This is the second in a series of articles in which the authors will explore their reflections on the future of learning, given the tumult and chaos of the past few months, and how learning needs to evolve to serve organizations differently. Read part 1 here.
A common complaint that we hear from senior learning leaders is frustration with the “bad requests” that they often receive from senior stakeholders. Come on, we’ve all seen them! Too many business leaders have learned to make unhealthy, transactional requests of their learning leaders: “I want a manager development program,” “Can we run a workshop on Growth Mindset?” or “I want more e-learning on risk.” Business leader clients often self-diagnose and prescribe poorly, and learning leaders are left scrambling to deliver something to keep their clients happy.
But what makes a request smart or not? In our view, a smart request is framed to solve a real, high-stakes business problem. It starts further up the problem-solving value chain. The more the request comes as a strategic or commercial problem, the better; the more the request comes as a training or teaching mandate, the worse. A not-so-smart request will come with the solution baked in, where a smart request invites learning leaders to sit with senior business leaders around a problem and think, together.
This problem is rife today, as CEOs scramble to make changes and deliver shareholder returns amid unparalleled volatility. The CEO of one of Todd’s client organizations recently told his learning leader that he wanted 1,000 leaders sent through a leadership development approach that was 20 years old, but one that he had liked when he was coming up through the ranks. This was a bad request.
So what is a learning leader to do? How do we better “educate the request” so that leaders are thinking about learning as a strategic driver of performance? We believe there are three shifts that learning leaders can focus on to get better learning requests from their business leader stakeholders.
Shift No. 1: Focus on yourself, and “earn” the request.
Across both of our global networks, we don’t know a single senior learning leader who does not aspire to be strategic. Not one learning leader we know is happy running well-received but low-impact programs and managing an e-learning library of thousands of courses that are started but never completed. The first shift, then, is to stop pouting and to look vigorously at yourself and the learning function that you run; you need to take ownership of whether you have earned the right to think together with senior leaders.
The harder the problem a business leader faces, the more they need to trust the adviser they turn to to help solve it. This is the approach adopted by the world’s most successful professional services firms. They give away individual support at critical moments for business leaders to earn the right to massive contracts that come in the wake. But this is their business model, and not how most internal learning teams run. Most learning leaders are focused intensely on the management of their functions — worried about budgets, team leadership and program oversight — and they lose sight of forging McKinsey-like connections with their most senior stakeholders: connections that are based around the needs of the business leader, not the machinations of the learning leader’s world.
It may be anathema to say this in a Chief Learning Officer article, but most business leaders have enough big, nasty problems to deal with that they want to “whack-a-mole” on seemingly simple problems, like learning. It is the role of learning leaders not just to steward their function, but to build the in-roads with business leaders to earn the request to more nuanced and impactful problems. James is a master of this art (Todd frequently calls him “Yoda” for this aptitude); James will sit, quietly, with a business leader, asking smart questions and deepening their thinking because it helps the business leader grow and succeed. This consultative, advisory role is what earns robust learning functions the right to partake in complex problem-solving with business leaders, and it is the dominion of the chief learning officer to prioritize this work. To do this, learning leaders need to focus on themselves, where they spend their time and the relationships they are cultivating with their senior-most clients.
Shift No. 2: Bring bigger thinking.
Coupled with earning the request, learning leaders need to bring bigger thinking to their business leaders about behavioral change and the impact of learning. Most business leaders have a very fixed view of what learning “is”; by bringing them different lenses and new ways of thinking about behavioral change, channels and impact, learning leaders can reframe legacy ways of thinking. Even some of the most sophisticated and successful business leaders we know think very simply about behavioral change and learning.
A complicating factor is that in many organizations, learning requests come through HR teams. In many cases, their “bigger thinking” is part of the campaign that senior learning leaders must mount. We were reflecting on our experiences as external consulants about why HR teams sometimes ask for dumb things, when we had a revelation: HR teams and leaders are constrained by six factors:
- They are aiming to please internal customers.
- They see learning as a commodity (there is one way to “train managers”).
- They are reluctant to invest time in crafting more daring or imaginative briefs, because who could deliver on that?
- They can have a general feeling of subordination, or need to be order-takers.
