Learning and development (L&D) departments were already traveling the road toward massive innovation prior to the cataclysmic events of 2020. But COVID-19, the migration to remote work, and the complexities of gathering people and hosting events added urgency to the effort.

In response, L&D professionals have become increasingly creative and nimble in the solutions they deliver, allowing learners to become more self-directed. Self-service and on-demand alternatives have grown exponentially. And how many thousands of hours of instructor-led training have been translated virtually? The commercial training marketplace has also responded prolifically, with an explosion of mobile-first, elevated video and audio experiences.

There has never been a better time to work in the field of talent development. In the future, this period will be looked back on as a renaissance for learning. Now is the time to address a persistent issue that L&D practitioners have struggled with for decades: Leadership’s refusal to accept responsibility and own their role in achieving learning results.

We know that what a leader does before and after training has a greater effect on behavior change than what we do during training. It’s a hard truth to swallow given the tremendous effort that instructional designers, trainers and facilitators invest daily in their craft. Yet, L&D practitioners have graciously assumed responsibility for outcomes outside of their limited influence, answering for lackluster behavior change and subpar return on investment.

Given the increasing emphasis on virtual- and technology-enabled learning, L&D professionals are further distanced from learners – reducing even further the illusion of control over outcomes. So, now is the time to push back on the tradition of sole accountability for learning outcomes, educate organizations on what L&D can and can’t control, and announce that there’s a new sheriff in town. And that sheriff is the learner’s supervisor.

The current reality demands that leaders step up in new and more active ways. But, if they knew how to do that, they likely would have already assumed the role. Therefore, we must enable this by offering leaders the tools they need to support learning. That means helping them:

  • Understand what’s being taught. While it’s ideal for leaders to experience the training their employees go through, that’s frequently not possible. Offer an easily digestible summary of highlights, skills and behaviors. It could be a one-page document or a short video or podcast. The form matters less than its brevity, clarity and actionability.
  • Prepare learners. For learners to get the most from a learning experience, they need to understand what’s in it for them and formulate personal objectives. Create a script that provides leaders a structure for facilitating 15-minute, pre-learning conversations to set people up for success.
  • Debrief learning. Even the most powerful learning slips away quickly if time is not taken to reflect upon the experience. Distribute a list of questions to leaders that they can use to cement insights and ensure action.
  • Recognize opportunities for reinforcement. The key to sustaining post-learning commitment is to offer regular, targeted feedback and coaching to employees. Before leaders can seize opportunities to do so, they must first recognize the cues. L&D can help by outlining positive behaviors that deserve recognition, as well as examples of negative situations where the absence or misuse of key skills offers an opportunity for redirecting feedback.

Imagine the results that will be possible when your efforts are actively supported by leaders who feel a deep sense of ownership for the learning of their employees. It’s time to deputize leaders to drive development, and welcome them as the new sheriffs in town.

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