Chapter 5: What are the qualities of leadership in the field of Instructional Technology? An interview with Lisa Toenniges

By Alicia Jenner


For students or early career professionals in the field of instructional technology (IT), it can be challenging to effectively navigate a career path.  Employers often seek out candidates with extensive experience and it can often take years to acquire such experience.  Given its relatively recent emergence, many professionals have transitioned to the instructional technology field from successful careers in other industries.  As a graduate student just starting my career, I wanted to learn more about the instructional technology field.  In particular, I was interested in steps toward starting a career, growing as an IT professional, and learning more about the various directions that such a career could take.

Regardless of a person’s background, one of the most critical traits for success in instructional technology is effective leadership. From the final speech written for John F. Kennedy, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Significant research has been devoted to leadership. Day (2001) summarizes the skills necessary for leader development, emphasizing that many of the required knowledge, skills, and abilities are individual-based. He suggests that the skills required for leadership allow people “to think and act in new ways.” As far as the specific skills required, much of this research has occurred in this area, particularly with respect to K-12 education where performance-based standards are widely utilized (Haynes et al., 2015).  Unfortunately, while extensive research has been conducted to better understand what constitutes effective leadership, the results generally show the concept to be very complex and difficult to concisely summarize (Leithwood et al., 1996). Ultimately, successful leadership is often reflective of individuals who are driven to such roles.

Related to this theme, this chapter presents an interview with Lisa Toenniges, a noted leader in the field of IT and performance improvement. I met Lisa when I began attending monthly meetings of the Michigan chapter of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) in January 2014. Through her roles in both her own company and ISPI, Lisa has demonstrated a strong commitment to mentorship, leadership, and entrepreneurship in her 25 years in the field. With her passion and dedicated hard work inside and outside the office, she has positioned herself as a true leader in the field of instructional technology. During the time previously spent with Lisa at meetings, as well as during the course of this interview, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the field of performance improvement. In addition, these discussions provided critical information as to how to become a leader in this rapidly evolving field.

Short Bio of Lisa Toenniges

Lisa Toenniges is the owner and chief executive officer of Innovative Learning Group, a performance improvement consulting company based in Troy, Michigan. Lisa has over 25 years of experience in the performance improvement industry and has worked with several Fortune 1000 companies. Her dedication to mentorship, volunteer work, and leadership with the International Society for Performance Improvement has provided the opportunity to serve numerous roles including a three-year term as president of the International Society of Performance Improvement ( ).


This interview was conducted via telephone on Monday, October 26, 2015. The interviewee was Lisa Toenniges, CEO of Innovative Learning Group and the interviewer was Alicia Jenner, graduate student at Iowa State University.

Alicia: How did you become interested in Instructional Technology?

Lisa: When I was a child, I always wanted to become a teacher. At first, I was thinking about becoming a gym teacher because I liked sports. However, in fifth grade, I started in band and decided I wanted to become a band director. Once I got to college, I pursued an undergraduate degree in music education and eventually became a music teacher. After doing that for a few years, I started looking into the business world. So, I re-wrote my resume and played up the important skills that come with being a teacher. This eventually landed me a job with General Motors (GM) in a sales track position for recent college graduates.

One day, I attended a class about learning how to use a computer. I found interest in both the instructor and the training materials. This instilled an interest for me in continuing to work in education, but in the corporate world. After the session, I spoke with the instructor and asked her how I could find out more about these types of careers. She informed me that I could obtain a master’s degree from Wayne State University in Detroit in the area of curriculum and instructional technology.  As General Motors offered tuition assistance, that is what I decided to do.

Alicia: What was your first Instructional Technology (IT)-related job?

Lisa: My first IT job was also at GM.  I actually moved from my sales position to a job in training while I was still working on my master’s degree. This first job was to train sales district managers. I was able to focus some of the school projects around this position and could apply my course concepts to what was actually going on at work.

Alicia: What was your next step? What happened when you left General Motors?

Lisa: I went to an advertising agency that also conducted training, which was mostly focused on the automotive industry. I only stayed there for one year and found that it was not necessarily a great fit for me. At that point, I was focused on the vendor side, rather than internal training.  In contrast, at GM, I was an internal consultant to the company.  At the advertising agency, I was an external consultant.

So, the good news was that I found out that I liked the external side, especially the pace and accountability. I liked the fact that I was not sitting in a committee meeting and talking about doing the work, but I was actually doing the work myself.

