Ongoing Training Industry research has found that strategic alignment is the most important process capability of great training organizations. The training function is expected to support the business by delivering programs and initiatives that improve human performance and, as a result, business outcomes. However, building a strategic training function can be a challenge, especially as business needs shift and evolve.

In this episode of The Business of Learning, we sat down with Heather Balcerek, talent development program manager at Amazon, and Michael Poll, an experienced learning and development professional who has led learning functions in industries including pharmaceuticals, insurance, technology, oil and gas, and higher education, to hear what it takes to build a strategic training function.

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The transcript for this episode follows: 

Speaker 1:

Welcome to The Business of Learning, the learning leader’s podcast from Training Industry.

Sarah Gallo:

Hi, welcome back to The Business of Learning. I’m Sarah Gallo, senior editor here at Training Industry, along with my co-host Michelle Eggleston Schwartz, editor in chief.

Michelle Schwartz:

Yes. Welcome. Before we begin, here’s a brief message from our sponsor, Training Industry’s Certified Professional and Training Management program.

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Michelle Schwartz:

After over a decade of research on great training organizations, which we’ll link to in the show notes for this episode, Training Industry found that strategic alignment is the most important process capability of great training organizations. Training must be strategically aligned to keep business goals to effectively improve human performance, and as a result, business outcomes. But building a strategic training function isn’t easy, especially during times of change. To learn more about how to build a strategic training function, today we’re speaking with Heather Balcerek, talent development program manager at Amazon, and Michael Poll, an experienced learning and development professional who has led learning functions in industries including pharmaceuticals, insurance, technology, oil and gas, and higher education. Heather, Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Heather Balcerek:

Thanks. Great to be here.

Michael Poll:

Thanks.

Sarah Gallo:

Yes, thanks for speaking with us today. Well, as Michelle just mentioned, today’s business environment is really marked by this rapid change, whether it’s digital transformation or just embracing new ways of working and learning. So, to navigate these changes and more, many organizations are really looking to training and development for guidance and support perhaps more than ever. So Heather and Michael, why do you think that companies are viewing training as a strategic business function more than ever before?

Heather Balcerek:

For me, I see it as investing in the current workforce, really to help with retention. Because when you think about it, ultimately it’s more cost effective to upscale, to keep the current people that work for you versus hiring and training somebody new. And in kind of what’s going on in the world, people aren’t staying with companies like they used to. And so people are looking for places that really can give them strong training and development focus because I think people now understand that you’re always learning, and as a business, if you’re presenting that kind of strong training and development focus for your workforce, that’s an asset for your current and new employees that may be coming in.

Michael Poll:

Yeah, Heather, I agree. I think people are the one asset that a company has that can grow. If you think about it, buildings don’t grow, goods don’t grow, intellectual property doesn’t grow. People can outpace themselves year over year, and they can raise the bar on themselves year over year. So I think the L&D function can and does serve as a catalyst to help evolve people. Really kind of the most pliable asset that a company has is people, right? So I think that we in L&D are called upon to advance intellect, develop new skills, evolve behaviors so that people can outperform themselves year over year. And I think that being aligned to the business is so critical in order to be able to do that and to help the company grow and outperform itself year over year. You can do that with people. And so people turn to L&D and we need to be prepared in a proactive way to drive that performance.

Michelle Schwartz:

Definitely. It’s great to see that more companies are beginning to recognize the business value of training. And just to circle back to a point I made earlier, which was that strategic alignment is the most important process capability of great training organizations. Why do you both believe that it’s so important that training is aligned to business goals and needs? Why do you think strategic alignment gets that number one spot?

Michael Poll:

I think that we need to chase the right goals and objectives. What is the goal for the business to perform at its best? People need to be focused on those things. Alignment is critical. If we identify something that is supporting one aspect of what we think will drive the business, but it isn’t really the driver, we’re wasting a lot of energy and a lot of time, and that doesn’t help and support the business. And we’re really holding things back.

