Eight habits of successful L&D

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Written by Richard Clarke on 1 June 2014 in Features

Do you want to maximise your investment in L&D? Richard Clarke offers some pointers

Across many years of designing and delivering leadership development to organisations both global and local, several key patterns have emerged and in this article I will set out the key habits necessary if you are to get the most from your investment in training and development.

One famous anecdote on this topic is a conversation between a CEO and CFO.  The CFO is reputed to have been commenting on a large training proposal and says “what if we invest all this money on the training and then the people leave?” to which the reply was “what if we don’t train them and they stay?” In truth, this captures one of the fundamental problems with training and development: how does it add value to the organisation?

Habit 1 – focus on outcomes not outputs

It can be very tempting to focus on what can easily be measured: days training per person, online learning modules available and logged into, certificates achieved etc. All of these lead to a sense of activity within the training and development arena. It is certainly easier to take this approach than to attempt to define what outcome we expect from our training, especially if that training involves ‘soft’ people-related skills.

Take leadership development as an example. It is harder in part because leadership is such an all encompassing topic, which touches everyone within an organisation, and it can be difficult to pin down.

What is essential, though, is to pursue tirelessly the outcomes that you expect to achieve from your training and development investment.  There are three broad areas in which to look for outcomes:

Expertise.  Effectively, the primary responsibility for many leaders in organisations is as individual contributors. Even if their role involves some general management and responsibility for people, their ‘professional’ individual contribution is a major part of their role. Because the value add to the organisation is in a functional (sales, marketing, finance etc) or technical capacity, outcomes here include being the best professional they can be so outcome measures would include measures of professional development and expertise.

Achievements and goal orientations. Leaders within this remit often have responsibility for the achievement of goals requiring the collaboration and co-ordination of resources across the organisation. This includes the typical management responsibilities and responsibility for the development of other people. In this area, typical outcomes might be financial – like profitability, revenue oriented and cost control – or linked to customer satisfaction and operations like productivity.

Enterprise leadership and organisational health. Leaders here pay primary attention to the health and welfare of the overall organisation thinking of the organisation as a social system comprised of a variety of units, teams and individuals. Typical outcomes would include employee engagement, clarifications on roles and responsibilities for individuals, measures of co-operation, responsiveness to and ease of change and mutual respect between employees and departments.

This habit is perhaps the most important as it ensures that any training and development is aligned strategically and fundamentally to the organisation’s overall purpose.

Habit 2 – involve relevant stakeholders

It can be both time consuming and extremely confusing to engage a wide stakeholder population. Leaders at all levels within an organisation make a fundamental impact on the climate within an organisation. Amongst the enormous debate about what makes a good and effective leader, one point stands out.  For both individuals and teams to give their best and to be most successful they need an appropriate environment which may, at various times, need a range of inputs such as direction, clarity, support, challenge and autonomy.

Effective leadership development needs to address these aspects and help leaders to understand what is required to create this environment; often during times of significant market complexity and organisational uncertainty.

What is critical, therefore, is to involve stakeholders.  Typical stakeholders for a particular leadership population would include managers, peers and direct reports. The process of capturing desired outcomes needn’t be time consuming; conversations could be phone based, via focus groups (particularly helpful for talking to the population to be developed) or even via survey.  If there were one ‘magic’ question to ask each stakeholder it would probably be something like: “what is your best hope for this training?”

Habit 3 – use financial proxies for your outcomes

One of the difficulties of assessing the return on investment of training and development is that the outcomes can be mixed between those that are easy to measure and also very difficult. This is particularly challenging today as many organisations are extremely complex. It is a mistake to take the easy route and just focus on those areas that are easy to measure like productivity or sales improvements.  Important measures – like customer satisfaction, employee engagement and improved collaboration within the organisation – are considerably more difficult to measure financially.

One very useful technique is the use of financial proxies which can be used this way. During stakeholder conversations ask for an assessment of the financial value added from different outcomes. Precise numbers aren’t important; rough ranges and estimates are all that are needed. When you collect the assessments from a range of stakeholders, you will find that you have guideline financial values for the different outcomes intended from a training initiative. This is very helpful in the design of the training and indispensable when measuring the outcomes after the event.

Habit 4 – include budget for measuring outcomes

Historically, many training programmes have been one-off events; the first thing to be cut from the budget when finances become tight with the argument given that there is little compelling financial justification for sustaining the training and development.

Most assessments of training and development are little more than the ‘happy sheets’, those post programme assessments given by the participants (more about the positive contribution of these later). When the primary justification for training and development is the organisational benefit, then it is essential that an attempt be made to measure these benefits within the organisation.

With clear intended outcomes, it is, of course, easy to know where to look.  However, there must be budget upfront to measure the outcomes. Go back to the initial stakeholders. Ask, what difference have they seen in the participant and how they value that difference for the organisation?

