Director Clarity Learning and Development
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How to transition to a management position in L&D

Are you an L&D professional hoping to take your career to the next level? Here are some tips to help broaden your horizons and integrate your L&D skills into other areas of the business.

8th Sep 2020
Director Clarity Learning and Development
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Buisnesswoman climbing career steps vector concept. Symbol of ambition, motivation, success in career promotion.
iStock/Mykyta Dolmatov

To be a leader in L&D, you must hone not only your technical skills and have current knowledge of all things learning related, but you also need to be able to work within the context of your organisation and to speak the language of colleagues at all levels.

As we step out of being the ‘subject matter expert’ into a leadership and management role it is vital that we acknowledge that what we do is never going to be at the centre of the organisational universe.

In this article, we’ll explore some top tips to help you firmly integrate L&D in the organisation as you begin your own transition through the ranks on your career path.

Moving into management

I have been working with individuals transitioning into leadership and management roles for many years now and can still remember making that shift myself. In one organisation I worked for, we used to talk about ‘crossing the fence to management’ – literally moving from ‘us’ to ‘them’!

As specialists in learning and development, we spend years learning our trade, filling our toolboxes and studying the language and technical aspects of our chosen specialism. We become experts in our field.

Writing for the CIPD, Hazel Mason noted, “learning and development often sits within the HR function as its training arm. L&D concerns itself with the management of employee training and development needs to fulfill their roles to the best of their ability. L&D roles can involve identifying learning gaps, designing and developing learning solutions, completing assessments and evaluation, or simply providing training to the organisation’s workforce.

“L&D is equally as important to the business as HR and helps to ensure that an organisation has the skilled talent needed to excel in its markets”.

This article focuses on learning and development activities rather than the aim of the learning and development function (which is appropriate for the context of the article, but possibly not helpful as we consider where L&D sits within the wider organisational picture).

In my opinion, we can become so focused on developing people that sometimes we forget about the links to the achievement of organisational plans and operational objectives.

I know that it isn’t just me that has fallen into this trap. On a number of occasions, I have asked HR and L&D professionals what they know about their organisation’s strategic plans or the operational business plans. I often hear, ‘I’m not sure if we have those plans in place’. When I’m told this, I always task the individual to go back to their organisation and ask some questions about what’s in place and how it informs the work of their function, department or team.

As we step out of being the ‘subject matter expert’ into a leadership and management role it is vital that we acknowledge that what we do is never going to be at the centre of the organisational universe. We must remember that the organisation – even if it is an educational institution – does not exist for the sole purpose of developing its staff. It exists to serve its customers and achieve a set of organisational priorities.

future L&D leaders hub link

Here are some of my top tips for becoming a leader in learning and development. The list is not exhaustive, but I hope it’s a useful ‘starter for ten’.

1. Create a personal brand

This may sound very ‘jargony’, but there is definitely something to be said for considering how you want to be perceived within your organisation. What sort of leader do you want to be? What type of manager do you want to be? To what extent do you want to be a thought leader? To what extent do you want to be a valued business partner and internal consultant?

Spend some time reflecting on this and then create yourself an action plan that will help you to develop the brand that you want to be known for within your new leadership and management role.

2.  Develop your curiosity

The CIPD’s Profession Map (2013) had ‘curious’ as a core behaviour for all people professionals for good reason. This behaviour encourages us to go out into the organisation and find out what is going on.

First of all, seek out the organisation’s strategic plan and its operational plan and get familiar with both. Next, go out into the organisation, meet with as many people as you can and ask questions to find out what makes your colleagues in all areas of the business tick. What are their priorities? What keeps them awake at night? What are their dreams for the future of their part of the organisation?

Then you need to consider how L&D can support each business function to achieve its objectives.

3. Mind your language

When you are meeting with colleagues outside of the L&D team, listen to the words they use. If there is language that you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask what it means. Start to speak the language of the organisation and not the language of L&D. Learn to translate L&D ‘lingo’ into plain English and into the language of your industry and organisation.

4. Think like the MD or chief executive 

Put yourself in the shoes of the person at the top of the organisation and consider the landscape within which you are operating. Do a PESTLE analysis to help you focus on what might be coming over the horizon. Next, consider how L&D could play a part in preparing the organisation for its future.

5. Act like a risk manager

Having carried out your PESTLE analysis, do a SWOT analysis and use other business analysis tools to help you consider what risks might exist which will prevent the organisation achieving its objectives. Follow this by considering how L&D might play a part in mitigating these risks.    

6. Develop your emotional intelligence

Learn to manage yourself and learn to interact even more effectively with others. Self-management is particularly important as there will be many occasions when you feel frustrated that others just don’t ‘get it’.

When this happens you will need to manage your impatience and curb the desire to preach all things L&D. It will be important to communicate in ways that your audience can hear your message, and that means making the message relatable and relevant.

Always spend time really listening to others. Learn everything you can about active listening and asking insightful questions – these are skills that will benefit you in every area of your career – and your life.

These are just a few tips that I hope have sparked ideas for you. What have you noticed? What tips could you share with your colleagues in this community to help them become credible leaders of L&D within their organisations? I look forward to reading your comments.

Interested in this topic? Read Five tips for future L&D leaders.

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