ATD Blog

Building Trust and Reputation for an L&D Team

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Nearly three years ago I accepted a new position as the director of learning for AARP. In every way it was a dream job. I found great meaning in applying my craft (organizational and leadership development) inside such an important and socially significant organization. I also had the fortune of building a new learning and development “dream team” from the ground up. There was significant executive leadership support for employee development, and ample resources to make things happen. Within just three months, we had built an innovative learning strategy. My immediate boss (the vice president of talent development) supported our approaches, and really encouraged us to reinvent how professional development could work inside an innovative organization.

I did have some reservations when I accepted the job. Would we get overwhelmed by low-impact, low-relevance requests for training? Would we have the partnerships we needed with other parts of HR to get good intel on what the business units needed? How much patience would the stakeholders have while we conducted a thorough assessment of what was needed? Were we better to focus on “the masses” who were anxious for professional development, or try to get a few key “wins” under our belt by focusing on high-potential individuals?

Although we launched our strategy quickly (and had very good success getting it implemented), most of the strategy focused on getting our house in order and building the required infrastructure to be successful. Now the hard part began. What was the best way to engage the organization? It was clear that many stakeholders had a close eye on learning and development and wanted to see if we could quickly deliver programs that would be well-attended, well-liked, and where participants and managers reported learning application back on the job. The truth was that although we were eager to show we could solve real business problems, we simply didn’t have the social capital or even the brand we needed to interject ourselves into management issues.

After some soul-searching, we realized that this was all about trust and reputation. To gain trust, we needed a multipronged approach that would demonstrate our ability to deliver high-value programs, and we needed to avoid anything that could create a perception that we were rolling out new learning programs on a whim. We conducted an extensive learner motivation study to determine the topics people were interested in, the key drivers that managers saw in development, and the intrinsic drivers that learners found attracted them to learning.


After about six months of launching our course catalog, word of mouth started to grow. Participants in open-enrollment courses requested that we provide the same training to their business units, and these opportunities really helped us learn about the needs of each business unit. The relationships we needed started to fall into place, and we were getting a good amount of advocacy from stakeholders across the organization. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the level of interest and trust was increasing exponentially, but one day I was auditing the new “Building Trust” class that we were offering (through the Blanchard Company) and it really struck me when the facilitator covered “The Four Elements of Trust.” The trust model is called ABCD, which stands for “able, believable, connected, and dependable.”


As I thought back over the last six to nine months, I could recall specific strategies we put into place that leveraged each of these trust-building elements. For example, we were asked to fast-track an introduction to supervision course that the organization had been asking for. We did it in three months, taught it ourselves, and engaged stakeholders from around the organization. By doing so, we demonstrated that we were able to deliver. Our internal research into learner motivation made our decisions believable because they were based on robust data. We had established a “learning council” with representatives from every corner of the enterprise, which gave us a new level of connectedness. Finally, we have put a large part of our efforts into being responsive and customer-focused (which speaks to the sentiment of dependable.) We have built internal processes and a tracking system to ensure requests don’t fall between the cracks and have established roles and structures that make it clear who is the lead when working with a client.

In the end, a course that was describing how trust transpires between individuals had a lot to do with how a group (in particular, an internal L&D group) can build trust with stakeholders across an entire enterprise.

About the Author

Ethan Sanders is the director of learning for AARP. Ethan's team focuses on all aspects of leadership development and professional development for AARP's workforce. Ethan has provided consulting services to clients in the public, nonprofit, military, and private sectors for over 25 years. His leadership experience includes running his own instructional design firm, directing a division within a military command dedicated to human performance improvement, and managing instructional design and competency research for the largest nonprofit organization for workplace learning and performance professionals. He is a nationally recognized speaker who has published numerous books and articles on topics related to workplace learning and performance; he is also a certified performance technologist through the International Society for Performance Improvement. In addition, Ethan is the recipient of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement, as well as the U.S. Navy’s Meritorious Service Award. Ethan has been a faculty member of ASTD for over 20 years, an associate professor at the University of Maryland for eight years, and has presented at workplace learning and performance conferences around the world.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.