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Fostering a Culture of Learning for Your L&D Department

by Sue Plaster

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“I want my team to be constantly learning themselves, and helping their internal clients to find new approaches and opportunities,” a learning and development colleague ardently stated over coffee recently. “I want each one of us to be models of the agility and resilience we foster in the rest of the organization!” She went on to ask, “But how can I ask this of them when our education budgets as well as our time are so limited? Is there really an argument for our own capacity building in times like this?”

This is our story as leaders, isn’t it? Often the behaviors we want to instill in our departments are more challenging because we are the proverbial shoemaker’s children. The very work we do means that we know the value of learning and continuous progress. Yet our own training, education and travel budgets may not support the kind of strenuous learning and professional development curriculum we would like our staff to take part in.

Here are practical steps you can take to bring a culture of learning and internal challenge to your department. As a reference, go back to John Kotter’s 8 Steps for Creating Change and review the importance of following a methodical change process, starting with creating a sense of urgency and enlisting a guiding coalition of champions. www.kotterinternational.com.

  1. Establish your role as the learning champion for your team. Make sure that you are one of many who take this point of view. Ask a peer leader, or even your own supervisor, to come on board with you as an advocate for building the capacity of your group. And make your purpose clear. This isn’t remedial: it’s developmental
  2. Take John Kotter’s advice and impart a sense of urgency. To do this, you don’t need to set aside a whole day for an offsite learning adventure for your team. You may choose instead to set regular time aside on your own calendar and in regular staff meetings, if your team has them. By devoting a portion of your already set-aside time, you communicate that you are serious about learning and its immediate value. And by offering a portion of the team’s regular meeting to the pursuit of learning, you demonstrate that you understand its value to them as well.
  3. Always link learning activities and actions to their purpose or intent. As a proponent of intentional learning and development throughout the organization, part of your role is to make sure that those education efforts are rooted in purpose. “When you walk with purpose,” says noted speaker and author Dr. Bertice Berry,“You collide with destiny.” As you amplify your role as a champion of learning not just for the overall organization but for your team as well, it’s vital that you make a clear connection to a business objective or outcome. You’ve invited a guest speaker in to talk with your department about Lean Six Sigma at a Lunch n’ Learn? Make sure the program materials, speaker introduction, and any handouts clearly state how this learning ties to organizational goals and needs. Every time you connect with purpose, your work becomes more transparent and therefore easier for others to apply.
  4. Ask your team to set meaningful learning and enrichment goals – and start with yourself. Let’s say you committed to devote 30 minutes each week on your calendar to learning or exploring something entirely NEW to you. I would encourage you to invest your first 30-minute Learning Adventure to assessing your own skills, interests and needs and coming up with a short list of practical learning goals for yourself. Your learning goal(s) should emanate from an outside look as well as an inside look. Maybe interactions with others in the learning and development field have prompted you to look at upgrading your technology skills. Or maybe the past year in your company has taught you that you could become more adept in analyzing, interpreting, and managing financials. Or you want to advance your writing skills, because everyday email and PowerPoint take way too much of your time and you’re not sure you are even using the tools correctly. Be sure the learning goal(s) you set are closely connected with business purpose, possibly even connecting with your annual goals in some way, so that their intention and value is clear at the outset.

    By setting a learning goal for yourself, starting to work on it, and sharing it with others as you feel comfortable doing so, you are demonstrating that it’s perfectly OK not to know everything. Moreover, you are showing that a wise professional addresses learning gaps before they become performance gaps.

  5. Recognize the power of encouragement. Coach and leadership advisor Denny Stockdale, Stockdale Resource Group, gathered some of the best-recognized names in the global professional coaching industry, and spotlighted them in a series of educational “telesummits” in 2015. These learning venues were aimed at one concept:  the power of encouragement.

The message is simple, but we often forget how important it is to practice encouragement among those who are closest to us. It’s not just our client organizations that need our nurturing and encouragement to engage in adventurous and purposeful learning activities:  it is our coworkers and colleagues, up against immediate deadlines and pressing work, who need to be reminded that 30 minutes engaged in learning this week, according to our learning plan, could bring huge benefits next week.

Part of the encouragement role of leaders is to remind our teams that our work is important, and that our own development will help ensure the success of our efforts.

There is another vital role for encouragement in our departmental learning activities, and this is encouragement when there are challenges, misfires, errors, or even outright failures. Listen for your opportunities to sponsor and advocate for learning by being the one to say, “It’s very difficult, but we can do this. Think of how our skills will be enhanced!” or “More power to you for choosing a challenging technical area for your learning pursuit. Even if it takes you a little longer than expected, think of how much learning you will bring to all of us.” If you listen for the times when you can encourage in the difficult spots, you will know for sure your leadership is making a difference as you model the value of learning for your department.

Please Share the Wealth

As your department, under your leadership, becomes a more powerful voice for learning in your organization, realize the value of communicating about what you are engaged in. You may choose internal media, or professional journals, or other external media – even YouTube – to spotlight your story. Keep in mind that what you are developing is a valuable case study about Learning and Development organizations “tending to our knitting” by developing ourselves in an intentional way.

About the Author

Sue Plaster holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota, with a focus in leadership development. She advises individuals in job search, career transition and onboarding, and consults with organizations on diversity, succession planning and leadership development. Sue’s corporate career includes communications and human resources roles with the Fairview Health System, Honeywell Inc. and Boston Scientific. You can connect with Sue through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com

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Igniting a Learning Culture in Your Entire Organization