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Talent Development Leader

Learning Leadership Can Be a Deserted Island

Monday, May 20, 2024

As L&D leaders, and often teams of one, it’s normal to feel lonely. But not all hope is lost.

It was about 11 p.m. on a Saturday, deep into a Midwest polar vortex. I missed the first two text messages, spaced just 10 minutes apart. I also missed the phone call that came five minutes later. I only learned that the company’s CEO had tried reaching out to me after the chief operating officer called one of the vice presidents to track me down. She wanted to find out why I hadn’t responded to the CEO’s urgent escalation.

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After calling the CEO back and chatting through his (perceived) emergency about employee performance leaderboards, I hung up the phone with the overwhelming feeling that being the senior-most leader of a learning function involves being misunderstood at best and feeling alone at worst.

There are a few reasons why.

We are responsible for a cultural bubble. Aside from a few domains that L&D teams may take care of (such as medical or safety), there are few true life-and-death emergencies in the learning world. Yet, as the senior-most learning leaders for our respective organizations, we serve as a buffer or shield for our teams.

  • We must identify where learning can make a meaningful impact, and where we may need to partner with other functions, such as HR or IT, to succeed.
  • We must translate the language of the business to the myriad languages within our internal functions, including instructional design, learning science, learning technology, and analytics.
  • We must create a psychologically safe space for our teams to operate, innovate, and thrive.
  • We sometimes must protect team members from demanding business leaders (who may call at unpredictable times) or perhaps even a toxic culture that may pervade the broader organization.

Evolving from order taker to strategic partner. On the surface, training looks easy. Many business leaders believe they could do the job, some may believe they could do it better than you. As a result, it’s more common than not to receive an order from another part of the company with a preconceived solution.

I once received a request from a vice president of one business unit asking for 82 instructional videos. When I pressed him on the business problem and why he thought videos (and, indeed, that specific number of videos) would be the best solution, his response was “because your team produced 68 videos for that other team.”

The good news is that talent development has a competitive advantage. Like other support functions such as finance, HR, and legal, learning organizations often serve not just one business unit but the broader company. As enterprise leaders, we are in a unique position to recognize trends and themes across the organization.

With the right insights throughout all business units in tandem with political savvy, the learning function can see patterns, connect the dots, and anticipate themes across the company before business leaders. By doing so, we can shift our teams from being reactive order takers to becoming strategic partners to the business. We can proactively address emerging themes within the organization and deliver core common solutions faster than individual business units can solve for themselves. As I often advise my leaders, if you want to earn the trust of your stakeholders and customers, outrun them.

We are a unit of one. Being the chief learning officer, head of learning, chief talent development officer, or any analogous role can create the unintended consequence of being the senior-most leader of a unique function working in a unique discipline within the company. In short, learning leadership can feel like the loneliest job in the organization because no one understands the effect of training. You have no peers to lean on or with whom to kick around ideas.

Positive thoughts

Of course, not all hope is lost. Below are some strategies to help make the deserted island less lonely.

Benchmark with other learning leaders outside your immediate organization. Even though learning may be a unique discipline, there are thousands of like-minded peers in similar roles facing comparable issues. If your company is decentralized, there are likely other learning teams in adjacent business units.

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Build partnerships and coalitions with other support functions. Even though your learning function is in a unique discipline, there are horizontal support functions such as HR, IT, legal, safety, or finance. Those teams support the same business leaders—who ask those business units to address the same problems that you face. You will go farther at a faster rate by aligning your learning strategy with HR’s talent strategy, IT’s technology strategy, or legal’s compliance strategy to solve common problems with integrated solutions and shared goals.

Build a leadership bench. Over the years, my philosophy about building future leaders has evolved. I believe it’s critical to hire smart, motivated people; set a bold North Star for them; share my mental model and opinions about how I may approach the work; and unlock and empower them. Quite often, my mentees build something even better than I originally conceived. The deserted island will feel much smaller if you can recruit your own castaways.

Seek respect more than having others like you. I once inherited a learning function that a senior leader had led for almost two decades. As I met different business stakeholders, it was clear that everyone loved and missed her as a human being. However, they universally believed that the learning function had not kept pace with the business’s evolution. Colleagues liked her as a person but did not respect her as a leader.

C-suite learning leaders sometimes guide teams through expansion during a phase of strong business growth. Other times, they lead teams through contraction during challenging episodes. On a rare occasion, they may grow a learning team during a period of business instability. What is universally true is that leading a learning function requires making difficult decisions with little support.

We must discern true business needs from the CEO’s Saturday night escalation versus simply responding to their wants. We must also protect our teams, read the direction of the organization and proactively redirect learning teams to stay aligned, and make an intentional investment in our teams while feeding ourselves last.

As learning leaders, we have an obligation to look forward and ensure that the team’s learning strategy and work aligns and accelerates with the business’s trajectory.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Frank Nguyen is a learning executive who specializes in transforming learning organizations through strategy and technology. He has led enterprise learning for Fortune companies including AIG, Amazon, American Express, Intel, and Sears. Nguyen has published extensively on the intersection of e-learning, instructional design, and performance support. He is a recipient of the Learning Guild Master and the ISPI Distinguished Dissertation awards. His work on compliance training, learning strategy, business transformation, and technology have been recognized by Brandon Hall and Chief Learning Officer. Nguyen has served on a variety of learning industry committees for Adobe, ATD, BJET, Brandon Hall, eLearning Guild, and ISPI.

1 Comment
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I am glad I got to read this. It has inspired me to keep pushing thorough the isolated island to reach out and seek for connectivity, inspiration and growth.
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