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Q&A With Editors of Leading the Learning Function

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The following is a Q&A with MJ Hall and Laleh Patel, the editors of Leading the Learning Function, Tools and Techniques for Organizational Impact, an ATD Press publication about how leadership drives the learning function in organizations.

What prompted you to develop Leading the Learning Function?

Hall: Leading the Learning Function was developed in response to a need identified by the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Recognizing the value in a resource that focused on how leadership drives the learning function in organizations, ATD asked its Forum—a consortium of exceptional learning leaders from different industries, backgrounds, and experiences—to consider how its members could curate and organize their insights and best practices in book format for the benefits of other learning leaders and aspiring learning leaders.

Integral goals of the Forum include leveraging lessons and future-ready practices that Forum members are using, helping members stay ahead of the challenge curve, supporting competitive advantage, and building performance capabilities within organizations for today and the future. Because of these goals and our innovative, lab-like environment, we knew we had the leaders at hand and the working structure with which to make this project come to light.

Who are the contributors to this book?

Patel: Leading the Learning Function was made possible by the collective contributions of more than 50 individuals representing over 50 percent of our 60-plus member companies with these contributor details:

  • 31 contributor chapters
  • 15 interviews with senior learning leaders
  • 12 content reviewers

This book would not have been possible without this tightly connected community of exceptional learning leaders who have collaborated for years and are open to constant experimentation.

The book covers a broad content spectrum and has eight sections. How did you determine the specific topics?

Hall: First, the focus of the book is on leadership in action and how the behaviors and practices of leaders affect the people and the work. Second, we wanted to focus on leaders in the one functional discipline—the learning space. There are numerous resources about learning and numerous resources on leadership, but ATD saw an opening for a book written specifically for learning leaders, with ideas for addressing the unique challenges they face. A goal was to unravel and describe the ways world class leaders build and sustain those responsible for continually building performance capability in a world of constant disruption and change.

The concept of leading the learning function is especially poignant because Forum members are responsible for developing leadership experiences for their respective organizations. One question stands out: Do these leaders practice what they preach? Or, as one of our contributors queried: Do they eat their own dog food?

In our roles as editors, we started by identifying key leadership and management areas to address. We conducted research, using models and ideas from organizations and management thought leaders including the Center for Creative Leadership, DDI, Kouzes and Posner, Zenger and Folkman, and the Center for Leadership Studies. Additionally, we used the federal government’s model for civilians (senior executive service qualifications) and the military, the Baldrige Performance Criteria, and the ATD Competency Model (now known as the Talent Development Capability Model). We also held a focus group with a small number of Forum members who had served on our advisory group. Finally, we surveyed our membership of more than 60 to see how these topics resonated with them. We landed on these major topics:

  • setting direction
  • managing processes and projects
  • leading and developing people
  • making an impact
  • stakeholder collaboration
  • enabling learning through technology innovation
  • leader behavior and practices.

There is an intentional focus on tools and techniques. Why was this included?

Patel: All disciplines have a unique set of tools, techniques, frameworks, and models that have developed over time and are useful and practical. In the learning space, examples include ADDIE, SAM, LLAMA, action mapping, Kirkpatrick’s fours levels of evaluation, the Phillips Return on Investment (ROI) methodology, Brinkerhoff’s Success Case Method, and front-end analysis. As content boundaries have morphed, we have used numerous tools and techniques from other disciplines, including various problem-solving and collaborative decision-making tools from Lean, Quality Management, Design Thinking, and Agile, among others.

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Collectively there are probably more than 150 tools and techniques discussed or shared in Leading the Learning Function. For some, the context in which they are used is included in the contributor’s story. For others, the instructions are provided. Some can be easily searched online. Many are associated with certain vendors or thought leaders. Others are variations of common tools that have been customized specifically for learning leaders, and some are original to the Forum labs.

A major part of Forum labs includes introducing and practicing new tools to create greater awareness, understanding, and clarity around topics to be more innovative in solving problems and delivering results. The sharing and use of tools and techniques was intentional as part of our goal to develop a compendium of practices that are helpful to others.

What were some general insights or key takeaways the contributors shared that stood out to you?

Hall: There were many key takeaways we hope will resonate with other learning leaders:

  • It is important for leaders to focus on the critical essentials of leadership regardless of their functional discipline. We define leadership as taking others to a place they would not go by themselves. While leading talent professionals has some unique aspects, it is defined by the basics, such as setting direction to be aligned with the business objectives and goals, having dependable and stable processes to add rigor to daily work, and developing people at every level by creating an environment where employees can excel in producing the results needed for their organizations to be competitive in the marketplace.
  • The studies and examples emphasize collaboration between business leaders and executives to solve business challenges. Across the chapters, various ways to enhance collaboration using decision-making tools and extensive communication is shared.
  • Being strategic at the systems level is a priority for learning leaders as exemplified in the scenarios. Stakeholder awareness is important and an indication that learning leaders pay attention to the learning landscape as well as the larger system within which they operate. While the contributors’ experiences feature solutions for groups to work together more productively, there are also elements of how learning leaders are pivoting to personalizing learning and helping employees be more self-directed.
  • Performance and effectiveness are critical. As such, learning leaders must be passionate about contributing to the success of the organization and believe that what the learning function contributes truly matters. Building performance capability is a business imperative.
  • There is no one way for TD professionals to do their work—whether it is leading or learning. How we approach work depends on the context, the industry, the moment in time, the resources available, and the experience and vision of those involved.
  • Learning leaders must serve as role models for others and act as catalysts for the future of work. Even with a focus on the essentials, the contributors provide ways to think differently about what learning leaders do and how they do it. Some even suggest that leaders look at the wide expanse of roles they play including the business learning advisor. Others suggest that learning leaders must rethink their roles completely given the massive disruptions that occur in work.