So I’ll give you an example. If a leader says “we need to get better at telling stories, at storytelling. I feel like people in my team are not very strong at that and so forth.” Well, they may have a feeling and maybe even some data has shown that they’re not really effective at storytelling. But if the critical driver for them to drive the business results that they’re after is more around effective decision making, and quick and nimble decision making, but we’re spinning our wheels on something else that’s not aligned to supporting the goals that we’re after, and that is to make decisions better, to make them faster so that we can move product or services or whatever it may be to have more effective teams, to be more cross-functional and so forth, then it doesn’t matter if people can tell stories better. Now, I think that’s an important thing, don’t get me wrong, but if we are not focused on the most critical things, then we are just spinning our wheels and we’re not helping.

Heather Balcerek:

I definitely agree. If you’re not focused on the right things, than your efforts aren’t going where they need to go. When I think about being aligned with business priorities, it’s buy-in from the leaders. For training and development initiatives to really take root in an organization, the top level leaders need to be bought into that program. They need to understand “how is it going to help me?” And if you’re able to bring the programs back into the business priorities and show the potential ROI and show maybe, to kind of go with what Michael’s example was there of “okay, we won’t teach the data story or how to tell the story. We’re going to teach how to make decisions.” You can tie it back on how this is going to help, that helps connect the dots for them.

And as you’re aligning to priorities as a learning leader, you have to connect the dots for your customer. You have to show the leader how this is going to help because they’ve got everything else going on, and so you have to show them “here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how it connects to your business priorities, and this is how we can align and move forward together.”

Sarah Gallo:

Yeah, definitely. Connecting those dots and really focusing on the right things is so critical for strategic alignment. But of course right now business priorities are changing all the time. How can our listeners really keep pace and make sure that they’re staying aligned even as these goals and priorities are constantly in flux?

Michael Poll:

For me, it’s staying close to stakeholders, staying close to partners, staying close to the business, making sure that we, as learning professionals, aren’t so much in our head around, “Hey, we’re L&D and we have all these amazing tools and resources and wonderful things and so forth.” Guess what? People don’t care. What they care about is what is the business focused on? What are we striving for as a company, as an organization? So how do you do that? You stay focused and make sure that you’re working in an industry that you feel passionate about. I think that’s one thing that’s very important. Next is making sure that you understand the strategy for the company or the organization that you work with right now, and then when you start looking at your function, whether it’s HR or directly the L&D group, to make sure that whatever it is that you are focused on is aligned to the company strategy. It has to be aligned.

I feel like people in L&D come and do their best work when they can see that connection and they can see that what they’re doing is having an impact on the overall company strategy. So constantly looking at that and making sure that there’s alignment is important. The other thing I would say that I have found is have the courage to shift during the year. I think sometimes we get so caught up on this being an annual process and looking at things annually and so forth, but have the courage to shift and realize something’s happening in the business, something is happening external, something just happened internal and so forth. Have that courage to make a decision to say, “You know what? We need to adjust something we’re doing over here. We need to support the business differently. We need to partner differently. We need to connect with different stakeholders.” I think that’s very important. It’s not about us, it’s about the performance of the business, and that needs to be the focus, in my opinion.

Heather Balcerek:

I agree, Michael. I mean, because one of the hardest things to do if you’re not aligned with your customer is to keep pace. You have to be connected to your customer. It’s about that relationship, and it goes into having conversations, not just with the top level, not just with the customer facing you. You have to know and have conversations all across the board to know what’s happening. And as you have those conversations, you can start to pick up on the possible changes like what’s happening right there on the front lines of our teams? How are they interacting with customers? Do they see something that maybe your top level leaders aren’t seeing quite yet? Or in the top level leaders, they’re looking forward and trying to figure out what’s happening next quarter and 12 quarters from now. They’re looking so far ahead that they can help you also make those connections.

So you have to stay in that constant conversation. There should be a cadence of check-ins and follow ups. Like you said, Michael, it’s not a once a year thing like, “Hey, guess what? We did our analysis. Here’s what we got. This should fit what you need. We’ll see you next year.” It can’t work like that. It’s not going to be successful. And so you have to continue that conversation back and forth, and staying aligned through changes, because business priorities can change very quickly.

