A 60-Day Success Plan for New Learning Leaders

Congratulations! You’ve been appointed the organization’s senior learning leader. But what happens now?

Congratulations! You’ve been appointed the organization’s senior learning leader. Feels good. You’re pumped. But what happens now?

Here are seven recommendations for your first 60 days on the job. They’re derived from a study conducted by Raytheon Professional Services (RPS). The study identified the skill sets needed at three stages of one’s career: at the beginning, at the midpoint to position oneself as a senior learning leader and, finally, at the senior leadership level.

To conduct the study, RPS surveyed 122 learning leaders during April and May 2007. For the study, RPS defined “senior learning leader” as the individual within an organization responsible for establishing and implementing the organization’s learning strategy and demonstrating the results related to it. An “organization” could encompass the entire enterprise, or it may refer to a business unit within the enterprise.

Among survey participants, 43 percent identified themselves as senior learning leaders and 50 percent reported to or were peers of senior learning leaders. They came from organizations of varying sizes in a broad range of industries, the government and the military. The study’s conclusions were based on the survey responses, interviews of selected respondents, a review of published information and RPS’s own experience in learning.

The study’s results were presented at the ASTD 2007 International Conference and Exposition on June 3, 2007.

Strategic and Visionary Thinking Needed at the Top
What’s the most important competency for a successful senior learning leader? It’s strategic and visionary thinking, identified by 62 percent of the survey respondents. The study concluded that this competency is essential for achieving organizational objectives. It requires the ability to sift through complex information to focus the learning function on critical priorities.

The second most important competency is relationship management, named by 41 percent of respondents. Learning leaders must develop meaningful relationships at all levels and understand the importance of informal business networks, or networks that exist independent of the formal organization chart.

Influential communication was the third most frequently cited competency, identified by 36 percent of respondents. It includes effective one-on-one meetings and public presentations that articulate the value of the learning function to the organization.

The other important competencies include performance/results, named by 34 percent; learning acumen, 33 percent; and business acumen, 30 percent. Fewer participants chose people development, innovation/creativity and ethical leadership.

Judging a Senior Learning Leader’s Effectiveness
How should a senior learning leader be evaluated? By measurable business impact, according to 33 percent of survey respondents. Next in importance were business support and relationship, cited by 27 percent; building a learning culture, 21 percent; and people development, 13 percent.

Some of the comments about evaluating effectiveness were thought provoking. Examples:

· “Success is defined by having a seat at the table when the topic isn’t just about learning.”
· “The extent to which learning has been aligned with the needs of the business.”
· “Implementation of repeatable, sustainable and measurable practices.”
· “When their vision is shared throughout the organization.”

Other comments:

· “No longer seen as a luxury but as a necessity.”
· “When business leaders seek out the learning professional to help solve their problems.”
· “He/she can demonstrate [the] relationship between learning and organizational outcomes.”
· “Go-to relationship with business owners.”

And more:

· “Ability to fulfill business plan objectives.”
· “When learning becomes an inherent part of an organization’s culture.”
· “Remember, you are not running a university or school. Enterprise learning is a business function delivering a direct and measurable impact to the core business.”

A New Leader’s First 60 Days: Seven Recommendations for Success
The study recommends seven courses of action during your first 60 days in the learning leader position. Before you get started, the study advises, document your plan for the first 60 days so that you can periodically refer back to it as a touch point. You should also prepare introductions for different audiences — your boss, your peers, your direct reports, other stakeholders. Material for your introductions should include an elevator pitch about your background, your vision for the learning function, your initial actions and what you’ll say about your predecessor.

Along those lines, think about your predecessor, how he or she was perceived and how those perceptions may influence the organization’s perception of you. Step back, too, and conduct a self-assessment that identifies any gaps in your skills and knowledge.

1. Know the Business. This is the single most important thing a new leader should do, according to the survey.

The study recommends that the new learning leader develop a keen understanding about many different aspects of the organization. Included are its products, structure, functions, culture, long-term strategic plans, financial history, current financial targets, metrics being used, policies and procedures. You should also identify the organization’s most influential leaders and how they have perceived and engaged the learning function in the past. One particularly good tactic for understanding the business is to get into the classroom and teach, listening to your company’s employees about their issues and challenges.

