The strategic conversation

In the second of a three-part series, Laura Overton looks at how to use evidence to open the minds of business leaders

Alignment with business has never been closer to the heart of L&D leaders than it has been today. However, the latest CIPD L&D Survey shows that despite our best efforts, we still struggle to get to a place where businesses leaders really ‘get us’. While their study shows that the lack of clarity regarding business strategy is the number one barrier to better alignment, it also shows that a third of L&D leaders experience ‘apathy, lack of insight, understanding or interest’ from senior management that holds them back. Coupled with  a lack of senior managements’ confidence and knowledge of L&D and their predisposed idea that L&D is a ‘reactionary tool’ or ‘sticking plaster’ rather than a ‘proactive tool for development’ – it’s no wonder that a quarter feel restrained by lack of resources!

New understanding of neuroscience and new models of learning that support learning and performance in the heart of the workflow means that many L&D leaders today know that they can add more value and engage more staff when they approach the learning challenge with fresh eyes. We want to deliver a modernised learning
strategy but business leaders typically approach us to deliver courses or to implement a specific solution to a problem they have, rather than seek us out for skills solutions to the big issues of
the day.

So how do we break the deadlock of understanding and open up a conversation about learning at C-level that takes a fresh perspective?

The challenge is threefold. We need to be able to use that conversation to:

  • Grab the attention of business leaders for new ideas
  • Increase business collaboration and ensure appropriate resourcing
  • Shift the focus to strategy and performance even when the business wants to talk about courses.

The single thing that holds us back is confidence!

What saps our confidence?

In my opinion the issue of measurement has sapped the confidence of well-informed L&D leaders seeking to modernise learning. We know there is a better way but we believe that senior leaders will only take us seriously when we can turn up with a return on investment (ROI) measure. These are tough to come by so we work on the low hanging fruit to demonstrate our efficiency. As we saw last month, building a business case based on savings only serves to strengthen our role as course provider.

What’s interesting is that several C-level studies have shown that ROI is not the big deal to business leaders that we think it is. One report, the C-Suite Imperative, asked what business outcomes would justify a significant spend in workforce development. Topping the list were productivity, agility, engagement, profitability and reducing turnover. Only one in five said return
on investment.

The value of confidence

We don’t need our own ROI, we need confidence to approach the board with what we do know. Research with top performing sales teams shows us the true value of confidence. In their book, The Challenger Sale, the authors highlight five sales profiles: the relationship builder, the problem solver, the  hard worker, the challenger and the lone wolf.

I have asked over 70 L&D leaders in the past two months who they think is the most successful in winning significant and complex sales. The majority have placed their bets on two – the relationship builder and the problem solver (possibly because they are the roles that we relate to the most). In fact it is the challenger.

The reason for their success is that [pullquote]the challenger brings fresh insight and evidence to the table that shakes the stakeholders’ current perception and emphasises the potential for change[/pullquote]. Matt Dixon, author of the book talks eloquently about different sales approaches over the years. Originally sales people took the approach of ‘Show up and throw up’ where the meeting with a key decision maker is dominated by a fat catalogue and a deluge of usage stats (sound familiar?). Over the last 10 years there has been a shift to ‘solution selling’ uncovering what has been keeping the influencer awake at night and digging deep into their pain before recommending a solution – ‘death by questioning’. The trouble is today, when decision makers are kept up all night, the likelihood is that they also spend a fair bit of time on Google looking for the problem. When they come into the office the next morning, they already know what they are looking for and are very happy to tell the next sales person who comes in (again sound familiar?). That is why the challenger approach alters the dynamic of the conversation as the sales person bring new ideas, fresh insight backed by credible evidence to the table.

Let this evidence, albeit from a different discipline, build our confidence. Today’s L&D leader has to be an excellent sales person with the ability to influence, persuade, inform and secure resources needed to deliver real value back to the customer. We need to be more confident in our use of data and evidence in order to bring fresh insight to business leader to achieve this.

How to use evidence to build confidence

While ROI is not top of the list of business leaders, the ability to talk about the bottom line value of your suggested approach will be key. If you don’t have any data to back your recommendations then your confidence and ability to challenge the thinking of your business leaders will be limited. 

What other sources of evidence can you draw on? Stories are a great place to start – the role of case studies especially of those in a similar industry or of a major competitor have their use but it is limited. More powerful external evidence would be the bottom line benefits of new ways of learning. This is the tough one.

Towards Maturity consistently asks our Benchmark participants: ‘What benefits are you looking to achieve from your modernised learning strategy?’ Trust me, expectations today are sky high as we seek to improve time to competency, increase productivity, reduce attrition, speed up the roll out of new products, processes and services. We also ask: ‘Are you achieving them?’ This is where we see the performance gap opening up that we talked about last month. Not afraid of asking the toughest question, we then go on to ask about the quantifiable benefits that have been delivered. Very few can answer this question but we are persistent and over the last three years, we have been able to find a minimum of 400 L&D leaders around the globe who are tracking the difference that a modernised learning strategy has brought to
their organisation.

The box across summarises some of evidence that we have found and that you can use.

There are four areas that must be considered when using this type of evidence to approach your business leaders.

  • Credibility – your confidence in the credibility of the data is critical
  • Be conservative – one way of using this in conversation would be to ask: ‘A significant number of companies have found that new learning approaches have the potential to
  • reduce attrition by nine per cent. If we could just do a third of that, is it worth taking a fresh
  • look at our approach to L&D?’
  • Emphasise collaboration – if your senior decision maker answers yes to the question above, make sure that you are clear that this is something that you need to do together (remember the benchmark evidence shows that top learning teams are continually working in two-way alignment with business leaders).
  • Be cautious of the efficiency argument – this is the data we will be most drawn to sharing but it is most likely to focus the minds of business leaders that our role is there to deliver more courses, cheaper. This just takes us back to square one. Efficiency evidence is best used once you’ve established that you can deliver so much more to the bottom line through agility, talent and market share. Combining this evidence in conversation with business leaders puts a whole new spin on the delivering more for less argument.

Using evidence to open conversations is clearly the way to go. The box below provides more hints and tips crowdsourced from 20 L&D leaders at a recent LEO and Towards Maturity workshop.

Fortune favours the bold

The courage to take evidence and use it to open new avenues in our conversations takes time to build. Build that courage by increasing your involvement in benchmarking with your peers. Next month we will look at the evidence from learners themselves. 

A fully referenced version is available on request 


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