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Five tips for future L&D leaders

If you’re an L&D practitioner aspiring to take your career to the next level, look no further. L&D guru Robin Hoyle provides five key pointers to help you thrive in the profession.

1st Sep 2020
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First of all, congratulations! You are part of a profession which has been given one of the most important tasks in any organisation. As glossy annual reports hail the organisation’s people as ‘our most important asset’, you have been given the responsibility for the maintenance and development of that asset. How cool is that?

If you are considering your next career move into the leadership of L&D teams and functions in your business here are some tips:

1. Follow the evidence

Our role is to support people to do things differently and do different things. Unlike in some formal education, corporate and workplace learning is not an end in itself – its focus is on improving organisational capability by helping people change their behaviour.

This cannot be measured exclusively by tests passed and qualifications gained. We need to be able to see behaviours being implemented that were previously absent. We need to be able to observe new ways of working and new, positive habits established. (And don’t be sniffy about education. The best educators, in applied subjects, have been doing this for years and – on the whole – doing it really well.)

The evidence on how behaviour can be changed in organisations is surprisingly limited. There’s a lot of research about education – from universities and those involved in child development. There’s also a lot of surveys undertaken with self-selected groups of interested people into what they think works. But opinion is not evidence of sustained and sustainable improvements in human performance at work.

Research based on facts and peer reviewed interpretation of available data is scarcer than you might think. It does exist though, and your practice and the practice you encourage in others should be based on that evidence.

Furthermore, what works in your organisation may be different from what works in some other profession or enterprise. Gather your own data on performance improvement. Remember to measure how people perform their roles after a learning intervention, as well as what they achieve.

The ‘how’ is our job. The ‘what’ is the responsibility of the whole organisation. We cannot take credit for every uplift in performance metrics, nor should we take all the blame when things don’t go so well.

Staying curious, spending time and effort on your own development and keeping abreast of developments in your business and across the L&D world, is essential.

2. Build alliances across the organisation

Recognise that different functions and heads of those functions know their area – the technical or specialist services they provide and the products they make, sell or maintain.

But they don’t necessarily know how to ensure their people have the skills and competences to deliver the organisation’s strategic goals. Their understanding of the complex web of interactions that make up organisational culture, or the values of the business, may be lacking. The impact of their behaviour on the behaviour of their teams may be a blind spot. Your job is to be an adviser in your areas of specialism in a way that complements their specialist knowledge and experience. 

You won’t be taken seriously if you are simply an order taker – asked to provide a course only when things start to go wrong. Build alliances so that... 

  • You can spot opportunities to improve human performance in their area 

  • They trust your perspectives and expertise 

  • They know they can come to you for advice before some training solution has been decided upon

This will make your professional life a whole lot easier and your work more fulfilling.

future L&D leaders hub link

3. Challenge

Training is easy, isn’t it? Let’s be honest, anyone who can create a PowerPoint slide thinks they have the capacity to run a classroom session or deliver a webinar.

It isn’t. They can’t.

First of all, performance development is much more than giving people information. Giving people information is much more than simply telling people things. It will be hard to recruit managers to provide opportunities for people to practice and transfer new knowledge to the workplace. It will be harder still to ask them to coach and provide feedback which is valuable and actionable.

Your L&D leadership role is to set standards and help managers to meet them. Where it happens, you need to praise and publicise these oases of good practice. Where it doesn’t, you need to call it out and challenge managers to do better and to do their job.

Stay true to your belief in what works, and don’t spend time chasing gimmicks. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. 

This extends to the regular request L&D teams receive for training solutions. From MPs to think tanks to senior leadership teams, the call for more training is seen as some kind of magic bullet.

Very often, training is not the answer to the performance issue identified. This can be difficult for managers to accept because often what needs to change is not the knowledge, skills and attitudes of their teams but organisational strategy, management decisions, resourcing or the organisation of work. Be confident in advocating action which doesn’t simply lead to another classroom course or an e-learning module loaded up on an LMS.

4. Stay curious

One thing you learn quickly in any L&D leadership role is that you don’t have all the answers. What’s more, what was an answer last year may no longer be the answer next year (and the chances are the question has changed in any case.)

Staying curious, spending time and effort on your own development and keeping abreast of developments in your business and across the L&D world, is essential. Not only will you model the behaviour which you should expect from your team, you will become a source of reference for your internal clients. 

5. Stay sceptical

Once you’re in a leadership role, you will be approached by the world and their mother to discuss their breakthrough technology, their new coaching models and myriad other services and products. You will need to be able to dismiss the bright and shiny in favour of the solid and proven. Remember there is no silver bullet. Learning at work is not a product, it is an organisational belief.

Stay true to your belief in what works, and don’t spend time chasing gimmicks. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. 

Whatever your journey to an L&D leadership role, be proud of the difference you can make to the work of your organisation and to the lives of its employees, its service users and customers. What you do matters. What you do changes things for the better. Good luck.


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