Many talent development professionals (TDs) regularly demonstrate a number of skills typically associated with learning, such as coaching, instructional design, training facilitation, evaluation and managing teams. Depending on the type of organization or assignment as well as their individual proficiency, these professionals might focus on one or two of these skills, or they may need to demonstrate all of them.

For the TD serving as a leader of the learning function, however, proficiency in many learning competencies is not only expected but required. The leader of the learning function, however, is not simply a skilled project manager for training. Learning leaders must not only demonstrate their skill in key capabilities of training and development but also must be able to promote the value of learning, or the learning brand, to leaders and executives across the organization. They must possess the skills associated with business acumen, including speaking the “language of business” and sharing dashboards, reports and key metrics that align with other departments and functions across the organizations.

Here are five key skills that learning leaders should possess, no matter the size of their organization, the scope of their responsibilities or the industry within which they lead.

1. Application of Adult Learning Theory

More than demonstrating proficiency in instructional design, learning leaders must call upon their expertise in how adults learn to lead the learning and development (L&D) team in designing successful and appropriate learning programs, appropriate for each audience and each set of training goals.

Sometimes, after analyzing data from a needs assessment, a learning leader may advise his or her colleagues that the solution is not a training program after all. At one of my first training manager jobs, a call center supervisor asked me to deliver a course on time management for some of his agents. After completing a simple job observation needs analysis with these call center employees, I found that rather than a time management class, the staff needed specific tips and application of a time management principle — prioritization. Therefore, I recommended coaching on how to prioritize daily tasks.

2. Understanding Learning Technologies

Learning leaders must demonstrate expertise with learning technologies and apply that expertise to specific training department and organizational needs. Not only should they be able to expertly review technology vendors, but they should also be able to recommend specific tools for individual learning programs or interventions. For instance, does the organization need a full-fledged online course with pre- and/or post-training assessment, or would a simple job aid, accessible on a mobile device or intranet page, be a better solution?

In the scenario of choosing a learning management system (LMS), the expert learning leader can more efficiently review vendor collateral, pre-request for proposal (RFP) documents and product demonstrations if he or she clearly understands the specific needs, breadth and depth of the organization’s LMS requirements. For example:

    • Do you need an LMS vendor that can also provide training content?
    • Does that content need to be customized, or would off-the-shelf content suffice?
    • Or, does the LMS simply need to store content that your team has created and be able to assign, report and evaluate that training?

3. Demonstrating Principles of Management and Leadership

Good learning leaders are good leaders. They follow any of the numerous principles and models of effective leadership and know how to get the most out of people by working closely with them (not above them), by giving them the tools they need to do their jobs and by knowing when to get out of their way.

Good learning leaders can also easily and persuasively convey the impact of learning to key stakeholders across the organization. They can demonstrate the value of learning and explain why it’s crucial and how to effectively design, deliver, implement and evaluate it.

4. Compliance and Ethical Behavior

Learning leaders should be well-versed in the laws, regulations and ethical issues that govern their industry. They should also be familiar with information security and privacy laws and regulations, especially if a majority of their learning content is delivered online. Even more basic, however, is the expectation that learning leaders consistently act with integrity and demonstrate fair and ethical behavior.

5. Project Management

Much of what the learning leader does is aligned with project management skills. While they don’t necessarily need to use project management tools such as Gantt charts or work breakdown structures, learning leaders do need to demonstrate expertise in the phases of project management: planning, executing, terminating and evaluating. They also need to be able to discuss project scope, time, cost, quality and resource use, not only with project team stakeholders and members but also with other leaders across the organization.

Learning leaders must also be able to develop project timelines with identified deliverables and task owners. I’ve often worked with project managers, who developed the more detailed project documents, such as Gantt charts and extensive timelines, while I created simpler Excel spreadsheets and Word documents to track my specific deliverables.

While this list of capabilities is certainly not an exhaustive one, it is a list of key skills that any learning leader should demonstrate in the course of his or her day-to-day responsibilities within the organization. These skills straddle two key areas of expertise: learning and talent development and leadership and management.

As the workplace becomes more complicated and calibrated to an ever-faster pace of production, it becomes more crucial for learning leaders to lead effectively and to collaborate across the organization. As Pat Galagan, Morgean Hirt and Courtney Vital wrote in their recent book, “Capabilities for Talent Development: Shaping the Future of the Profession,” “The TD field has become a key element in the success and competitive advantage of organizations, making its practitioners essential partners with all areas of a business in achieving organizational goals.”

Learning leaders should continue to be a key partner by applying adult learning theory, understanding learning technology, demonstrating principles of management and leadership and compliant and ethical behavior, and using project management.