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Talent Development Leader

A Learning Culture Under Construction

Monday, February 26, 2024

Much like the highway system or a newly purchased fixer-upper, a learning culture requires continuous care.

A learning culture fosters an environment where innovation—the lifeblood of many successful companies—can thrive, per research from Deloitte. In Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval, Johnny C. Taylor Jr. writes that a learning culture encourages team members to think creatively and experiment, enabling them to easily adapt to changes in customer demands, market trends, and modern technologies.


Further, a learning culture can boost morale, inspire better customer service, and reduce turnover. According to LinkedIn Learning’s 2023 Workplace Learning Report, 89 percent of L&D professionals agree that proactively building employee skills will help navigate the evolving future of work.

Although it’s clear that a learning culture creates a competitive edge for organizations, many struggle to build and maintain such an atmosphere for reasons such as lack of resources and time. But, in discussions with other talent development leaders, I have found that the biggest issue keeping companies from fostering a learning culture is that they do not consider it a business priority.

Senior leaders need to get over the hump, however, because the LinkedIn Learning report—which surveyed 1,579 L&D and HR professionals and 722 learners worldwide—found that team members who aren’t learning will leave. That coincides with the fact that 14 percent of respondents said their companies encouraged them to build a new career development plan. Further, the report reveals that three of the top five factors that people consider when pursuing new jobs reflect their desire to stretch, grow, and develop new skills.

Typically, C-suite priorities revolve around business results and factors such as revenue, cost containment, and productivity. Upper management has historically been less concerned with how a learning culture plays a crucial role in an organization’s overall performance—and that can be all the difference between having a good learning culture, having a bad one, or not having one at all.

With 93 percent of companies admitting concerns about employee retention to LinkedIn Learning, learning opportunities are the number 1 way to incentivize team members to stick around.

Build the foundation

A learning culture is an environment in which companies not only encourage continuous learning but promote and incorporate it in their behaviors and values. It’s not a one-time effort but an ongoing process encouraging team members to acquire new knowledge and skills.

It’s a process that’s also becoming a trend. The percentage of L&D professionals working closely with leaders has increased significantly year over year. According to LinkedIn Learning, those working with chief HR officers increased from 39 percent in 2022 to 44 percent in 2023; and L&D professionals who worked with executive leadership jumped from 43 percent to 50 percent in the same time frame.

Lay the groundwork with the following best practices.

Use learning language when describing the culture. A company’s values should explicitly mention L&D.

For example, Grainger, where I serve as director of learning and leadership development, has seven principles to guide team members’ behavior on the job. For the principle “Invest in Our Success,” we proclaim that as an organization, “We Consistently Learn and Grow.”

Start at the top. Team members need to see sponsorship and advocacy of learning from senior leadership. To gain buy-in from leaders, the TD function must keep them in the loop.

Case in point: Four years ago, our learning team presented its learning strategy and goals to the executive team. Since then, we’ve asked for executives' input on learning initiatives and provided them, as well as the CEO and other stakeholders, with updates on the learning function and our progress toward specific measurement goals.

Involve leaders. When leaders advocate for learning, it demonstrates the organization’s commitment to employee growth and development.

For example, we have a robust Leader as Teacher Program that encourages managers to guide a training program cohort, instruct a course, or participate on a leader panel. Our CEO sponsors several talent initiatives such as the End-to-End Leader Program that teaches senior leaders about the business. The CEO designs and facilitates his own module for that program and sets the expectation that all executive leaders will do the same.

Require managers to verify learning. Managers should actively support their direct reports’ learning journeys to help them understand expectations and provide a solid plan for improving performance.

For instance, in the Elevate Badging Program, each manager partners with team members to identify the badges and skills they need to earn and align on the pace of achievement. In addition, managers validate proficiency of new skills as they perform them on the job. As a bonus, managers learn more about the program topics and improve their skills of developing and coaching as they support their team members on the learning journey.

Keep it simple. Team members and leaders are busy with their day-to-day job responsibilities, so make it easy for workers to understand their development goals.

Our development planning process involves three basic steps: Reflect, explore, and grow. Going a step further, our team simplifies how an employee enters their personal learning goals into the talent module. To accomplish that, we combine business goal planning and development goal planning into the same talent module and then reduce the number of fields the team member needs to enter to complete each goal. Finally, we push available resources and information to team members to motivate them to document and share their plans.

