Not too long ago a conversation with the C-Suite about L&D was easy because everybody knew what the deal was:

“L&D run training programmes – and do Compliance”

Or something along those lines.

L&D’s raison d’être was more about what we did than the results we gained. This is backed up by how we measured our success:

Return On Investment (ROI) tried to answer the question ‘was it worth the investment of time and money?’ and this only sometimes spoke to anything truly important to the organisation.

Give or take semantics and the odd nuance, ‘delivering training programmes’ was the expectation on the L&D department. Ultimately, ‘engagement’ was the aim (bums on seats, training hours, hits on the LMS) because we knew that ‘learning = better performance’.

However, the hope associated with this equation has been challenged as L&D become more focused on impacting performance and productivity, measured in terms of business results.

Now, these expectations may not be mainstream in L&D quite yet. But we’re certainly seeing more L&D leaders challenging the status quo and striving for business impact beyond the limitations of traditional approaches. Whilst much of L&D remain stuck, clients and stakeholders are increasing their expectations – if not quite completely. The long-established and deeply ingrained expectation that ‘workplace learning’ looks and smells like ‘school’ is hard to shake off but if we’re to progress the profession (and gain the backing to do so within our organisations) then we need to lead so that others follow – and this means leading our stakeholders and clients.

Newly appointed Heads of L&D that I’ve been speaking with are positioning L&D to their C-Suite in such a way that extends beyond the traditional expectations of L&D in order to avoid pigeon-holing themselves and getting stuck in an endless cycle of content delivery and administration.

How To Lead Your Conversation With The C-Suite

In order to lead, you first need to know where your stakeholders are. To recognise this, it’s important to understand three things:

1. Why you been brought into this role

By recognising what the role was conceived to achieve, then you can begin to understand your remit. This will have been outlined on the job description and discussed at the interview stage but will also have been inferred during all conversations. Is this a new role and, if so, what pain is being experienced within the organisation to land on ‘L&D being the solution’? Are you backfilling a previously held position and, if so, what’s your mandate? To continue and build or overhaul?

An understanding of the remit will highlight what success is perceived to look like. This first question is important because it focuses on the demonstrable differences – the results – that are expected to be made upon your arrival.

2. Beyond the expected results, what do you understand the internal expectations of L&D to be?

What I mean here is: When you’re in the role, what will people (C-Suite, other senior stakeholders and clients) expect to experience from L&D? If their expectation is the provision of courses and online content then you need to expand expectations on your function beyond activities and products – towards outcomes. In reality, I’m hearing less and less of these limited expectations and hearing that business leaders want to affect business performance over traditional learning activities (but perhaps that’s because when people get in touch with me they know what side of the fence I’m already on?!). What is important here is to recognise what the expectations are and to push at them – not dismiss them. A leader without followers is not a leader, You’re likely to be seen as a renegade; a rebel without a cause; or a fool. It’s important to acknowledge others’ limited expectations and build on them by guiding the conversation towards outcomes:

“That’s great you’ve put thought into what training / LMS you want. Rather than focusing too quickly on the solution, I’d like to spend more time talking about outcomes. What business outcomes are you trying to achieve?”

3. What are L&D’s KPIs?

If your L&D KPIs are more around activities, product implementations and engagement, then this is an indication that the organisation values L&D activities over outcomes. If the conversation is more closely aligned to business priorities, then it’s the other way around. Again, not to seem like a broken record (but), by accepting a list of activities and asking what is hoped to be achieved by their delivery and/or implementation you begin to extend expectations and offer value beyond traditional views of L&D. We have to remember that we are a profession and our value is not in taking orders but in shaping and extending expectations to affect business performance, productivity and results.

Once we know the answers to these 3 points, we understand our ground zero: Our baseline. What we do in order to position L&D and expand expectations starts from here, framing those expectations and pushing outwards. I state again: Outcomes and not activities. This is absolutely crucial to framing L&D in the right way.

A useful frame to demonstrate outcomes over products and activities is to see every transition into and through your organisation as critical and an opportunity to address business priorities whilst mitigating risks. So, rather than ‘overhauling induction’, work out what your organisation’s on-boarding experience really needs to achieve. What problems – for new starters, the organisation, and even specific teams – are you attempting to solve? The new starter experience may be required to address:

And rather than running a ‘New Manager Development Programme’ that aims to enrol and educate its delegates within 12 months of their promotion (because it’s not always convenient to catch them when they start the role), why not spend more time working out the key metrics for successful management at your organisation (as well as the risks) and design for those?

Successful management will likely mean the delivery of results: Leads, sales, SLAs, cycle time, customer satisfaction, etc. But results will not be the only measures of success. Other metrics may include:

Whatever your organisation decides are the valuable measures of management success, recognising these and understanding your baseline will help you to understand how to articulate any problem in a way that the C-Suite recognise (and value); and communicating progress to them in a meaningful way..

By being clear on outcomes, you become focused on supporting the organisation with something it cares about; increasing L&D’s currency; and doing things that matter. You also know what measures you’re monitoring to ensure you’re doing the right things.

How Changing The Conversation Can Elevate Your Status

When we establish our function on outcomes and not activities and products, we begin to free ourselves from these expectations and encourage enquiry around: “How will you / we do that?” For example, we’re going to address the speed to competency of new starters into the organisation.

“Cool! How are we going to do that?”

This means a great deal more than:

‘We’re going to redesign induction!”

Which warrants a more likely response of:

*Shrugs shoulders* “Fill your boots.”

Leading the conversation onto outcomes rather than activities (and products), with the C-Suite as well as other stakeholders, helps with a general sense of shared accountability because realists will know that L&D couldn’t do it all alone. But the articulation of the real business problem to be addressed and an exploration of the data – to both recognise it as a real problem, as well as a target for improvement – is a way that L&D can forge a position of credibility far beyond the norm.

I’m meeting more and more L&D leaders who are being appointed to achieve real business results and know they can’t achieve these one course at a time – and have long since stopped believing that e-learning was an answer to either performance or productivity issues.

These leaders aren’t the general population. They are the outliers at present but they signal where the profession is going. How do I know? Because I get call from Recruiters, regularly, asking for my opinion on a role they are working on that requires more than the traditional L&D mindset and capabilities. Not because it’s novel or the organisation has an unusual demographic but because the organisation recognises the value of L&D to affect business performance and outcomes. The professionals ready to lead these functions are few and far between – and demand outweighs supply at the moment – but I’m confident this is changing.

And what will it take for you to gain support for your L&D transformation? Your leadership.

David James is Chief Learning Officer with Looop and was previously Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region.

Now an authority in contemporary L&D practices, David works with businesses to develop and implement social, agile and digital learning strategies that make learning work, with Looop.

See also:

How L&D Is Holding Itself Back From Digital Transformation

The Future of Learning Technology

“We Want Training!”: When Client Expectations Stop L&D From Modernising

How L&D Is Holding Itself Back From Digital Transformation

The Future of Learning Technology

“We Want Training!”: When Client Expectations Stop L&D From Modernising

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