After leaving this company, I went to Triad Performance Technologies, which was a premier training and performance consulting firm at the time. I was there for about ten years before I started Innovative Learning Group (ILG). During my time at Triad, I feel like I “grew up” on the job. I learned how to manage one project, then several projects, and eventually an entire account, followed by multiple accounts. Related to this growth, I also learned how to manage one person, then five people, and eventually 40 people across 4 different offices.  I also learned a lot about how a small business ran. I got involved in many special projects to improve how things worked. I always gravitated towards those types of opportunities and I believe it served me well then to start a business.

Alicia: That seems like a natural progression. Ultimately, what inspired you to start ILG?

Lisa: That’s a good question. Unfortunately, the other company went out of business. Between 2000 and 2004, that was a time when the economy was not great. We had about 15 people when I started at the company, then grew to about 80, and the company eventually shrank back down to 15. We were informed on a Wednesday that we were all going to be laid off on Friday. While we all knew business was not going well; they were very honest. It seems as though we were all just in denial and wanted to stay there forever.  So, I had a decision to make. I could either update my resume or start a company. At the time, starting a company seemed like the better alternative. And, eleven years later, the rest is history.

Alicia: Can you tell me about your approach as a CEO/Manager and the culture that you bring to your office?

Lisa: The cool thing about my background and degree is that I am a performance consultant. I understand the psychology of why people behave the way they do, the factors that impact good performance, and how to engineer those factors in the work environment.  You may have studied Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model, which is a good model to help understand effective practices in the IT field.  Gilbert’s Model includes six conditions of behavior: (1) data; (2) instruments; (3) incentives; (4) knowledge; (5) capacity; and (6) motives.  These are essentially guiding principles for how I manage my office.

I basically have my own laboratory on a smaller scale. So I would say, from a culture standpoint, I am pretty hands on. We have a very accountable environment, which encourages employees to take initiative. Every day, every person has a responsibility with deadlines and deliverables to get out the door. So, we don’t just talk about the work, we really have to do the work because we’ve promised it to our clients.  The culture is really about setting everybody up for success. This includes making sure everyone is clear on what they need to do and providing them with the tools and resources to do so. I also make sure to reward and praise people for doing the right things. Similarly, I do not praise people or reward them for not doing the right things. Personally, I think consistency is important here because, otherwise, it tends to create confusion in a work environment. We make sure we hire people with the right skills, the right mental capacity, and people that really want to do the job.

Alicia: With ILG, I am assuming you generally look to hire people with prior experience?

Lisa: We try to hire people with a lot of experience because we it is very time- and resource-intensive otherwise. We need to hire people with client experience. You can’t just quickly build up this type of expertise with a new person, because that could take up to five years. Generally, we try to hire people with years of experience and an advanced degree.

Alicia: What other “hats” do you wear as Manager/CEO, given that your work deals with clients and managing 17 full-time employees?

Lisa: Beyond our full-time staff, we also have a contract network. So, at any one time, we may use as many as 50 to 60 free-lance employees. I do wear a lot of “hats”, which includes involvement in sales and marketing, as well. The consulting that I do is often in the sales process. Once we sell work, then one of my team members generally takes over and runs the project. For sales and marketing, you first have to make connections and identify the people to talk to, for example, participating in events such as meetings of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). I am often involved in committees and serve on various boards.  I am also involved in public speaking roles, as well as publishing, essentially serving as the external face of ILG. To this end, we have a full-time marketing person. She creates the strategy and I review it. Ultimately, I review everything that goes out the door. It is critical to ensure that every article, blog, or white paper that goes out the door is consistent and well aligned with our vision for the company. We also just hired a full-time business development person. While I do all of the finances, we also have a bookkeeper and an accountant. Ultimately, I live and die by those financial statements, the profit and loss statements, the balance sheets, and cash flow.  Cash flow is very important in a small business; you must have money to pay people every two weeks. I oversee people who worry about the information systems piece. And I oversee the people who manage the projects. So, I worry about all of the processes, tools, standards, and about how we do our work.

Alicia: How frequently are those people checking in with you and giving you updates? Are you focused more on the big picture, or how deeply do you get into fine details?

