Imagine you are part of the crew on a ship embarking on a long, arduous voyage. Your ship represents an organization, the captain is the CEO, and you are a first mate in charge of crew management and training. Your roles in learning and development (L&D) and human resources (HR) are responsible for steering the boat in the right direction through the skills and sentiments of the rest of the crew. If you undertook this voyage recently it came with particular challenges due to changing weather conditions, treacherous waters and unpredictable obstacles.

Over the last few years, the roles of HR and L&D professionals have evolved to become more strategic and insights rich, expanding beyond traditional support functions. There are organizational expectations to have more strategic conversations about employee engagement, well-being and productivity. Unfortunately, many find themselves unprepared for these discussions, especially regarding what data they need to bring to their CEOs and executive teams to affect business decisions.

According to the 2023 Gartner HR Priorities Survey, executives are experiencing pressure like never before. At the same time, the workplace is changing in many ways:

  • Shift to remote or hybrid work.
  • Demand for better work-life balance.
  • Focus on employee health and safety.
  • Prioritization of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
  • Low unemployment and high competition.
  • Aggressive talent market for high performers and critical positions.

In the prior year, CEOs listed “managing evolving workforces” among their top three strategic business priorities for the next 2 years. As business leaders face challenges with inflation, talent shortages, and volatile supply and demand, they are interested in how their investment in people is impacting the business’s bottom line. Courageous conversations about engaging employees and driving performance are front and center, and it is up to HR and learning leaders to provide valuable insights to arm their CEOs, executive teams, and boards in the decisions they need to make in an effort to futureproof their organizations.

Courageous Conversations for HR and Learning Leaders of the Future

Top research organizations have all conducted studies about the main priorities for HR and learning leaders. Some of the top priorities observed across sectors include improving the employee experience, workforce planning, upskilling and reskilling and DEI.

In fact, data from a November 2022 survey (which hasn’t been made public yet) that Explorance conducted in partnership with Wakefield Research revealed that HR leaders ranked upskilling and training opportunities (75%) and DEI efforts that ensure a feeling of belonging (73%) as two top drivers of employee retention.

Learning leaders are not starting from scratch. They already have a handle on priority focus areas. The goal now is to define and conduct courageous conversations that catalyze meaningful change.

Courageous conversations are the day-to-day discussions that affect life. They are conversations where opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong. Not only are courageous conversations challenging, frustrating and frightening, but also for learning leaders, they can impact every member of an organization. These are the conversations that really matter and are worth taking the time to navigate, even through rough seas. Most importantly, courageous conversations are data-fueled.

In this article, we look at courageous conversations for the HR and learning leaders of the future and offer tips on how they can become strategic partners by leading with data.

1. Be curious about the data you already have. 

Chances are you’re already collecting data in your organization, such as learning data or engagement surveys. But how curious are you about that data? Do you just give it a high-level review, read the headlines and then make decisions based on that, or are you digging into that data to look for connections between the data? Most high-growth organizations are putting modern listening tools as their top HR technology investment because these tools allow them to dig into the data and gain greater insights into the information they already have.

Our November 2022 survey revealed that 85% of HR leaders are increasing investment in HR talent management technology through 2023.

2. Mind the gap. 

Closing the gap between what HR and L&D delivers and what a business needs to drive engagement and performance is critical. Using data to understand skills gaps, the elements driving employee dissatisfaction, and current versus desired business states, empowers decision-making. Data also upends what was traditionally a top-down approach to business decisions turning waterfall management styles into flatter, calmer seas. Consider how you move people and processes forward and create a culture of feedback as you collect more information and listen to your employees. Gartner’s research also surfaced that thriving employees are two times more likely to say that they feel listened to and engaged in discussions about the future of work.

3. Activate your managers. 

Two leadership competencies that gained a brighter spotlight after the COVID-19 pandemic are resilience and bias for action. Managers need to develop these two competencies because they are crucial for change and transformation. High-performing companies co-create new employee experiences in partnership with their people. These successful organizations engage their managers to push change and transformation through the business in a collaborative process.

Examples of Data-Fueled Courageous Conversations

Now, let’s look at some examples of data-fueled courageous conversations HR and learning leaders can have with new employee listening strategies or strategies that they already have in place.

1. Closing skills gaps. 

The World Economic Forum reported that one-half of all employees might need to reskill by 2025, highlighting an ongoing endeavor to close the global skills gap. Accelerated progress on better education and upskilling could add $8.3 trillion to global GDP by 2030, making it a problem worth solving. However, L&D teams are feeling pressure under this tight timeline. High levels of employee turnover and churn have led to a cycle of constant change. Taking a step back to determine what conversations you need to have within your organization is an important first step. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is our organizational competency changing? Is it getting stronger or weaker?
  • Are we adequately investing in skills development?
  • How can we develop and implement effective training programs to upskill our workforce?
  • Do we need to hire external talent to support our goals?

These are questions that HR and learning leaders are grappling with and have an opportunity to discuss with business executives. The use of multi-rater assessments can fuel these conversations with data.

Now more than ever before, people managers must take a modern approach to skills assessment and talent review. An automated, efficient process that generates powerful insights about employee performance and capability helps accurately identify high performers and candidates for promotions.

2. Engaging the role of the manager. 

We know that the role of managers is critical to the organization, as they help ensure that employees are engaged, support the development of skills, and to prepare employees for the future. Here are a few questions to help explore how your managers are contributing to these areas:

  • What can managers do to support reskilling and career progression?
  • What leadership behaviors contribute to the most thriving and engaged teams?
  • What are our overall leadership strengths? What are our overall leadership development needs?
  • Which managers are having the greatest impact on employee retention?

Employee engagement surveys can provide invaluable insights about your employees, including what’s motivating them and what is causing disengagement. Employee engagement is directly connected to manager engagement, and leaders must be prepared and supported to fully commit to all aspects of their position, not only driving typical bottom-line results.

3. Listening to your employees.

This final conversation asks you to get honest about whether you’re truly listening to your employees. Employees talk to their organizations every day, in different ways, and they want confidence that action will result from having their voice heard. L&D leaders are often in positions to convince business decision-makers of necessary changes or new initiatives that impact employees, but don’t always have the insights or data readily available to inform those decisions. What questions should you be asking to get the answers you need in the future? Here’s a start:

  • Which themes or subthemes show up across the employee journey (e.g., workload, toxic environment, knowledge, teaching delivery)?
  • How does the sentiment about employee experience differ across departments, regions or demographics?
  • What do our employees want us to stop, start, or continue doing? Is it urgent (e.g., alert to safety, well-being or risk)?
  • Which interventions can improve engagement levels in specific teams or departments? What matters most to our high performers and high potentials?

To help answer these questions, organizations benefit from tapping into employee feedback data, including pre-hire interviews and exit surveys, among other sources. What’s more, comment analysis technologies enable HR and learning leaders to dive deeper into large datasets of employee feedback to provide them with timely and actionable insights.

Key Takeaways

Be curious. Mind the gap. Activate your managers. With each data set you encounter within your organization, keep these three strategies in mind. They will help you have courageous conversations fueled by data that will strengthen relationships with employees and drive business value. And don’t forget: It begins with listening to what has already been said.