Know the difference between push and pull development. Most organizations have required learning, such as new-hire onboarding, product rollout training, and compliance programs—all of which is push learning. But pull learning, which focuses on preparing workers for future roles or leadership opportunities, is just as important.

Use technology systems. Technology advancements enable companies to scale learning, bring it to more staff faster, and reinforce it so that the knowledge transfers.

However, if the process for accessing learning is complex or confusing, people may move on without learning anything. Focus on using accessible, engaging, and relevant technology to meet the needs of your workforce.

A long-term investment

Establishing a learning culture is the first step; the next challenge is to sustain it. Remember: A culture of learning is not a singular solution but a series of endeavors. Therefore, reinforce daily learning by applying the following best practices.

Leverage cohort-based learning. The cohort experience enables participants to learn from one another about a specific topic while inspiring them to learn more about the organization.

We conduct all our milestone leadership programs in cohorts, and we find that many participants stay connected after the program concludes.

Adopt a cross-functional mindset. Cross-functional thinking leads to new perspectives, better decisions, and innovative solutions.

For example, the End-to-End Leader Program ensures that leaders grow their knowledge across the various lines of business. The initiative pairs formal learning programs with cross-functional learning opportunities and talent movement company-wide.


Develop communities of practice. Foster collaboration and the sharing of best practices.
Groups could include analytics, project management, continuous improvement, learning professionals, and leadership development.

Support business resource groups. Most organizations use BRGs to support and empower team members from diverse, underrepresented, or marginalized groups. In other words, they exist to advance an inclusive workplace. Often, BRGs receive a budget and general guidelines, and group leaders develop their own programming and networking opportunities. In addition, the BRGs often partner with the learning team to provide additional learning solutions to supplement programming.

Mandate mentoring. Formalized mentoring reinforces technical know-how and soft skills such as communication and collaboration; demonstrates that growth and learning are central to an organization’s culture; and shapes the next generation of leaders.

To ensure the success of 10-month mentoring partnerships, our learning team provides training on the process, techniques, and resources.

Offer badging. Bestowing a badge acknowledges and celebrates the achievements of workers, documents their learning journey, and motivates them to pursue more learning.

Our guided-choice badging program includes a combination of structured learning with a facilitator, self-paced learning, learning from others, and hands-on learning.

Keep renovating

By establishing a learning culture and implementing strategies to sustain it, you’re not only retaining and leveraging institutional knowledge; you’re also creating an organization that thrives on continuous learning, growth, and improvement.

All companies should have a continuous improvement mindset and instill a culture of learning. At my company, several teams dedicate themselves to process improvement, quality assurance, increased productivity, and reduced waste. Just as those teams strive to improve the individual lines of business throughout the organization, the learning function continuously assesses the effectiveness of its own initiatives and solutions.

It’s important to continually review multiple sources to validate the strength of learning offerings. What does our engagement survey say about learning? Are we seeing career progression among internal candidates? In which learning did those employees participate? Are we able to inspire leaders to volunteer to facilitate some of our programming?

We must also review metrics to ensure that we run learning like a business. Do our metrics align with the business goals? Are we achieving those goals? Are we relaying critical information to key stakeholders? As a TD leader, it’s my job to keep learning front and center in the minds of senior leaders so that they can reinforce it among their teams.

Furthermore, the TD function must stay abreast of developing technology, new research, and the latest thinking in our field.

Finally, understand that creating and sustaining a culture of learning takes time. Certain practices and programs that you’re initiating today may take months or years to grow into a culture of learning at your organization. So, be patient with your expectations, but also be persistent. The rewards are well worth the effort.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent Grainger’s position, opinion, or strategy.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Donald Stanley is the director of learning and leadership development at Grainger, a broad line distributor with operations primarily in North America, Japan, and the UK.

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thank you Don for sharing how Grainger and the learning team is investing in our success!
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Don - thanks for sharing these practices with others. Excellent overview of the work you and your entire team are doing at Grainger
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Great article - having a growth mindset and continuous learning culture is relevant and important in all organizations!
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