What makes a winning partnership between learning and business?

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Olivier Le Moal/iStock
Stephanie Morgan
Director of Learning Solutions
Bray Leino Learning
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To unlock potential and impact on performance, people professionals don't just need to get closer to the business; they need to become integral to the business, says Stephanie Morgan.

We often find ourselves attempting to deliver results in the face of challenges from within. Towards Maturity recently found that only 57% of their C-suite respondents "believe that their academies are 'very or fully aligned' with corporate priorities."

If this is true, what does it say about how much our stakeholders trust L&D to deliver solutions?

Having a voice at all levels of your business means you can be part of the conversation about what it is your people need and how to achieve it, as well as building the trust you need to do your work.

Towards Maturity also found that 85% marked performance consulting as a priority skill; however, <60% of the Top Deck and <40% of the rest of respondents reported that they had those skills already in place.

High achievers value performance consulting as a method of getting to the heart of the business. If you want to be as trusted as the Top Deck of L&D teams, this is key. However, if you're not close enough to the business, using performance consulting to understand the business problem will be near impossible.

Our only solution is to integrate. Becoming more involved and more informed will help us better understand business needs, improve relationships and then deliver learning objectives.

Understanding the business

We need to understand what learners need to achieve, why it’s important and how it fits into the big picture. Do all you can to find out about your learners: their world, their challenges and the context in which they will learn, apply learning and deliver results.

You need to be able to have conversations about the business area you are supporting, and the key factors affecting it, know where the business is headed and forecast what’s needed in order to get there.

When you know where the business is heading, it also gives you greater credibility to ask questions—one of the ways you forge a winning partnership with business.

84% of the Top Deck analyse a problem before recommending a solution. You need to understand the business and to do that, you need to understand the problem. When you ask good questions, you’ll be better able to evaluate the state of play.

Trust and respect

Strong business partnerships are built on trust and mutual respect. After all, would you confess your biggest fears and greatest failings—or your key ambitions and plans for success—to someone you didn’t trust?

If your organisation's processes do not include L&D business partnering, when you start to talk to stakeholders it can catch them off guard. It can also be a shock—for them—when you go on to ask probing questions about how well they are achieving their objectives.

For you, you're just doing your job. For them, it can come across as intrusive. They can become defensive, uncommunicative, or obstructive.

The danger here is that it can be easy to alienate yourself from the very people you need to get closer to. Don’t underestimate how important it is to have your people onside as part of a winning partnership.

Knowing the key players

Think about using stakeholder analysis and mapping—it will enable you to make sure you know who your key stakeholders are, and help you to prioritise and manage your relationships with them.

Remember to network with them. Over time, these can become a good source of information and inspiration.

It's best to take a broad view. Don’t restrict yourself to your organisation; include key players outside the business, the wider industry—even the competition.

You will gain greater insight into industry trends and future needs of the business by keeping tabs on the sector, and in turn make yourself one of their key resources.

Supporting and challenging equally

When you’ve done these things, and earned the right to offer solutions based on your knowledge and expertise, as a business partner it’s crucial that you strike a balance between supporting and challenging managers.

Your colleagues should feel that they can go to a skilled L&D business partner in a crisis and trust you to help them move forward, to challenge them, and to come up with the right solution. You want them to feel they can rely on you to help them explore options, think things through, and be thorough.

Fixing problems, not symptoms

When you can have these conversations, you’re in a much better place to get the information you need and to be trusted to assess it. However, this requires more hard work.

It's easy to take things at face value—to believe everything managers tell you, and to then try to come up with a solution.

You are the one who is skilled at identifying needs. It's your job to assess and fact-check what you're hearing. That's all about asking good questions.

Say a manager complains to you about a member of a client-facing team: "They never give the customer a professional level of service." Rather than putting together a quick solution, become a performance detective: How many people don't give professional service? What does “professional” look like? How is that communicated to them?

The answers to your questions could reveal a completely different problem to the one the manager thinks they have.

Being at the top of your game

To be a winning partner, as well as a trusted partner, you need to deliver.

To deliver, you have to be at the top of your game.

There are many skills people professionals value, as well as basic design and delivery principles. You need to know what solutions are available and how to deliver them, but can you talk on a range of topics, understand methodologies and different ways of addressing issues? Can you signpost and blend effectively?

People professionals must also stay on top of their own professional development. L&D is a changing landscape, and only those who constantly update their own skills and adapt will be able to convince others of the importance of doing the same.

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