, “Absolutely not.” In that regard, the most interesting fact we came across regarding Sonya Carson when she was raising Dr. Ben? She couldn’t read. Ponder that for a minute or two.


  1. Identify a member of your family or an employee who reports to you that will be attending an upcoming training event and/or educational event
  2. Implement the four steps identified above (use “The Twice-a-Week Essay” as a guide to find a creative way you can follow through on Step 3)
  3. Measure the behavior change of the family member or employee over a 30- to 60-day time period (i.e., make a conscious effort to monitor the transfer of training)