One argument I often hear is a time based one, especially when it comes to behavioural change. “We have trained Joe, but it will take time for him to absorb the lessons and change.” Throw this argument out. If they haven’t changed during the programme so that a noticeable difference is observable immediately after the whole programme, then future changes are extremely unlikely; at least as a result of the programme.

Habit 5 – face to face training must maximise the interactive and experiential components

Often the largest cost for a training and development programme is the opportunity cost; followed by the travel and accommodation. It is vital that the most is made of the precious time participants are together. This is even more important now that, for many organisations, participants may well come from diverse geographical locations.

There are many benefits to be gained from interaction between leaders within organisations when they are face to face. Getting them to sit in a room looking at a PowerPoint presentation or hearing a speaker, no matter how engaging and entertaining, should be utilised in a training event sparingly and carefully.

When leaders are together, there are opportunities to:

  • Learn from each other
  • Build shared empathy and understanding
  • Create organisational culture
  • Practise interpersonal skills in a safe and supportive environment
  • Join up parts of the organisation
  • Build engagement and motivate each other
  • Create relationships that support the daily leadership and work tasks.

These are all achieved by having productive, engaging interactive experiences.

Habit 6 – assess the quality of the experience for the participant

Back now to the real power of the ‘happy sheet.’  That great 20th century educationalist, Dewey, captured the point nicely when he talked about ‘continuity of experience.’ Experience is at the core of the development and educational process. The quality of the training and development process can be assessed by its immediate impact and its influence on later experiences. In illustration, if a participant has a great experience, but leaves a training event feeling that it added little value to their existing challenges and current role, it is likely to dissuade them from future learning and growth. While having a positive impact, the event has failed to support the developmental process.

So, the critical element in a training programme is to create experiences that have immediate impact and relevance and live fruitfully and creatively in future experiences. One practical example of a quality experience is when we develop coaching skills in leaders. They benefit immediately as they have the opportunity to explore and solve, or at least better understand, current problems, dilemmas and challenges. They also benefit because they cultivate the skill of being able to understand others better and listen more deeply, supporting future growth.

This is where the ‘happy sheet’ is considerably effective and important questions would include the likes of how would you rate the experience, what impact has this training had on you as a leader and would you recommend this to your colleagues?

Habit 7 – maximise the opportunities for insight and self-awareness

Business leadership sadly seems to generate more stories around the destructive impact of people who are, after the event, defined as disastrous leaders rather than the success stories of good leadership. At the core of the development process is a process of ego development. 

By ego development, I mean our individual struggles to comprehend, understand and organise the experiences of life.  Leaders at the helm of a business which did not survive an external challenge, frequently make sense of their demise in an unproductive way. For example, Kenneth Lay, Chairman of Enron, held that the corporation’s collapse was “due to a ‘conspiracy’ waged by short sellers, a handful of rogue executives whose activities were unknown to him and the news media”.

The status conferred through being in a leadership position emphasises further the natural human tendency to believe we are better and smarter than others.  For leaders, they can be encouraged to believe they are more than just another employee, they are more entitled, more talented. This creates a barrier to engaging with development and closes leaders to vitally needed feedback.

Leadership development programmes provide a critical opportunity for us to gain the opinions of others as an aid to gain better self-understanding. Especially for leaders who live their lives under a microscope, where their daily behaviours are scrutinised and evaluated and these behaviours can have a disproportionate affect on the organisational climate.

Habit 8 – plan for and include application of skills back in the workplace

We know from follow-up studies that changes in behaviour and skills acquired and successfully demonstrated during a training event are typically not applied back in the workplace. It is, therefore, essential that any training and development programme plans for, and builds in, components to support the application of new skills and behaviours.

Many can be created through peer-group events, manager coaching sessions to explore application, telephone based ‘coaching circles’ and external coaching sessions. What is vital is to accept that follow-up is needed and that it should support application and that they should create similar experiences described in Habit 5 above.

Overall, for too long training and development hasn’t undergone the same type of rigorous scrutiny as have capital investments, acquisitions or even new product launches. This provides organisations with a unique opportunity to learn significantly from their current training and development and create a virtuous cycle of improvement, enhancing their human capital and talent population.

In conclusion, if you are a buyer of training and development services, here are some of the key questions to ask of potential providers.

1.       How will you work with us to help us identify the desired outcomes from our training and development programme?

2.       What is your experience of engaging with stakeholders for training programmes and which stakeholders would you recommend for our particular case?

3.       What percentage of the actual programme is experiential and interactive between participants?

4.       What are your typical measures of    engagement and recommendation to peers at the end of an event?

5.       How will the participants gain self-awareness and self-insight?

6.       How does your programme support the application of the skills back in the workplace?

About the author

Richard Clarke is a master coach at the career transition and talent development specialist, Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH) www.lhh-uk.co.uk



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