For many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic strained their ability to respond in an agile manner. This was compounded by learning functions that lacked agile practices and proactive innovation. As a result, many learning and development (L&D) organizations were exposed as too slow and unresponsive.
As we come out of the pandemic and contend with The Great Resignation, effectively transforming the workforce is of paramount importance. The good news is that the C-suite is more focused on an enabled workforce than ever before. The bad news is that many C-level leaders are questioning whether L&D leaders should lead such a critical capability.
The argument as to whether L&D has a seat at the table is exhausted. The value of talent enablement has been recognized; learning leaders have unique value to offer. However, this value is only realized if they can effectively build trust and engage business leaders.
Learning leaders are under more pressure than ever to respond to the continuously changing business ecosystem where the work, worker and work environment are all in motion. Most business leaders are not concerned with learning awards and the nuances of evolving learning strategies. Rather, they’re focused on being able to achieve business outcomes through an engaged and enabled workforce.
More than ever, the learning leader needs to be able to partner with the full suite of business functions — connecting with them on their terms. Essentially, learning leaders need to develop their strategic influence skills. Becoming a strategic learning partner takes time and effort, but the rewards of that investment are great.
One of the most effective ways to become a trusted adviser is through powerful conversations.
An Essential Foundation for Powerful Conversations
Before we dig into the powerful conversations learning leaders must have with their partners, it’s important the foundational behaviors that will enable positive outcomes for crucial conversations are in place. Each of these behaviors will allow you to set a positive tone and position these powerful conversations for impact and change.
1. Doing Your Homework
To be relevant, learning leaders must focus on upskilling themselves in two key areas: business acumen and commercial acumen. Developing themselves in these capabilities will provide both an internal and external understanding of the challenges a particular business leader may be facing.
In terms of business acumen, it’s important that you understand how key leaders make evidence-based business decisions using data and insights and who they involve in the decision making process. Who do they trust, and from where do they draw their data? Commercial acumen, on the other hand, will provide insights into the go-to-market strategy, emerging environmental factors and competitive positioning.
The bottom line is that doing your homework will enable you to make more sense of what you hear during the conversation, and more often than not, the investment will be respected.
2. Timing the Conversation
To build a trusted-adviser relationship, learning leaders must be able to connect with the business leader one on one at a time when they can focus and be present. You want them to be comfortable and willing to discuss their business challenges and opportunities.
One of the benefits of doing your homework is becoming familiar with the rhythm of the business. If you are trying to set a conversation with a business leader or stakeholder during a high-activity or critical reporting period, you may not get the time, or even worse, you will not get their focus or attention.
Another benefit of the doing your homework is that you may uncover immediate or pressing challenges the business leader is facing where you can provide immediate impact. To drive success, you must understand the business and quickly and accurately link the business challenges to L&D solutions.
3. Being Coachable
This is more than simply having a growth mindset; it’s more about how to engage others in effectively helping you grow and improve. This is about making yourself coachable. This is about being open to learning from your business partners and expanding your understanding of their business, specifically how you can better meet their needs.
Research has shown that as leaders progress through their careers, their experience and expertise can create blind spots. The more you know something, the less you may be open to other things. It takes effort and intentionality to overcome your continuously developing blind spot and to enable your partners to help you in this effort.
4. Powerful Conversations
The following are powerful conversations that you can have with your business partners. These do not need to be hour-long, intense conversations.
Some of the best conversations are a series of informal chats over coffee. By spacing the conversations out, you can provide yourself time to reflect between the conversations and deepen the relationship through extended contact.
For each conversation, open with a specific question, such as:
How do you measure your business?
The goal with this conversation is to learn more about how the business measures itself. What data do they capture — the leading and lagging indicators — that they use to both prove and improve the effectiveness of their business unit?
This is a powerful conversation because it focuses on the business — and what matters most to them. These insights can help you begin to create a causal measurement chain from the most lagging business indicators, through less lagging performance behaviors, to the learning interventions you put in place.
What are the skills your team needs today and tomorrow?
Given the disruptions every business is facing, the skills their workforce needs are constantly in flux. Very few business leaders would say they are nailing it in terms of the skills needed now, much less those that are emerging. The key here is to uncover links between business challenges and skill gaps.
This is about exploring how well positioned the workforce is to deliver the business units’ strategic goals. What are the emerging skills the workforce needs to be able to respond to changes in the environment? From these conversations, you can begin to ensure that you are prioritizing your efforts in the right direction and identify any areas where you may need to innovate or grow.
What are the most challenging factors facing your workforce?
This focuses on the current challenges the workforce is experiencing. For example, a business leader could share that they do not have the pipeline of talent, and impending retirements are creating a shortfall in the next link in the pipeline. Another might be that their employees are not engaged or feel that they are limited in their career growth because they don’t have the skills for mobility in the organization. From these conversations, you can begin to focus on areas where you can provide immediate and long-term impact.
How well are we currently meeting your needs?
It’s important to understand that each business unit has a different rhythm and cadence. Manufacturing and sales have different pain points and cycles of evolution. This simple question opens the door for open and constructive feedback. This is where being coachable can pay dividends. You can explore the timing and efficacy of the learning solutions you are providing for this specific organization and think about how you can optimize your processes, services and outputs to enable this specific business.
Are we bringing innovative solutions to the table?
Again, pivotal to helping organizations respond to disruption is innovation as a capability. This goes for the L&D function as well. The goal of this innovation capability is to collaboratively create new and valuable solutions that can be applied to resolve a problem or challenge. The key to this conversation is to have an initiative-taking conversation about innovation — setting productive expectations for innovation and preempting shiny objects from taking hold.
The key to this conversation is to take the initiative to challenge and push for innovation. By setting productive expectations for innovation, the temptation to chase shiny objects is avoided.
Building a strong relationship with your business partners is a black box; it takes time, effort and a willingness to see the world from their perspective. Too often as learning leaders, we fall into the trap of talking about our function and what is important in the L&D space, which takes the focus away from the business. Learning leaders must learn to speak their partner’s language and collaboratively articulate a desired state for the relationship.