As a learning and development (L&D) leader, you may find yourself with few to no direct team members. Yet, you are responsible for the readiness and mindset of your entire organization. In fact, you may ask yourself at times, “How am I going to make success possible?” You may even refer to yourself as an “army of one.” However, while seemingly appropriate, this mindset can be limiting.

In 2001, the U.S. Army introduced one of its most short-lived recruiting campaigns around the slogan, “An Army of One.” Initially, the campaign was wildly successful in meeting its recruiting goals, but as Dr. Frank Luntz illustrates in his book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear,” it quickly faded because the idea of individually accomplishing the mission was counterintuitive to the essence of teamwork. Even if each soldier is fully equipped and skilled enough to tackle the objective, the mission will always require a cohesive extended team with a variety of talents to be truly successful.

The magic resides in how you define your team and the degree to which you can influence internal stakeholders and leadership. The L&D function cannot exist in a vacuum if it is to achieve the goals of the organization. It must be nurtured by the involvement and interactions of organizational contributors who form your extended team. Relationships, not individual bravado, are essential to success.

In this article, we will explore insights and strategies for thriving as an L&D team of one and how to build an extended team of your own.

Model Expectations of an L&D Team

To really assess the concept of an L&D team of one, let us first examine the components of a successful L&D program. Training Industry’s Training Process Framework delineates five major functional groups:

  1. Administration.
  2. Content.
  3. Delivery.
  4. Technology.
  5. Integration.

Within these five functional areas, there are 26 processes that follow learning elements from inception to integration. You may be wondering, “Hhow many L&D staff are needed to execute all 26 processes? Various industry surveys share that organizations typically have 3-4 L&D staff per 1,000 learners and data from Training Industry’s Career and Salary Survey indicates that some L&D teams include five or more people for 1,000+ learners. So, how can you succeed with only yourself?

6 Common Challenges for L&D Teams of One

Delivering results as a team of one that are commensurate with a fully staffed team is no easy feat. Regardless of your passion, your expertise or your drive, you may find yourself falling short somewhere, whether that be job duties, work-life balance, personal development, etc. In some cases, the traits that make you an excellent learning leader may even exacerbate these challenges.

Some of the common challenges that you may run into are:

    1. Time Constraints:L&D teams can be overrun with worthwhile requests, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Even if you worked every one of them, you would still not have enough time to do it all (even if you had an army).
    2. Prioritization: L&D teams are called on to solve a variety of problems and serve a diverse customer base, which often results in an endless stream of incoming requests and tasks. Determining where to invest your limited time and energy, as well as what (and who) should take precedence, is a cumbersome task, especially when it falls on just you.
    3. Saying “No” or “Not Now”: L&D professionals are in the service industry. You may feel obligated to say “yes” to your customers and over-commit yourself, rather than refuse requests. If you do manage to say “no,” it may leave you with feelings of regret, especially when you’re presented with new ideas, initiatives or opportunities.
    4. Being Effective Without Direct Reports: Having direct reports source and contribute their recommendations allows L&D leaders to leverage a variety of professional expertise, insights and perspectives. Without direct reports, you lack contributors whose attention is wholly dedicated to specific focus areas of your L&D function and there is no backstop for bad ideas (or at least not-best ideas).
    5. Meetings, Meetings and More Meetings: This is a double-edged sword. Collaboration is essential for conducting a needs analysis, content creation and strategic alignment. Without these organizational signposts, the L&D program’s value will be lost. However, you must constantly assess time spent as a tradeoff: The more time you spend in meetings, the less time you’re spending producing content, calibrating systems and assessing performance.
    6. The Belief That You Have to Do it all Yourself: This is probably the most sinister of the challenges. It can infiltrate all levels of your mindset and thinking because when it inevitably becomes apparent that you cannot do it all yourself, it can leave you feeling less competent, less capable, less credible and alone at moments.

The Tactical Shift: 6 Strategies for Success as an L&D Team of One

The good news is that, while taxing, the challenges you’re facing are not insurmountable — and you’re not alone. Here are six ways you can improve your effectiveness and maintain your resiliency.

  1. Celebrate Your Wins:Early personal recognition of what’s going well will help frame where you should go next. Also, internalizing your successes will help you leverage techniques and approaches in other endeavors. The list of things that could be done better is seemingly never-ending at times. However, the wins that differentiate us, the ones that result from your personal drive and expertise, are the ones that will carry you through ambiguity and doubt.
  2. Share Your Successes: Generate positive energy around the things that you’re doing, and you will inspire people to buy into what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. No one will really know what it takes to be successful more than you, so highlight when things go right (as a bonus, this will also help your manager advocate on your behalf).
  3. Be Transparent:If you’re not authentic, people will see through it. Communicate openly and honestly with your teams and manager. Share when things are going well, but more importantly, be clear when expectations are not likely to be met. If you are transparent, you are more likely to have resources offered before you need them most and your extended team will be able to better capitalize on your success.
  4. Resist the Urge to Say “Yes” to Everything, or Risk Failing Everyone:Your insight and expertise are highly valued, but not every request needs to be fulfilled by solely you. In fact, if the request is not strategically aligned to the business, it perhaps should not be fulfilled at all. Being deliberate and prioritizing requests may allow those things to resolve themselves without your intervention, while addressing both lack of time and prioritization challenges that you may be facing otherwise. That said, be judicious when you say “no,” communicate clearly on the “why” and actively participate in finding alternatives.
  5. Give Yourself Permission to Fail:If you don’t allow yourself to fail, that means you’re not trying hard enough or you’re not trying to do enough things. In fact, research has shown that the optimum failure rate for learning is 15%. It is at this point where the act of pushing yourself can generate the best rewards. Some things won’t work, but that’s where you can get the most learning and growth.
  6. Mentorship Matters:Mentorship allows you to grow and learn from others, and it builds relationships with people that would otherwise not develop. You can’t get anything done without relationships, especially as an L&D professional. The extra benefit of mentorship is that it goes both ways. The mentee and the mentor grow in the process. By reaching out for or giving guidance, you can open yourself up to a host of insights that can reshape your approach.

Building Your Extended Team: The Secret Sauce for Engaging Others

It can be difficult to gain buy-in for your training programs, let alone keep those in other departments actively engaged and eagerly volunteering to contribute to your programs. Enabling and encouraging targeted workstreams will allow you to accomplish specific mission objectives. In his book, “Leading Without Authority,” Keith Ferrazzi introduces the idea of co-elevating with those that you add to your team. To do that, you will need six secret ingredients to engage your extended team members outside of L&D:

    1. Look at the moments you spend working with other people as opportunities to be a part of their success story. If you look at it that way, you approach working with others differently.
    2. Share why each initiative is uniquely enriched by that individual and how they’re uniquely positioned to push a project forward. Success or failure, they are involved.
    3. Organize opportunities for collaboration and connection with people outside of the L&D space and enable strategic relationships across the business. Ensure they have a regular cadence, allow for sharing personal insights and inspire a collaborative partnership that is mutually beneficial.
    4. Be cognizant of the pain points of others and find ways to help alleviate them.
    5. Encourage and enable stakeholders and team members to be successful.
    6. Create positive energy and inspire others to participate.

Concluding Thoughts

Remember, you are not actually an “army of one,” nor should you be. As a solo L&D leader, you have a duty to leverage the business to help you serve its most pressing challenges. If you focus your mission on influencing others to help deliver results, you will discover an extended internal team that will bring in diversity, expertise and resources needed to accomplish your mission.