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L&D Provider: From Helpful Resource to Powerful Ally

Insights from AchieveForum’s Project Delivery team.

We all know that L&D responsibility – and in particular leadership development – can be a tough gig. It’s common to have multiple stakeholders, all with differing agendas. Dwindling resources can sometimes feel as though your workload is seemingly unmanageable. Expectations remain high, your scope is often broad, and as always, you’re concerned with how to best demonstrate value.

Here at AchieveForum, we work with senior L&D and HR practitioners across many industry sectors and geographies as they endeavour to drive leadership success across their companies. As experienced Project Leaders, we wanted to show you behind the scenes on what really works when partnering with a learning provider; and what ultimately leads to a successful leadership development roll-out.

Here are our six top insights.

Insight 1: Focus on your learners

We appreciate all the hard work that’s involved in having your budget approved for a new leadership programme. Once you have the green light, it can often be tempting to want to jump straight into the design and the delivery. Our recommendation would be to try and resist that temptation, and instead carve out some time for reflection. Give yourself permission to put aside the pressure for a moment, and think once again about your learners.

Revisit that key question of “What does this feel like from the perspective of a learner?” Perhaps ask the learners directly or check in with their line managers or your local HR people. Consider how the programme is going to fit into their workload, and focus on what is going to be most valuable to them. If participants are engaged and feel as though the programme is tailor-made for them, they can be your best internal PR resource.

It’s always worth coming back to the learner’s perspective, and be sure to share the results with your Project Leader and your design and facilitation team. There’s often a number of different ways to achieve your goals, and we can advise what might work best within your context, allowing you to drive real value from the initiative.

It’s often the ‘small’ details that make a huge difference to the participants. For example, the venue selection has to be right for the programme design. It’s great to think about these practicalities when you’re in the design phase. Do you need a large room for a particular exercise? Is it possible to move the tables around? It may seem trivial but if you have an activity that takes up a lot of space and you have a large table fixed in the middle of a room, then you’re immediately setting up a difficult situation – and not getting the most out of all the hard work and thinking that has gone into the design.

We’ve also found that it’s ideal if you can get someone on the ground to check the room beforehand, and then have that person be well informed about what’s going to happen on the day, so they can truly advise you about how the venue can support the program.

Creativity can often reach new heights, precisely because you have restrictions. Together, you and your learning provider can think about what space is available, what the participants will be open to experiencing, how much time they might have for pre-work, and critically, how much budget is available. That’s when you can come up with innovative experiences that truly engage participants – and it might never have happened without the practicalities that forced you to be more and more creative.

Tip 2: Embrace feedback

We all recognise that feedback plays a key role in delivering learning and development programmes. We also all know how difficult it can be to truly measure the impact of programmes – the ‘holy grail’ of Return on Investment.

It can be tempting to focus on what you can measure – the participants’ initial reaction to the programme, for instance. It’s natural for learning to be better received by some people than others, and only looking at Level 1 evaluations can skew you towards keeping people smiling, rather than helping them to change their behaviour long-term.

Our clients have found that focusing on multiple touch points is the key to knowing how to continuously improve a programme. Here are some of the sources you can consider to help with getting a full picture of how well a programme is doing:

  • Participant feedback – ask for ‘in the moment’ feedback as well as considering sending follow-up surveys after the programme, or even arranging interviews with key people to find out how the learning is being transferred into the workplace
  • Facilitator feedback – use this powerful lens to look into what’s going on at your organisation. They can provide key insights as to what’s happening in the room and what people are talking about
  • Learning provider observations – we’re here to help deliver the best programme possible, so do talk to us about what’s working, what’s not, and what we can do together to share best practice
  • Local HR team input – ensure they are kept in the loop throughout as they will probably be closer to the business units. Spend time so that they are bought into the initiative, and learn from them about what will work in their area
  • Participants’ line manager feedback – they are the ones who really know what’s changed in terms of knowledge, skills, and behaviour, so consider sending out surveys or conducting interviews the way you would do with participants

Having a range of sources like these can help you to truly analyse what’s happening when there are issues with a delivery. For example, on a recent engagement, we were trying to understand why an (on-paper) compelling programme wasn’t landing well with participants. Instead of the perceived problem being an easy-to-fix issue with the design or facilitator, we uncovered a potentially damaging misalignment between local and global HR. The result was significant misunderstanding about what participants should expect from the learning. If we had taken only the participant feedback, it would have been easy to think that changing the facilitator would make all the difference – when if the real problem wasn’t addressed, we would have had an unsuccessful delivery. This way, we could focus on aligning and engaging with local HR, and working together for a successful delivery.

As Project Leaders, we’re here to have those conversations with you, to investigate and explore when issues do occur, so we fix the root cause, not just the surface problem. We are passionate about supporting you in this type of critical thinking, so that you can end up with a better solution and achieve a deeper impact.

Tip 3: Respect cultural variances

A dilemma that our clients can often face is between a global approach – a consistent design aligned to company values and strategy – and regional concerns – business and cultural context that can sometimes be at odds with the global view. Rather than trying to deliver the exact same programme in the exact same way every time, we advise our clients to focus on the results and the impact that they want to achieve. That’s where consistency is truly important, in how participants change their behaviour, not in how an activity was run on the day.

We’d say acknowledge that regional variations might mean that the way a programme is delivered varies but only to allow the overall aims of the programme to be met, in the best way for that particular group of people, so you get the behaviour change you’re aiming for.

