In our last article, we referenced the changing learning game, describing changing roles and relationships and the challenge of navigating a new network of players. Those changes were to the internal learning game – within the learning function itself. As challenging as that can be, it might pale by comparison to a set of parallel changes that L&D must play outside the function but inside its organization. Navigating these changes requires new mindsets and capabilities.

Learning’s Client: The C-Suite’s Demand For Solutions

C-suite executives are facing a host of challenges that most are not prepared for. They have to meet demanding short-term performance goals while building their organization’s capability to handle an uncertain future – in an environment of increased volatility, heightened competition, exploding technology and changing customer demands. Their strategies and business models have shorter and shorter half-lives. Their stakeholders are more aware and holding them more accountable, not only for what they do but also how they do it.

They need help but are no longer asking for systems, processes, programs, tools or capabilities produced in organizational silos. Now, executives want integrated and effective solutions that can be applied quickly toward the opportunities and problems they face. For example, when C-suiters say they need leaders who can manage their digital transformation, they are unlikely to be asking for a program, no matter how on-point that program might be or how much advanced learning technology is included. They definitely don’t need a solution that takes three to six months to design and implement.

It is time to step away from the old, soon-to-be-obsolete model. Building and delivering effective solutions takes new mindsets and capabilities.

Learning’s New Mindset and Capabilities

L&D leaders are value creators, not curriculum developers. They need to step into the CEO’s shoes to consider how to solve for the urgent skill shortage. On a parallel path, they will need to orient their mindsets to the perspective of millennials and other generations, who now expect real-time learning in order to perform and grow. In both cases, the capabilities must be built and applied immediately.

Delivering on this need will require new capabilities for the L&D function. Today, your function might have performance consultants, instructional designers and operations specialists. Tomorrow, in addition to high-powered performance consultants, you may need coaches, who develop an organizational coaching capability; ethnographers, who determine what workflow they are weaving learning into; and data analysts, who can discern relevant trends and redirect resources to the point of need. These new specialized capabilities will need to be nested within a team that has strong business understanding, strategic and systems thinking, and the ability to build partnerships that enable collaboration and co-creation. Have you considered how you might transition your L&D function to move in this direction?

A Place to Start: Developing Your Team’s Strategic Capability

C-suite executives will partner with people who know their business and appreciate the challenges they face. Can you answer the following questions for your organization and each business unit?

  • What business are they in?
  • Who are their customers?
  • What do their customers value?
  • What drives and differentiates that value?
  • Whom do they compete against?
  • What advantages do their competitors have?
  • How do they really measure performance? Top line? Bottom line? Margins?
  • How “healthy” and engaged is the organization, and can it adapt to fast-changing elements of its environment?
  • What’s changing today, and what might change soon?

If you are not comfortable answering these definitively, invite the CFO or chief strategy officer to one of your L&D team meetings and ask him or her those questions. Do this on a rotating basis with other members of the C-suite and business unit heads. Process the answers with your team afterward. What did you hear? What opportunities do these discussions imply for you – where can you create more value by leveraging L&D? What should you stop doing or de-emphasize?

The Time to Start Creating Value: Now

Think solution – not work order. Think now – not tomorrow. What’s the real ask when your client says the organization needs leaders who can manage through a digital transformation? That’s part of a solution, but to what problem? What business impact will it drive if you are successful together? How does that problem break down into what’s needed now, what’s needed tomorrow and then beyond? How can you get started? Who inside and outside the L&D function do you need to partner with to create and deliver the early part of the solution? How is the team likely to function, and what can you do to lead or facilitate high performance?

For example, the early part of the request for new leaders might mean helping all existing leaders become more aware of a digital future. Can you organize a trip to Silicon Valley to visit one of your suppliers or customers who exemplifies this future? How can you use what you learned to facilitate conversations about what that future means for your organization?

Can you bring a small group of your rising stars together with a coach and help them become digital influencers in your organization? Can you invite a business unit leader who is favorably predisposed to this future state, someone from total rewards and someone from internal communications to join this group to help develop and sell a picture of the future state? Can you bring your external partners together and give them the challenge of solution building, not order fulfillment?

To summarize, what are these early steps?

  1. Clarify the need.
  2. Define the problem to be solved.
  3. Think solution.
  4. Get started.
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