Drawing on 11 interviews with senior leaders, the volume includes a section devoted to how leaders “show up” and what tools they use to enhance their personal capability. What are some of the patterns or themes across the different leaders?

Hall: There are three broad themes shared amongst the leaders:

  • Leadership is a journey that should start with learning more about yourself and how others see you—for example, understanding how you “show up” to others and the impact you make. Are you a catalyst that creates opportunities for others to have a voice, to ask questions, to act, and personally develop? Or are you a constant solution-giver and the one with all the answers?
  • Development is personal and takes awareness, knowledge, skills, abilities, and discipline, which means doing new things, assessing the results, reflecting on the experience, getting feedback from others, and repeating the process and continuously making improvements.
  • While an unexpected and defining moment of transformative change may happen periodically, it is the actions taken every day that determine our leader style and our impact on work and the people we lead. While it is important to set strategy and write the big goals, it is the execution of tactical operational plans and meeting the weekly milestones that determine success. It is the conversations we have walking down the hallway or the rituals we share, such as eating in the employee cafeteria, that build trust and confidence.

Why is this book unique, and what does it offer to the larger talent development industry?

Hall: Leading the Learning Function fills a resource gap in the talent development industry by offering first-hand insights and experiences from senior leaders who have come together to share knowledge and learn from one another’s practices and efforts.

This book is written by and for senior practitioners. In keeping with the mantra of David Langford, founder of Langford Quality Learning, “Everyone a learner; everyone a teacher.” Learning from theorists, thought leaders, vendors, university professors, and others is critical. However, learning from those immersed in the practice field can be inspiring and serve as a spark to jumpstart an initiative one would not otherwise tackle.

The practices shared are generally undergirded by theoretical constructs but incorporate various practical tools and techniques to make up a toolkit that we are continually building and improving upon. Improvement often will come by using several tools and techniques together. Examples of this are using an action-learning framework while adding design thinking methods to the discussions and summarizing a collaborative process using a storyboard as well as visual techniques from sketch-noting.

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Patel: The examples in this volume are real and unplugged. They reflect the professional practices the contributors have used as well as their experiences. Many of these practices have been featured in award-winning applications. This book offers something for learner leaders in all industries.

As editors, we are excited to share this body of knowledge and expertise with all talent professionals, especially those leading the learning profession. Our goal was to provide guidance on how learning leaders carry out their roles to assess and build organizational performance capability in supporting the business’s competitive position in their respective market. The actions they take use generic leadership and management skills and address specific organizational learning pain points and challenges. The contributors captured the essence of this in their extensive range of thoughts, experiences, industries, perspectives, and general points of view on leading the learning function. We think it will help every learning leader to get better at getting better.

About the Editors

MJ Hall is an experienced WorkLearn strategist, performance coach, and business learning advisor. Her expertise includes designing, developing, and facilitating innovative collaborative experiences that focus on leveraging employee capabilities for positively influencing organizational productivity and delivering results. Prior to working at ATD, she served as a Level IV professor, director of leadership development, and special assistant to the commandant at the Defense Acquisition University in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. She has also held numerous operational assignments with other military branches within the Department of Defense (DoD), including chief of the Program Management Office at the U.S. Army Engineer School. She also consulted with civilian agencies while serving in an executive rotational assignment with the Federal Consulting Group.

Hall earned a doctoral degree in educational leadership from George Mason University, a master of business administration from Long Island University, a master of education from University of Maryland, College Park, and a bachelor of arts in teaching from High Point University (HPU). Among her many honors, Hall was awarded the DoD Exceptional Civilian Medal, the U.S. Vice President’s Hammer Award for Innovative Practice, and the 2017 HPU Alumni Service Award for her volunteer work with doctoral students at the Stout School of Education.

Laleh Patel is the senior manager for the ATD Forum, steering the engagement and direction of the senior leader talent development consortium. In this role she oversees and manages the business strategy and day-to-day operations of the community and engages with executives to develop research and products to meet their most pressing talent development challenges to drive engagement and content strategy for the ATD Forum.

Prior to managing the Forum, she worked as a research associate for ATD, conducting surveys and analyzing and reporting on industry trends. She wrote the 2010 State of the Industry report. Patel has also worked in the survey research team at the Society for Human Resource Management and as a global advertising account executive at Lowe Worldwide. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from University College London, a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology from George Mason University, and a graduate certificate in survey design and data analysis from George Washington University.

About ATD and ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit td.org/books.

Leading the Learning Function: Tools and Techniques for Organizational Impact
ISBN: 978-1-950496-61-7| 400 Pages | Paperback

td.org/books/leading-the-learning-function
To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with MJ Hall or Laleh Patel, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at khechler[email protected] or 703.683.8178.

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