Steven Covey’s seventh habit for highly effective people calls out the need for people to spend some time on themselves. Whether it’s a break to focus on personal life or a re-sharpening of skills and knowledge, this habit should be a driving force for professionals who spend their careers developing tools and programs that develop others. Sadly, though, we learning and development (L&D) professionals often end up like the cobbler’s children without shoes.

Sometimes, it’s lack of funding, and often, it’s lack of time, but it is almost never a lack of will. We are and will always be lifelong learners. So, when time is of the essence, what are the essential skills L&D professionals need to help them elevate their craft and become a true performance consultant to their business?

The best development tools are skills that drive the L&D agenda and translate well to the business. If you are the decision-maker for your L&D team’s development, focus on outcomes rather than completions. Here are the top skills I recommend for our craft:

1. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills focus L&D professionals not just on how to create or facilitate learnings, but on why they are doing it and what it means to the learner. It is not an intuitive skill for everyone. Part of critical thinking includes the ability to conceptualize information and analyze, synthesize and evaluate it (which sounds a lot like the instructional design process!).

There is also an element of taking all of those thought processes and formulating an action, outcome or belief (which sounds a lot like a training scenario). Much of the final output is based on reflection — which makes it sound like L&D professionals are the perfect critical thinkers. We are not, but we are perfect for learning and applying this skill.

2. Strategic Thinking

A common mistake is the belief that strategic thinking and critical thinking are the same skill, but critical thinking is a tool that strategic thinkers use. Strategic thinkers consider consequences, dependencies, and short- and long-term impacts within the context of the environment and then make projections based on that information. It is about seeing through a curious lens beyond the job you are doing right now, with a vision of the future based on information about the past and a mindset of “what if.”

3. Data Storytelling

As organizations rely more and more on data to inform whether or not learning programs are driving change, L&D professionals’ ability to tell the story of that change will impact their stakeholders’ belief in their ability to do good work. We have to be able to use evidence-based information to tell meaningful stories that connect to the emotional and numerical needs of the stakeholder.

4. Performance Consulting

Talk to L&D professionals about how they do their work and what they wish they could do differently, and almost every single one will tell you they do not want to be “just an order-taker.” Leaner teams and faster turnarounds often create a culture of order-taking. Learning the art of performance consulting will help L&D professionals move at the pace of the business, collaborate with and influence stakeholders, and identify learning gaps to create a clear path to training (if it is the right solution).

5. Project Management

L&D professionals often work on multiple projects simultaneously. Learning basic project management skills can help training program designers stay organized, on task and on time, thereby better meeting the needs of their stakeholder. When L&D professionals are clear in their approach to L&D and use sound project management practices, even if they are not using project management software, there is less opportunity for scope creep and late project changes.

For example, a solid change control process can clearly communicate up front the impact of a change and, when done well, can help stakeholders to think twice before asking. That’s only one component of project management; imagine using all of them!

6. Change Management

People resist change. When rolling out new programs and processes, L&D professionals who understand change management practices and can implement them as part of their overall program strategy will have a much easier time gaining adoption. Managing relationships as part of the process or program change will increase speed to adoption and the perceived effectiveness of the change. The more L&D professionals know about managing change, the better they will be in driving it.

Development matters. It sets up people for success, expands knowledge and secures the ability to have two-way conversations with the business. It helps people maintain a growth mindset by exposing them to different ideas and ways of thinking, which, in turn, boosts confidence that carries over into classrooms (virtual or in person) and conversations. Most of the time, L&D professionals can apply these skills immediately, benefiting individuals, departments, organizations, and even clients or customers.

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