The science that has indeed become our field has grown in acceptance. There is no disputing that. As a result of Peter Senge's now classic argument around the "learning organization" or GE's sagacious and decades-long investment in the John F. Welch Leadership Center at Crotonville, chief learning officers now fill many C-level offices.

And perhaps because of our own improved ability to show the return on-investment in learning, the value of learning and development (L&D) has never been greater. Moreover, L&D's stoic response to the current recession is encouraging because, according to the ASTD 2009 State of the Industry Report, average learning expenditure as a percentage of payroll has actually increased. There is also evidence that our confidence as an industry has recovered - in the second quarter of 2010 the Learning Executive Confidence Index reached "its highest value to date."

But with that increased value comes great expectations. To sustain the newly acquired cachet and influence on organizations in this new decade, learning leaders need to rise to the challenge in a sustained manner or risk tumbling backwards to be merely an adjunct of HR departments or be relegated as "nice-to-have" but not integral to building organization capability.

Learning leaders must model the same competence and capability they teach their fellow employees and executives. Yes, the standards are different for them, and they are higher. Parents can't yell at their children to stop yelling any more than learning leaders can demand excellence from colleagues and not be excellent themselves. Learning leaders can and should continue to be the L&D experts, and lift organizations through their ability to grow individual and group capacity. But to keep L&D at the table, more is indeed required. Each training manager, director, vice president, or CLO must be a leader, manifesting qualities in parallel with their L&D pedigree. And this shouldn't just happen by accident or happenstance any more than learning should. Learning leaders have to enact a simple, uncomplicated plan and then put it into action.

Broaden your knowledge base

At a certain level, learning leaders must have the ability to think beyond training. They are expected to respond to organizational challenges with the bent toward learning, but their real value will be when they don't respond as a trainer. Their response should be cogent and value-added - when they don't go back to the same well, but offer a fresh business approach that may suggest a new paradigm or is integrated with other disciplines - such as marketing, finance, or operations; they are not responding for those disciplines but in concert with them.

"We require business savvy," explains Roger Turnquist, the founder of Leadership and Learning Partners. "Really understanding all there is to know about actually running a business unit, about learning and the various technical and nontechnical options, and of course, about people and the key business drivers. L&D must be very smart about the business side and the people side of the business."

If learning leaders are successful in developing their knowledge outside of their natural expertise, they will organically increase the value and credibility of that expertise. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. This does not require abdication of their role as learning leaders but augmentation of it. Of course, this will also go far toward influencing C-level decision makers about their own departmental objectives. When asked to explain the business reason for that new learning program, linking the program to key business drivers will be that much easier to do and to believe.

Show integrity


Integrity is perhaps the cornerstone of leadership competence, no matter the role, department, or industry. When we have difficult decisions to make or are challenged and need to come out swinging, our response must come from a safe and reliable place. "We lead from who we are," Kevin Cashman writes in Leadership From the Inside Out. Working to lead with a solid, core level of integrity assures that our responses will almost always be, if not the right ones, at least responses that we can live with. This competency is no different for learning leaders than for any other leader and is critical to being seen by others as worthy of following.

"A learning leader must be authentic - consistently demonstrating integrity and congruency with conversations, commitments, and intentions," explains Theresa McDaniel, director of training and OD at Sinai Health System in Chicago. "Authentic leaders demonstrate honesty, hold others accountable for acting with fairness and respect, and coach others to do the same. It is the role of a learning leader to build and support environments where open and honest relationships and an organization's community can thrive."

Learning leaders who act on integrity do so with the intention of seeing reality as reality is, no matter how unattractive. And unique to the learning leader, Turnquist suggests, "I'd also add integrity as a key competency. Because to be successful, you have to know what's not working to be able to help fix the problem and that means you must be trusted to use this information in a professional way. If not trusted, you won't have the key information you need to identify solutions and priorities." Integrity garners trust, which begets honest information and accurate data. Only through valid data can good choices emerge.

Model the right behavior

When Mahatma Gandhi suggested that we should "be the change we want to see in the world," he was referring to the global community. If learning leaders want their organizations to change more, learn more, develop people more, and rely on evidence over conjecture more, they have to engage this same concept; it must begin with them.

"Learning leaders must live and breathe continuous improvement," says Cathy Gallagher, director of IT organizational change management at Kellogg Company. "We must be very good models and coaches." As obvious as it sounds, we must lead the way.

A hunger for learning won't hurt, but supporting the learning of others while seeking "teachable moments" must be part of our creed. A manager without credibility won't last long, but a learning leader without it is history. It's not a "do as I say, not as I do" opportunity. But to be not only effective but credible, learning leaders must act congruently with the advice they dispensed in last week's workshop or yesterday's coaching session.

With greater influence comes greater responsibility. Learning leaders are closer to their collective goal of unquestioned influence, but they can slip out of favor like a newly elected politician who didn't sustain value once given a real place of power. We're close but not there yet. Because our influence is so new and therefore tenuous, our sustainability is much like the Gandhi sagacity offered earlier: It is up to us - not them.