On a recent engagement, we worked on a leadership programme with a large pharmaceutical client. Initially, it had been very much designed for a West Coast USA audience. The expectation was that it would work just as well in Russia as it did in Thailand; and just as well in Poland as it did in California. In reality, it was critical to introduce regional adaptations, and when we did this, we started to see success.

As we have a network of experienced facilitators who deliver in many countries, we can help to advise on how best to adapt content and styles to accommodate preferences and cultural boundaries. Company culture is important too, and again engaging with local HR to understand how that manifests in their region also gives you the data you need to make decisions around what needs to be consistent every time, and where flexibility to regional variations is important.

We all agree that outcomes need to be consistent but how you get there may well be different – and that’s not only okay, it’s really for the best.

Tip 4: Prioritise stakeholder management and internal marketing

Your learning initiative will not succeed if you underestimate the importance of stakeholder management and internal marketing of the programme. This is arguably one of the toughest parts of learning and development; and we have seen countless initiatives fall at this hurdle. 

Already, we’ve referenced the importance of working with local HR, participants and line managers, and as you know, managing your stakeholders and the internal positioning and marketing of the programme can be crucial to its success.

Stakeholder management. There are so many people within an organisation who can influence and support a leadership development initiative. From the senior execs who sign off on investment, to influencers around the business who help define the appropriate solution, to the participants themselves. Each group plays a key role in establishing the key messaging:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What are we planning to do?
  • How do we intend to do it?
  • What will be different afterwards?

As part of our Project Launch when we start working together, we include a stakeholder mapping exercise. This allows you to consider your different stakeholders, and to plot them according to their level of interest in the project, as well as their influence or power. Some of the most effective roll-outs we’ve seen are those where managers and organisational leaders are deliberately involved from the outset, so they can set expectations and emphasise to their employees the importance of what they are about to learn.

Once you’ve identified your stakeholders, the next step is to establish a communications plan for each group. Thinking about the best form (email, phone, formal reporting) to how often (once a quarter, every week) to how much detail each group needs to see, can really help you to engage the right people at the right time to support the success of your initiative.

Internal marketing. Once you have considered your stakeholders, you can move onto marketing the programme internally. For larger programmes, this may start with a branding exercise – does your initiative deserve a brand of its own? Something memorable, engaging, and relevant to the audience/company? It’s ideal to build a “buzz” around the initiative, so people get excited about what is coming. True to a ‘marketing mix’ approach, make use of all channels at your disposal (newsletters, posters, intranet updates, email, team meetings, performance reviews, social channels, internal influencers).

It’s always great to consider the marketing throughout the lifecycle of the initiatives – from pre-launch activities (and even pre-design activities) to post-initiative sustainment opportunities. By creating a clarity of purpose across the business, people know how they are expected to contribute. Showing top-management support can help people to take it seriously, whilst peer advocacy can be critical to share success stories and support behaviour change.

Tip 5: Always tie solutions to your strategic business objectives

None of us want a learning initiative to only be a box ticking exercise, where ‘just getting it done’ becomes your unofficial priority number one. We all want to deliver learning that really makes an impact, and to stay true to the objectives and goals of the learning. Impact is difficult to measure, but we know it’s not impossible.

Here is where we’d advise to try and take the pressure off yourself. You’re not alone in creating or delivering the solution, and we’ll help you to engage stakeholders, focus on aligning with what the business needs, and ultimately, take control of the project so that it will achieve what you’re aiming for.  

As we said at the beginning, it is tempting to jump straight in, and then once the initiative is underway, there’s the stress involved to keep constantly pushing. Allow yourself some breathing space for the unexpected – build in some lag time for each task of the project/journey. If it takes less time, fantastic, but if it takes more, you’ve already allowed yourself some contingency.

One of our clients keeps ‘value’ at the heart of all his decisions and actions – he spends his budget where he judges it will have the most impact. For instance, cutting out translations might save money, but if your group has limited English, then the value of the program is diminished. Making value-based decisions that link back to what the learning initiative, and ultimately the business is trying to achieve, can help to guide you through stressful times.  

Tip 6: Think about sustainment and learner motivation

In order to achieve impact and the value to your organisation, sustaining the learning is crucial. (Look out for more posts on this topic!)

We’d recommend going back to your learners and understanding what will motivate them to change their behaviour and apply their learning. A good example of this is the time we worked with a well known high-end retailer on a leadership development programme and struggled to get a team of sales professionals to use a mobile reinforcement app post-learning. A little delve into the psyche of the (sales professional) participants, led to a decision to position it as competition. There were reports on a weekly basis and prizes up for grabs. Suddenly participation went through the roof. It was fun, appealing, and they voluntarily engaged in learning reinforcement.

Other suggestions include weaving the learning into performance reviews and proactively looking for ways in which the learning can be integrated into participants’ day-to-day work. Sustainment has to be learner-led unless you have significant budget (and time) to spend on bringing people back together face-to-face. We have worked with many clients to adapt the length of the learning sessions to counter a limited attention span, as well as a limited time to actually commit to learning during the work day.

Thinking practically about what it will be like for the learning back in the business can also offer insights. For instance, if it’s only a small group of people that are being offered leadership development, consider any obstacles to them applying their knowledge and practising their new behaviours. Establishing a common language can be very powerful in facilitating the embedding of new behaviours into everyday life.

Your L&D provider, and especially your Project Leader, is here to help you to keep your eye on the bigger picture.

With a shared purpose of changing learners’ behaviour to help them be more successful as individuals and teams, your learning partner is a helpful resource to enable you to do your job.

And perhaps more importantly they can be a powerful ally in this fast-moving, often challenging world of learning and development.

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