To get the results they want and earn a seat at the table, CLOs must focus less on training activities and more on how to drive business strategies. Key to that strategy is developing the ability to influence behavior change.
During the darkest days of the American Revolutionary War, George Washington comforted himself with a line from one of his favorite plays, in which the lead character promises, “We cannot guarantee success, but we can deserve it.”
In 25 years of working with 100 HR and learning executives, the most common complaint heard from them is that they have too little influence with those in the C-suite. The most common reason many of them lack influence is because they don’t deserve influence. And one of the reasons they don’t deserve it is because they don’t know how to deliver it. They frame their job in terms of learning activities rather than influence strategies.
Interestingly, every one of these 100 leaders was bright, energetic, professional and well-trained. They also brought terrific discipline and great technical prowess to the learning function of their organizations. However, despite their qualifications, only a select few were granted real power by the C-suite. They were given funding, they were given time, and they were even given access. But when real problems needed to be solved, these people rarely had a seat at the table.
Then there were the seven. Seven of these 100 professionals seemed to always have a seat at the table. The CEO and others wouldn’t dream of facing a strategic problem without the insight of this individual who represented deep knowledge about how to do something far more important than create learning events. Executives believed these seven did more than advocate training: They enabled influence throughout the entire organization.
The most important capacity CLOs possess is their capacity to influence profound, rapid and sustainable behavior change. Leaders implicitly understand that the lynchpin of their grand ideas is human behavior. Whether they want to increase quality, launch a new product, pull off a merger or drive down costs — ultimately, there are a few thousand hands and feet that will decide whether their lofty aspirations lead to results or disappointment.
So when leaders turn to their CLOs for help, what they are asking for is a credible approach to influencing behavior change. They rarely put it into words this clear, but their reactions to CLOs’ learning plans demonstrate their tacit skepticism that learning equals influence. They know there’s more to influencing behavior change than dishing up developmental activities — but they don’t know what.
CLOs who understand what the C-suite really needs — and who are competent to deliver it — have more influence because they deserve more influence.
How to Get More Influence
What sets these seven influencers apart from other learning professionals is that they understand and utilize a far more robust theory of behavior. These leaders understand that there are six sources of influence that must be engaged to drive profound and rapid change in behavior. Typical CLOs draw on one or two of these sources of influence, so their strategies lead to little in the way of real and measurable change.
However, research shows that leaders who combined all six of these sources of influence are 10 times more likely to create successful change in behavior than their less comprehensive peers. (For additional information, see “How to Have Influence,” published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2008.)
Consider one example: Matt Van Vranken is the CEO of Spectrum Healthcare in West Michigan. Van Vranken has a vision to turn this potent regional health care provider into Destination Healthcare. He and his executive team intend to become a global provider of choice for the highest-quality coordinated health care. One of the leaders most integrally involved in the strategy discussions is Kris White, Spectrum’s equivalent of a CLO.
How did White earn this level of engagement? By refusing to tee up training or learning as an end-all solution to major corporate problems. Instead, she understood that what executives need most from her is a robust way of thinking about how to influence the behavior of the 10,000 doctors and associates of Spectrum who will enact — or detract from — the Destination Healthcare vision every single day.
In the past few years, White has helped senior executives drive profound change at Spectrum by drawing on all six sources of influence. Here is what her influence plan included to help Spectrum become a global provider of high quality health care.
Source 1: Personal motivation. To ensure executives were viscerally engaged in the need for culture change, White involved them in “rounding” activities. Every day, senior executives dipped into the details of the organization to understand firsthand what was working and what wasn’t. Their goal was not to bypass the chain of command, but to connect with the real world. As they did this, they saw and experienced firsthand the consequences of the policies and practices — or omissions — they had created.
White likewise ensured everyone in the organization experienced the reasons behind the need for change. She knew statistics and pie charts wouldn’t motivate employees to change in the same way real human consequences would. So she brought patients in to talk to employees about their experience with Spectrum Health system. Each of White’s Source 1 strategies went beyond intellectual learning events and created connecting experiences for every leader and employee of Spectrum Health.
Source 2: Personal ability. This area is the traditional domain of influence for training and learning professionals. And yet, much of what passes for training falls woefully short of a real developmental experience. In order for training to lead to influence, it must involve deliberate practice. The majority of training must engage people in hands-on practice of skills in real-life situations.
For example, White helped Spectrum employees learn to hold crucial conversations — conversations that are sometimes uncomfortable, but are essential to hold in order to drive change and improvement in a complex system. To do this, she implemented training in crucial conversations skills. The training is done in intact teams, and much of the time is spent practicing how to deal with real issues between doctors, nurses and administrators. When people leave the training sessions, they leave with new personal ability, not just new ideas.
Source 3: Social motivation. At Spectrum, White realized that what happens in the classroom is only a fraction of what’s needed to influence change. How people were treated when they made their first attempts to step up to a crucial conversation would make all the difference. She stacked the deck in their favor by carefully identifying dozens of informal leaders from across the organization and engaging them to coach and encourage training graduates on using their new interpersonal skills to deal with difficult situations. These opinion leaders’ informal influence had a remarkable effect in driving change.
Source 4: Social ability. White knew the toughest crucial conversation people would face would be with their bosses. So she stacked that deck, too. The training was delivered by bosses. By engaging leaders as teachers, she ensured the chain of command was more likely to welcome attempts to use the new skills — thus providing social enabling to those who needed to attempt new behaviors.
Think of how different this is from the typical approach. We send someone to training in an open enrollment group, where they learn lots of new skills for solving problems and getting results. Then we send them back to the same social system — bosses, peers, direct reports, vendors — that suppressed these behaviors in the first place. Almost humorously, we expect them to sustain the new behaviors.
We know, for example, that if an attending physician fails to do something as simple as wash her hands, the residents who watch her make this omission have a 90 percent chance of following her bad example. Social influence is huge. The difference between a learning plan and an influence strategy is, in large measure, whether or not it includes an effective approach to building the social motivation and social ability that individuals will need to enact new behaviors.
Source 5: Structural motivation. Early on, White challenged the CEO and his executives to put their money where their mouths were. She created a survey to measure behavior change and urged executives to tie 25 percent of their bonuses to achievement of an aggressive goal to improve the behaviors targeted by the training. They did. This one commitment sent an enormous symbolic message of commitment to the entire organization. In addition, the top two levels of the organization were held accountable not for supporting a learning plan, but for influencing measurable behavior change.
The difference is profound. One focuses on activities, the other on measurable results. If you channel leaders’ attention to learning activities, you misdirect their efforts and end up with completed plans and little change.
Source 6: Structural ability. At Spectrum, White did her best to enable people to enact new behavior by creating cues, reminders and reports that kept the new behaviors on people’s minds. Regular newsletter articles, a regular survey, posters, laminated cards and lots of the traditional wallpaper helped set a mental agenda for behavior change across the organization.
What White demonstrated, and what the other seven CLOs understood, is that there’s a lot more to influencing new behavior than just delivering high-quality learning experiences. If CLOs want to increase their personal influence, they need to reframe their contribution in terms of influencing change rather than providing development. Those who deserve more influence almost always get it.
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