Lisa: Every project we are working on has an assigned project manager. So, I mostly care about communicating effectively with the project manager because they are then responsible for managing everyone else on their team.  Out of the 17 of us, we have 8 who play the project manager role. So they worry about quality, schedule, and budget. At the beginning of a project, I approve the pricing before it is sent to a client.  I also help with staffing for the project, such as deciding whether we use internal staff or if we are going to use free-lance personnel. From there, I am less involved until near the end of the project when we look at the budget. I also sit in on a client debrief meeting near the conclusion of each project. In between, it would be up to the project manager to come to me if there is an issue that needs my attention. Another woman and I divide the accounts for monitoring purposes. She knows what is going on under her accounts and I know what’s going on under my accounts. So, we partner with the project managers to help grow the accounts. That is the short answer. We could talk for hours about that alone.

Alicia: You have mentioned free-lancers a number of times.  How do you find these personnel? I presume a lot of it is a function of networking?

Lisa: We find them at ISPI, we find them at ATD (Association for Talent Development), and there are a number of avenues for recruitment. Often times, one free-lancer refers another free-lancer. Sometimes, people leave a company as a client and become a free-lancer. Sometimes people change their career goals and make lifestyle choices. We spend a lot of time working with these individuals and they are such a big part of our overall model.  We have lunch with them and get to know them. Ultimately, we keep a database on file and store their resumes so we are able to search for free-lancers with specific attributes.

Alicia: Are they all in the metro Detroit area where your company is based or are they spread out across the U.S. and Canada?

Lisa: They are primarily located in Michigan, but we do have pockets of people from all over. They work quite successfully, because if a client is remote to us, it doesn’t matter if the free-lancer is working remotely, as well. Typically, we are able to communicate effectively just by getting connected through conference calls. I would estimate about half of our work is outside of Michigan.

Alicia: Can you elaborate on the work outside of Michigan?  You have some local big business like Ford and General Motors.  What about those clients outside of Michigan?

Lisa: We do a lot of work with clients outside of Michigan. We also have a number of important clients who we cannot publicly advertise. This can be very frustrating because they are often some of our biggest clients. However, we sign master service agreements with these clients, which prohibit us from any mention of their name at all.

Alicia: You have also been very active in professional societies as noted previously.  As Past President of ISPI (International Society for Performance Improvement), what inspired you to take on this type of role?

Lisa: I started becoming involved in ISPI during graduate school when I was in my late 20s. I gradually became more and more involved. This included becoming involved in committees, then I chaired a committee. I eventually became president of the Michigan Chapter. From there, some of the people from the Michigan Chapter got me more involved in the International Chapter. I eventually chaired a workshop and then the ISPI international conference in 2010. I almost followed this path as a part of volunteer work. Through volunteer work, you can give back to the community and develop leadership skills in a volunteer organization.  You also learn more about important technical content when involved in a professional society, in addition to meeting prospective clients, employees, and freelancers. After my experience chairing the conference, I ran for a position on the board. I was elected to the board and I served two years as treasurer. I then ran for President and was successfully elected to this position, which includes a three-year term of service. So, it was a 25-year career path to get here, with constant on-going involvement. It is a huge commitment, but I have found it very rewarding.

Alicia: Since moving to Iowa, I found that ISPI does not currently have a chapter. I was hoping to become more involved in some local networking opportunities, would you have any suggestions?  How about for establishing a local chapter?

Lisa: ATD (Association for Talent Development) is all over and could be a great place to start.  The other society that is a very big presence nationally is SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management). These organizations provide a broader umbrella for training and performance.

Let me know when you are ready to start movement toward establishing a local chapter; I can help you connect with people to get started. There are also virtual chapters available. You can go to and find that many of the chapters host virtual meetings. You can also look for the chapter network and see all of the related events and webinars.

Alicia: How were you able to balance work at ILG with the responsibilities as ISPI President?

Lisa: I look at professional volunteer work as part of my job. It didn’t matter if I did it during the day or at night, it’s just a natural part of my work. I generally work about 60 hours per week, Monday through Saturday, and must prioritize accordingly. You can’t do your volunteer work at the expense of your livelihood. So, to some extent you have to put some boundaries on it.

Alicia: How are you staying current with changing technology?

Lisa: This is certainly important. We all pay attention to our given expertise. I’m more likely to look at the Wall Street Journal, as well as ISPI Journals. In contrast, our technology team is likely to read blogs and journals about technology.  The clients also help us do that. When we see clients move into a new software, we definitely make a push on learning that, as well.

Alicia: What are some challenges that you have faced when adapting to change?

Lisa: I think this is something that we are pretty good at in our field because it’s ultimately what we do for a living.  It’s first recognizing that there is a need for change, which is not always easy. Then, deciding as a company how to respond to that change and putting together a plan. That could include some research, prototype development, education, and changes related to the marketing for our business.  So, it’s really about doing what we do for a living thoughtfully, and taking this approach to the market place.

