After many years of speaking at numerous learning conferences, participants still come up to us and ask, “How do I get business leaders to support my learning initiative?” From the popularity of this question, it appears that this is one of the biggest challenges many learning practitioners face.
Not too long ago leaders would blindly allocate funds to learning departments and simply tell practitioners to develop training solutions. Well, those days are long gone. Accountability is now the primary concern for every budget allocation, which is unfamiliar for many learning practitioners.
Let’s examine three tips that can help you gain leadership support. While these methods are both simple and complex, they may surprise you.
1. They Like You … They Really, Really Like You
The truth is business leaders are sold on workplace training and the benefits it delivers. But they expect answers to questions like, “Does training make business sense?” and “What are the tangible outcomes from your effort?” This is where things typically fall apart for many learning proposals.
There is a collective belief within the learning community that business leaders possess a fundamental disdain for softer business activities like training. Further compounding this belief is when training departments are one of the first to get their budgets cut. It is not personal and it is not that they don’t like what you have to offer, it’s just business.
Start by objectively ask why training’s budget is being cut. Is it because leaders truly believe it is a waste of time or is it that training is not delivering results? Your leaders need what you offer, but are ultimately seeking tangible results. Effective leaders expect to maximize every business resource to achieve specific business objectives. They will quickly eliminate any resource that fails to deliver on its promise and is easily replaced by another resource. This is how leaders drive overall profitability.
Leaders recognize that one of their only weapons to effectively compete is to leverage the knowledge of their people. Furthermore, leaders recognize that they can’t afford to wait for financial outcomes and require leading qualitative performance measures. This is what learning practitioners offer for their leaders. But you need to demonstrate that you are a valued resource. So, demonstrate business value from your efforts.
2. Stop Reinventing the Wheel
Remember accountability? Recognizing its relevance will help answer the question, “What are the tangible outcomes from your effort?” Most practitioners react by seeking clear and tangible correlations for their training effort. The problem is that training is rarely the sole solution to any business issue and training results are often far from tangible.
When there is a lack of a tangible correlation, learning practitioners desperately turn to what they know best, demonstrating learning results. This is also a mistake. Leaders don’t expect a direct correlation from training and certainly don’t want to hear about how much employees learned or enjoyed a training initiative. Essentially, they expect performance to improve and most likely measure it through a performance improvement framework. Essentially, your leaders are handing you the answers, you just need to identify the issues.
Leaders view training as a vehicle to improve people performance. And people performance is tied directly to work/job responsibilities. These work responsibilities align with specific performance measures within the performance framework. So all you have to do is identify the specific metrics, align your initiative to them, and then demonstrate improvement.
There is no need to ever develop new learning metrics since leaders will not deem them relevant. Source your organization’s performance framework. It exists. If it doesn’t, as within many smaller businesses, speak with leaders and learn about their business preoccupations. This will lead you to the performance metrics you seek.
3. Speak Their Language
Many practitioners complain to us that they can’t understand what their leaders are saying. One even said to us, “It’s like they are speaking in tongues!” Keep calm; your leaders are not possessed. They are, however, most likely speaking in business terms.
In the same manner you learn the basic phrases when traveling to another country, you need to do the same out of respect for your leaders. The one difference is that learning practitioners must understand and speak business, whereas leaders don’t need to speak our learning language.
Your main goals for professional growth is to develop your business acumen. Too many times we hear practitioners say, “We’re hired for our learning expertise, not to handle business.” This type of arrogance no longer has a place if you want to build lasting credibility with leaders. Ultimately, your leaders look at training solely as a business activity.
Be prepared to answer the question, “Does it make business sense?” The knee-jerk reaction for many practitioners is to conduct a return on investment analysis. While superficially this sounds appropriate, it is misdirected. Your leaders may say something to the effect, “Why should I invest in your project?” using the word “invest” and implicitly asking what is the “return.” Practitioners often misunderstand what leaders actually mean by “return on investment.”
Leaders don’t evaluate the return of expenses or cost centers in the same manner as profit-driven activities. They consider training both an expense and a cost center. This is not a bad thing and it is not meant to be derogatory. It is simply a financial and accounting classification.
If you attempt to conduct a training ROI evaluation, you violate many of the financial and accounting guidelines your leaders follow. When they ask what return your efforts will produce, they are actually asking how training will contribute to improving performance.
They are not seeking a financial return since they see training as an expense and sunken (unrecoverable) cost. They do, however, want you to demonstrate how allocating funds to training addresses and resolves business performance issues. So put your training ROI away if you expect to be taken seriously with leaders.
Realistically, training will always remain in a precarious position in the minds of business leaders. The good news is that they recognize that intellectual capital retention is a key factor for business success. This is an opportunity for training (and HR) to become a strategic partner with business leaders rather than an after-thought.
Never take your role for granted. These three key points will lead you to build credibility for learning. When your leaders call upon you to participate in their decision-making process, be ready to sell them on how your efforts will benefit the organization in terms they understand.