Sample comments from survey participants:

· “Attend every meeting, listen to every person. Focus on those below in the org chart, as they are aware of the systemic challenges they face on a daily basis.”
· “Get to know key influencers, ask good questions.”
· “Learn how well the business strategy is being executed on the front lines of the operation. In other words, determine the degree of alignment between the business plan and the actual, quantifiable business performance.”

2. Be Intentional About Your Social Network. Survey respondents identified creating partnerships as the second most important competency for learning leaders. Once the professional has passed the early career stages, it’s more about who you know than what you know, the study concluded. The recommendations put particular emphasis on understanding the organization’s social network, or the links between people who collaborate to create value independent of their formal role in the organization chart.

RPS has a unique perspective on these relationships because of its ongoing research in social network analysis (SNA). Its SNA studies create maps that illustrate how employees work together. The studies also recommend ways to leverage the effectiveness of these networks.

New learning leaders should develop strategic partnerships with people who are nodes at the networks and are known as “network brokers.” The study advises leaders to update and manage their networks just as they do their personal finances or careers.

(For more information about social networks, see “Using Social Network Analysis to Create Bottom-Line Results” by Tracy Cox, in the February 2007 issue of Talent Management magazine.)

3. Know, Trust and Empower Your Team. New leaders should interview direct reports individually with preplanned questions. Examples: How do people in the organization think it has performed? What efforts have been made to change the organization? What is the organization’s stated vision and strategy? Who is capable and who is not? Who has influence and why? What surprises could push you off track? In what areas can you achieve some early wins?

It’s also important to observe interactions within the team: who plays which roles, how candid the dialogue is, how goals and strategies are established, how decisions are made. Observe interactions between team members and clients. Test the information flow within the function by determining how well other senior leaders understand their employees’ challenges and how well employees understand the organization’s strategy and vision. You can also use social network analysis to understand the depth to which your own learning function is integrated.

4. Align With the Businesses. New leaders should identify the strategies and annual plans of the businesses they support and then design a learning strategy that supports key goals. You should communicate the strategy at all levels to get buy-in and adapt when needed. In so doing, you’ll be able to identify the advocates and opponents of your function and strategy.

One particularly effective approach for creating alignment is to set up a learning governance board that regularly engages senior leaders from across the organization. You should also secure some quick wins, which can be accelerated by leveraging team members with the highest social capital as assessed through the social network analysis.

5. Learn to Listen — and Listen Some More. New learning leaders should approach their new role as an anthropologist: understand the culture and observe its norms. You should meet personally with the learning function’s key stakeholders. Ask: What should remain the same, and what should change? What would you like to see me do, and what should I avoid doing? What counsel do you have for me?

You should also understand your boss: the expectations, priorities and challenges of your role, others’ perceptions, preferred reporting and communications approaches, preferred timing for your initial report.

We have found it particularly helpful to maintain notes from many, if not most, of these discussions, allowing you to revisit thoughts during periods of reflection to identify themes.

6. Communicate Vision and Strategy. You should approach your new role as a political campaign. Create an elevator speech about your vision and strategy for the learning function, using “sticky” messages people will remember. Begin with your own organization, get them excited, and let them amplify the message. Mix your communications media, using face to face, Internet, video conference, Web logs, live broadcasts, e-mail, etc.

7. Establish Metrics That Matter. At the end of the day, the most respected learning organizations tie their metrics to the business’s key performance metrics. Consider metrics that cover the four perspectives of the Balanced Scorecard: Customer, Financial, Internal Business Processes, and Learning and Growth. Where possible, balance your metrics with leading and lagging indicators. You might consider assigning key business leaders as metrics advisors and champions. Each metric should have a baseline and progress should be tracked in a very public way. Celebrate successes.

Start Today
A new senior learning leader can make a significant contribution toward helping an organization achieve its strategic goals. The first 60 days in the position are critical. In particular, it’s important during that period to develop and demonstrate knowledge of the business and to begin creating partnerships by capitalizing on an understanding of the organization’s social network.

Five other recommendations for getting a fast start in the position were derived from the RPS study. They are: Know, trust and empower your team; align with the businesses; learn to listen — and listen some more; communicate vision and strategy; and establish metrics that matter.

These principles will provide a payoff throughout the career of a senior learning leader. If you’re already practicing them, putting new emphasis on them can make you even more productive than you are. When should you begin doing this? Why not start today?