I look at this in two different ways as well. I look at it as you your business cycle, and so you can kind of understand what is the pace that happens in your business cycle? So that you know, “When are we going to check in? When are we going to have these alignment conversations and plan for that?” Because it’s always going to look different based on your business. But then you have the other set of things where you can’t plan for the changes that are going to happen. I mean, think about the pandemic. Nobody was prepared for that. That was very like “okay, wait, change has to happen now. We have to put new focus on it.” And if you weren’t connected to your customer well, if you weren’t in the conversations, it would be very hard to keep pace with their changing priorities in that kind of quick, not unexpected change in the business.

Sarah Gallo:

It’s definitely not easy. I think it would be great. Since you both are really in the trenches here doing this work, if we could hear more about your own personal experiences with driving strategic alignment. How have you really worked to leverage training for business outcomes in your own organizations?

Heather Balcerek:

When I think back on my experience and how I’ve tried to help have training leverage that for business results in an organization, I look back to this one role I had where I was a director of training and marketing for a retailer that had 60 stores. It was just me over here trying to get the training to everybody and help everybody learn the new sales processes, new products, stuff like that. But I look back on that situation all the time because I really failed a lot in that. So I look back on it to make sure I failed forward. What can I learn from that particular instance that I can use now in a much different setting, but with a much larger audience so I don’t make the same mistakes? I’m failing forward and learning from it.

And the biggest lesson I learned from that was that it doesn’t matter how much work you do if the leaders aren’t on board. We keep going back to it, right? It’s all about the buy-in of having them understand what you do, why you’re doing it, how it connects for them, how it will help. Because then they can help push the message. In that world when I was in retail, it was a lot of, “Okay, let’s make the instructional videos on the new things that are coming out. Let’s put out one-pagers, like job aids.” Figuring out how the quick training can happen in the retail space, especially if it was the holiday season where it was super busy, how can we get new information out to them quickly? And I think about now in the role that I have in driving strategic alignment, change is always constant. And so there’s been a lot of change recently in my customer base and just trying to realign with the customer.

And so what has worked in my previous customer base, bringing that information with me to say, “Okay, hey customer, what are you doing? Let me understand what you do. How can I take what we’ve done and use it? And then how are your priorities looking? Okay, let’s see what fits in there.” And it’s just that constant conversation, connecting the dots for them, trying to dig as deep as I can to learn more and to make sure that there’s the understanding of what we do in learning and development. Because I think sometimes people don’t know. “What does L&D do? Oh, they make those trainings, right?” Well, you have to let them know what we do so that you can leverage training for the business to get the results.

Michael Poll:

Heather, I totally agree, and I like one of the things that you said in there as well that “in our world as learning professionals, we need to make sure that we’re learning, that we are vulnerable and comfortable and are open to figuring things out ourselves, and that we don’t necessarily always have all of the answers and all of the information.” I think in my own space for building strategic alignment, I kind of have a three step model or formula, if you will. I think for me, one, the first thing is being a good internal consultant. Call it whatever you want, but we are in conversation with leaders, with HR professionals, with business, to learn things. And then have courage and the confidence to ask questions, to learn, to appropriately challenge.

When I think back in my early career days, I didn’t have that. I was more of a yes person. I would go in and say, “Okay, here’s what you need? Let me go out and figure that out.” And then I realized, “Oh, I may feel like I’m being strategic, but that’s not really helping to drive the results that are needed.” And being appropriate in asking those good questions and maybe challenging a little bit or digging a little bit deeper is what often helps a leader say “I thought I was after X, but this other thing over here is actually really going to drive the results I’m after.” And so sometimes for us, it’s being that internal consultant. I think the second thing in my formula is use feedback and then feed forward. Feed back what you hear, the words that the leader or the person is saying, not the training mumbo jumbo that we have in our heads and that we love, but use their words and confirm alignment.