- They are incentivized by action as much as outcome.
- They are often “traditional” in their understanding of how things happen in organizations due to attribution bias and being overly focused on the individual.
Helping HR leaders and HR business partners develop a more aspirational view of learning, what it can do and how it can be approached is vital to the success of most learning leaders.
While Todd was at BHP, he worked with the strategy team to build a simple focus into the annual strategy-setting process that required business leaders to discuss and align around a learning strategy. This was bigger than a learning-needs analysis or a training plan, as it was built around the three principles that Todd focused on enabling as core to BHP’s approach to learning (learning is about business problems, not people; learning is leader-led, and learning is embedded at work). The first year of the strategies was not pretty, but with some time, focus and exposure, the business leaders started to think differently about their learning strategies and how they could be used to enable larger business gains.
As you think about some of the bigger thinking that you may need to bring into your organization, we want to provide some of our favorite considerations:
- What do you need to see change? Why?
- Where do we need to disrupt the status quo of your business? How are our current ways of working and norms in teams getting in the way? How are you and your leadership team complicit in this status quo?
- What are the simplest leverage points that we need to affect to move the needle at a local level?
- Given how those leverage points work now — how could we focus learning on critical moments, teams or points in the value chain to enable the organization to work differently?
Sometimes learning leaders need to start in their own backyards and model the way for their HR counterparts and business leaders. Cultivating new approaches in your own existing playgrounds that demonstrate impact is a great place to demonstrate the way, as is focusing on the low-risk interventions that pave the way for bigger and broader ways for learning to transform. When Todd was at BHP, he redesigned several existing programs in their portfolio to be almost entirely leader-led. Senior leaders would come to the programs for a half or full day, and they would “teach” — sometimes they were running live, internal cases around things that they had done, sometimes they were convening debates around the organizational values and sometimes they were running dialogues on the back of activities. Not only were the results fantastic and impactful, but the approach created allies and advocates for a different way to do learning across the organization.
Shift No. 3: Create boldness and bravery in the learning function.
While the first two shifts focus very much on the CLO and their role in enabling better requests, the final shift surrounds their teams. There is a problem with learning being taken seriously, as a strategic lever. Todd’s company, Like Minds Advisory, was a finalist for a piece of work at a large bank last year. The bank was trying to affect performance of teams on a critical strategic priority, and Todd thought his team nailed the pitch. The proposal was thoughtful, systemic and incredibly focused on some high-impact areas that would move quickly — building the “muscle” to make learning sustainable, post-intervention. The client came back with a very distressing admission: Todd’s team’s pitch was, by far, the best and the panel saw exactly how this approach would reshape the organization in all the ways that they had requested. And then came the proverbial “but”: The team lacked the political clout to make it happen and opted to go for a less impactful, less risky approach. Todd screamed!
Across learning functions, it is sometimes easier to bow to what is familiar and less risky versus pursue what is right. We frequently hear from junior members of learning teams about what they “can’t” do, because they have been taught to be subservient and compliant. For decades, learning teams have been domesticated to hit their KPIs by running on the hamster wheel of delivering great programs, not delivering impact to the business. Learning leaders need to enable their teams to be brave and bold on critical priority areas to shift this; the future of organizational learning is bleak unless learning leaders are cultivating a different mindset in their teams.
When Todd led learning at BHP, he set out three principles that would guide every decision his team made. Provided the team was focusing on these principles, they would have his unwavering backing. The principles were pretty simple: First, learning is about business problems, not people. Second, learning is leader-led. And third, learning is embedded at work. These were not complicated, but they were drilled into the team and across the organization, and the team felt emboldened to challenge and think differently about learning with stakeholders and innovate. Learning leaders can clear the path for their teams, by focusing boldness and bravery on some key principles that they want to enable. Learning teams need a belief set, and they need a point of view around where to be brave; learning leaders can provide this sense of calling to their teams.
Getting smarter requests is key to what every CLO must enable in their organization. When business and HR leaders start thinking more dynamically about learning, the role of the CLO and the learning function becomes easier and more fun, as innovation begins to happen all over the place. While this isn’t an easy task, it may be one of the most important roles a highly impactful learning leader plays.
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