Alicia: What are some qualities that you think make a good leader?

Lisa: You have to be a role model. You have to be willing to do what you are asking others to do. You have to create a vision of where you want to go. You have to make that translatable. It needs to be translated to a level where people understand what they need to do at a personal level. It can’t be so conceptual. You can’t just have a long-term vision and expect people to figure it out. Then, once you’ve established this relatable vision, you need to lay out clear processes and standards, and provide tools to move toward your immediate and long-term goals.  It’s really about all of those things that are found in Gilbert’s Model.

Alicia: Do you have any advice for the next generation of leaders in the field?

Lisa: Think about the technology as secondary.  Too many people in school now are focused on the technology.  What you want to do first is make sure you are a good performance consultant. Then, you want to make sure you are a good instructional designer. You also want to make sure you can write. You can’t do instructional design if you can’t write it down, then make sure you know how to use the computer.  Don’t stay in your own bubble. Take risks, make an effort and network. It takes effort to network.

Alicia: Concluding on that point, what advice do you have for the next generation about learning from failure?

Lisa: I think it’s a lot about not getting defensive.  I don’t think we need to talk about failure.  How do you label something as a failure? For every single thing you do, ask for feedback. When you’re meeting with a client, you ask for feedback. If you are writing something, ask for feedback. The most important thing is to say thank you for the feedback and then see what you can do with it.  You don’t get defensive. You don’t make excuses. What I see is that the difference between people who are successful and those who are not is that the people who ask for feedback and accept it generally take it well and do something with it. Every step of the way, people will always help you with that kind of approach.

Reflections and Final Remarks

The preceding interview demonstrates how Ms. Toenniges was able to become a leader in the field of instructional technology. Evidence of her leadership is provided by her successful business record and service in leadership positions with the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). Over the course of the interview, Lisa touched on several important qualities required for being an effective leader in the 21st century. One aspect from the conversation that resonated with me most was when she noted, “you must be willing to do the work you are asking others to do.”

Becoming a leader is an on-going process that will continue to change as the work and industry evolves. Several key points emerged over the course of the interview with Lisa. A number of important skills were emphasized, such as self-motivation, personal responsibility, adaptability, and initiative. Each of these skills are among those noted by Day (2001), who finds “the emphasis typically is on individual-based knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with formal leadership roles” (Day, 2001).  One of the key themes that emerged from the interview was the importance of Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model (BEM), which has been widely accepted among corporations to assist in employee performance.  Gilbert (1978) emphasizes the significant impacts of the environment and individual intervention in his book, titled “Human Competence – Engineering Worthy Performance.” Gilbert’s theory focuses on outcomes or consequences of behaviors, as opposed to the actual behaviors themselves. The basis of the BEM is the performance matrix shown in Figure 1. Returning to Ms. Toenniges’ interview, the matrix summarizes six vantage points from which performance analyses can be assessed.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 21.25.11

Figure 8. Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model

One of the themes that is consistent with respect to Gilbert’s model, Ms. Toenniges’ views, and my own experiences is that effective leaders are able to reflect a positive influence on those around them. Building and maintaining relationships, serving as a team player, and working as a partner (as opposed to a boss) are important ways to incentivize colleagues and demonstrate effective leadership. Gilley et al. (2014) examined organizational practices and how these practices are related to the effectiveness of those organizations. Their study showed that the promotion of ineffective managers, or poor leaders, was a major factor contributing to ineffectiveness of the organization, as well. This further reinforces the importance of organizational leadership.

This trait of “leading by doing” is very significant. Tekleab (2008) notes the importance of self-awareness as a leadership quality. Being able to do the work you are asking of others and assist in day-to-day activities helps to demonstrate why what we are doing as professionals is important. It also shows that leaders, in particular, are not above doing the little things it takes to be successful. A paper by Gilbert et al. (2014) assessed the human performance technology methods applied by the Amerigroup Corporation. They found clearer expectations and regular feedback, as well as more relevant consequences, to be key elements to effective management. This is a trait that may become increasingly important with continuing advances in technology. The field of instructional technology (IT) is one that continues to evolve and it is important that leaders are able to evolve along with it. Ultimately, leaders are only successful if their colleagues and companies/organizations are, as well. The lessons from this chapter provide important insights that can hopefully help other young professionals in the IT grow into becoming effective leaders.



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