So feed back to them what you’re hearing in their words, and then feed forward the future that they’re looking for, the future results that they’re looking for, and that’s going to show them that strategic alignment. Help them see what will be different or new as a result of whatever it is that we may be partnering on and bringing forward. So it’s being a consultant first, using feedback and then feed forward. And the third thing in my model is repeat the second thing. Make sure that you continue to repeat along the way when you’re involved in some kind of initiative and so forth. Continue to feed back and continue to feed forward. Sometimes my experience is that we may be aligned with strategy upfront and we’re working on something that’s a four or five month initiative, and sometimes the business leader or the HR professional, not intentionally, but they may forget. “Now, what are we really after here?” And so forth. So I think it’s up to us to continue to remind people, “Here are the great results we’re after. Here’s the performance that we’re trying to drive.”

Michelle Schwartz:

Those are such good points. I really like what you said there, Michael, about continuing to gain that feedback and continue to feed forward. That’s some really good advice there. As we touched on, gaining that buy-in and alignment with senior leaders is challenging, and as we record this episode in December 2022, many industries are struggling with layoffs and budget cuts. How can learning leaders prove the value of training to the business during these uncertain economic times?

Michael Poll:

My guess is we have some things that are aligned and similar. One thing that I think is, if you haven’t done this already, stop spending effort on wasteful things. There are some things that people come to us to involve…. Well, they want to involve learning, and it’s not really driving performance. We need to help and we need to be involved in that conversation, and we even need to look at what we’re doing right now. We need to let it go sometimes and say ,”Hey, this thing that was developed four years ago, that was four years ago. That may have been something that our culture and our organization needed then that we may have solved or maybe have shortened that thing up. We don’t need to lean on that right now. Let’s use our resources for something else and the things that are really critical.”

So let go of some things and then spend most or all of the things, all of the time, the effort that we have on the things that drive performance. That’s really the question that I ask is, “Will this drive performance? How will this drive performance of individuals or of teams?” And then remind the stakeholders of the results. Again, I mentioned this just a moment ago, but let them be your fans. Let them be your best fans. And it reminds me of, if you use Spotify, at the end of a year, the music streaming service Spotify comes out and says “hey, here’s what you listened to throughout the year.”

And that’s kind of cool to see that and who the artists were and the songs that you listened to and so forth. But what a lot of people do is they go out there and they’ll post who they listen to and so forth and send messages to the artists, especially indie artists and say ,”Hey, wow, I really like your stuff. I just want to let you know, you were number three on my list of the most listened to performer this year, the most listened to band this year.” So in essence, the users in this example are the marketers. So, we need to kind of step out of the way sometimes and help our stakeholders and remind them of the results they’re getting, and let them, in some cases, market for us. If we’re doing our best work and we’re driving performance, it’s going to be easy for them to do that. It’s hard to argue with results.

Heather Balcerek:

I like that example of letting your user be your marketing. Let the people that are taking advantage of your trainings and products speak back to “hey, this is how it’s helping.” When I think about the time that we’re in with layoffs and budget cuts and stuff, I go back to knowing your customer and asking, what do they need? In my role right now, my focus is on talent development. And so it’s not so much about how you do your job, but how can you have better conversations? How can you give feedback? How can you coach? It’s those kind of what people would call soft skills, which typically at times like this, they’re like “oh no, don’t need it. Just train.”

You have to really know what your customer needs and be able to maybe take the things… Like for me, I need to be able to take the things that I focus on in terms of how to have a difficult conversation. Well, let’s talk about that. As a leader, how are you having these difficult conversations? What can we bring to the customer base to help them through these times as well? And then when you’re having the conversations, when you are asking what they need, be ready to pivot, be ready to pilot, and be ready to pivot again. Because it’s happening so quickly and because it’s going to look different in every part of the organization depending on how large your organization is, you’ve got to be ready to just say, like Michael mentioned a minute ago “okay, what do we need to just take away? What do we need to focus on in this time?” And connecting with the customer is always vital, but this is a specific time where you have to know what’s happening, where are the priorities going? How can we continue to support and engage your team through the difficult times?

Michelle Schwartz:

Thank you both for sharing. I really like the point of staying connected and staying focused on the customers to really focus on what matters. Before we wrap up today, what steps can you share with our listeners to get started? Is there any one piece of actionable advice that you can leave our listeners with?

