The fast-changing business landscape is a topic of unending conversation. We know all too well that customer expectations are consistently increasing and shifting. Competitors and disruptions continue to emerge from unexpected sources and in unanticipated forms. Choices and options have never been more plentiful. At the same time, customers have never been more fickle or less loyal. Cycle times keep shrinking as everyone is challenged to do more with less. And we operate globally, 24/7 with the most diverse workforce in history.
It’s no wonder that the environment within which we work is frequently characterized with adjectives like fast-paced, complex, turbulent, volatile, unpredictable, ambiguous and uncertain. It’s also no wonder that it’s becoming increasingly necessary for leaders to adapt their approaches to this ever-changing environment.
Learning and development (L&D) professionals tend to have a clear understanding of the shifting role of leaders today as they address relevant needs, requirements and skill gaps in the leadership development solutions they develop and deploy.
But what about the development of prospective learning leaders? Too frequently, the shoemaker’s children don’t enjoy the benefits and experiences afforded to those in literally every other department within the organization. People aspiring to assume leadership roles in the L&D arena need the same capabilities as those in other functions. And since neither hope nor osmosis are research-based instructional strategies, something more is required for this frequently forgotten population.
The good news is that much of what truly effective L&D professionals already routinely do prepares them well for leadership. After all, they spend their days focusing on how to help others develop and grow. They are intentional about the way in which they communicate. And without legitimate authority over participants, they engage and inspire others to change through influence and collaboration.
Yet, just as we wouldn’t allow the technical skills unique to other functions to substitute for legitimate leadership development, we shouldn’t allow it for L&D. Instead, a conscious and deliberate process is required to ensure that those who ultimately become responsible for L&D are properly prepared to assume the leadership role. Cost-effective, reality-based strategies that are actually possible within the fast-paced, volatile and uncertain environment within which these professionals operate include the following.
Exposure and breadth: Effective learning leaders see the big picture. They have a deep appreciation for the broader business context. They empathize with those who toil away inventing, generating, selling and supporting the products and/or services that drive revenue and success. But this awareness rarely comes by chance or intuition. It’s a result of direct exposure. Shadowing those outside of L&D, temporary work assignments in other departments, and taking on new topical areas for development or facilitation can offer the breadth required of effective learning leaders.
Self-assessment and reflection: Those aspiring to leadership in a training department are likely exposed to volumes of relevant content. They might even facilitate or develop leadership courses themselves. And yet, teaching is not the same as learning. L&D professionals in this position can still leverage this content and internalize it by consciously observing their behavior and asking themselves: “Am I practicing what I’m preaching?” They can gather feedback from others, and actually do the exercises they assign.
Lead things before people: In many cases, leading collaborative efforts and initiatives mimics leading people. As a result, intentionally selected action learning experiences can provide invaluable opportunities to develop leadership capacity. A cross-functional training project. An LMS RFP team. A merger integration effort. These offer an opportunity to test and build leadership skills around vision, engagement, collaboration, and more – offering organic development for the individual and real value to the organization.
As the nature of leadership continues to shift within organizations, the role of the learning leader only becomes more critical. And so does their leadership development.