Michael Poll:

I would say this, Michelle. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve started L&D functions five times, and I didn’t go out looking to do this by the way. It has just been the situation where companies where I’ve been hired, they’ve said “hey, we don’t have an L&D function, or we had one.’ A famous situation of mine was when a CHRO years ago said “well, we had an L&D function, we thought we could save money so we got rid of it. We realized that was a mistake. Can you come in and figure it out?” And so I’ve done this a number of different times and I got to tell you, I’ve stumbled, I’ve failed, I’ve learned more from what didn’t work. So if I were to say a few quick things of what really helps and what really works, the first thing I’d say is forget the training L&D mumbo jumbo. Like I said before, the business doesn’t care. They want results. They want growth. They want high performing teams and so forth.

Know that we are professionals and we know those things and so forth, but really be comfortable stepping out of that and not feeling like we have to show that we have all of the answers. I think the second thing is listen to stakeholders. Go out there, meet, connect, listen, then make the time to go in and do drive throughs, whether it’s salespeople, or go to manufacturing plants. I once traveled to a manufacturing plant and I had to put on a hard hat and do all the stuff and everything, and I was in the trenches trying to figure stuff out. And that really makes a difference because then when we go and we’re having conversations with the business, we really have a different understanding than just sitting back and saying, “Oh, I can solve all of your problems.” So listening to the stakeholders, I think it’s really important.

I think the next thing I’d say is we may not have all of the answers. We may not know how to do this. Don’t hesitate to rely on external experts. In the past, I have brought in different external experts and partners to come with me or to even lead initiatives and so forth. And that really does make a difference. Sometimes the business will say, “Well, Michael, you work here, so what do you really know?” But when we spend a little bit of money or a little bit of time bringing in an external partner, sometimes what they end up doing is they validate what we are already bringing forward. So be open to doing that and focus on the strategic few.

The thing I think is most important when you’re really trying to build, everybody is going to want what you have. If you think about it, if you’re doing good work, people will figure it out. They’ll find you. The challenge sometimes in the L&D space is we feel like we have to do something for everybody. We have to have something for everyone out there. I’d rather say ,”Yep, we have things that support a lot of people, but with our time and resources and energy that we have, what’s really most critical right now to drive business results and to help develop talent?” So sometimes it really is just really focusing on the critical few.

Heather Balcerek:

It’s funny, Michael, you talked about how you’ve started some from the ground up, and I’ve done that before in the past, but I think about where I am right now, and it’s not starting from scratch, but it’s going into a new customer base and trying to really understand, and how do we build this strategic training function in terms of talent development, and meld with the different training pieces that they have? And so for me, one of the things that we’re doing is we’re trying to understand the hierarchy of the group and where does influence come from? And understand where do we need to start? So that influence and the importance of the training that we’re doing, where does it really flow down from?

And then starting the conversations, learning about the business goals, learning about their business cadence. When are they super busy, and how can we still do development in that timeframe so it doesn’t get put on the back burner? And from that point too, what works? What has been working? What doesn’t work for you? Getting that information from them and then also doing a needs analysis. Like “hey, we’ve had programs for a year. Let’s see… What’s working?” Get that feedback from them. And so that’s how we’ve started in some of the transition and change that we’ve been through, some things that we’ve started to do to adjust and start to be really strategic with the training function that my team does.

Sarah Gallo:

Well on that note, Heather and Michael, thanks so much for sitting down with us today. How can our listeners get in touch with you after the episode if they would like to reach out?

Michael Poll:

I think the best thing for me is just, I’m on LinkedIn.

Heather Balcerek:

Same for me, LinkedIn. Just Heather Balcerek.

Michelle Schwartz:

To learn more about strategic alignment and to view the highlights from this episode in animation, visit the show notes for this episode at trainingindustry.com/trainingindustrypodcast

Sarah Gallo:

And don’t forget to rate and review us on your favorite podcast app. We love hearing your feedback. Until next time.

Speaker 1:

If you have feedback about this episode or would like to suggest a topic for a future program, email us at info@trainingindustry.com or use the contact us page at trainingindustry.com. Thanks for listening to the Training Industry podcast.

 

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