Do Your L&D Leaders Need a Jumpstart?

A mere generation ago, learning and development was a vastly different proposition. Except for those instances where “high-potential” employees were singled out to be groomed for executive positions, “training” typically involved a one-size-fits-all approach that saw employees herded into mass sessions where they suffered through boring presentations or watched outdated videos. Even hands-on learning opportunities were done by rote, rather than tailored to an individual’s specific needs.

Driven by advances in technology and changing demographics, today’s L&D landscape bears little resemblance to that which existed even at the arrival of the current millennium. Learning is increasingly individualized, mobile and on demand. At the same time, a shortage of skilled workers has led many organizations to hire based on soft skills, culture fit and a willingness to learn, rather than a resume full of relevant capabilities and experiences.

The result is a massive shift–from learning and development being a “nice-to-have” to an environment in which L&D leaders are playing increasingly pivotal roles in the success or failure of their organizations, according to Tracy Duberman, president and CEO of the Leadership Development Group. With the heightened importance of learning, Duberman says, today’s chief learning officers are partnering with the CEO to align learning and development to organizational strategy.

“L&D leaders are facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities to do some really awesome work with individual contributors, emerging leaders, high potentials and leaders, as they respond to massive and significant changes going on in their respective industries,” says Duberman. “The biggest push is for L&D professionals to create programs and services that help their organizations execute on future strategies. That requires playing at a higher level, as the stakes are higher for L&D executives now.”

Rather than feeling bogged down by the increased demands, Laura Lee Gentry, vice president of talent and learning at Ultimate Software Group Inc., is invigorated and excited to be working in the current L&D environment.

“It’s a very dynamic time for L&D,” says Gentry. “Change is the new normal, and it’s the responsibility of the learning organization to make sure that companies and their people are ready and able to adapt to the new future of work.”

While learning and development has taken on a heightened importance, budget cuts and reallocation of resources have led many organizations to slash L&D staff. For Leah Minthorn, director of North American learning operations for Iron Mountain Inc., a data- and records-management company, that equates to the need to be skilled–and skill her L&D team–to serve as “learning consultants.” Unlike the traditional role, in which L&D professionals served as “order takers,” Minthorn strives for “consultative partnerships,” in which she and her staff get to the root cause of a problem, offer the most appropriate solution and deliver on it.

“In today’s environment, learning and development leaders need to be strategic, consultative partners who can really convince business leaders the value of learning,” says Minthorn. “The leader needs to engage with stakeholders to understand what makes the business successful and where there are gaps, so they can offer solutions for how L&D can make it even more successful.”

Deeply Rooted

Responding to those heightened demands requires a different set of skills and competencies than was typically needed to deliver on organizational learning and development expectations, according to Michael McGowan, managing director and practice leader of leadership and talent at BPI Group. In addition to a thorough understanding of “the latest and greatest in terms of adult education,” McGowan says, today’s L&D leaders need skills around change management and organizational design, along with a deep foundation of business acumen.

“Business acumen is a key skill you don’t typically think about L&D leaders having or needing but, as I talk to business leaders, it’s what they crave,” says McGowan. “They need [L&D leaders] to be able to understand how the business operates and, from there, introduce, create and buy the right types of programs that will help close skills gaps throughout the organization.”

At Ultimate Software, Gentry credits her team’s business acumen for its ability to be highly impactful, although she personally didn’t have to cultivate such knowledge as an L&D leader–she brought it with her. Before she began working in talent management in 2011, Gentry was a financial professional. She earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in finance and embarked on a professional career that included stints in finance at both Smith Barney and Bell South. While that experience gave Gentry a “leg up,” she recognizes that other members of her team may not have the same advantage. To ensure that they, too, develop a deep business acumen, Gentry sees that they are embedded in the business, sitting at the table with leaders, hearing the challenges business leaders are dealing with on a day-to-day basis and responding with ways the L&D function can help. She also rotates members of her team throughout the business to give them “cross-functional understanding.”

“If you’re not delivering programs that are delivering value to the business, you are wasting your company’s money,” says Gentry. “The needs of the business are front and center for us, and all of our partners have to be serving a business need.”

While Gentry came to the world of L&D already well-versed in the language of business, Minthorn has spent the entirety of her more than 20-year career in learning and development. She recognizes the need to align her team, resources and initiatives with the changing demands of the business. Admittedly, she doesn’t have the “best financial acumen,” but is constantly striving to bolster her knowledge by reading industry publications, watching TED Talks, and seeking advice and coaching from the senior leaders of the organization.

That intellectual curiosity is a crucial component for any L&D leader striving to stay up to date with emerging trends, says Minthorn. You don’t have to be a subject-matter expert in everything, she says, but you do need to be “curious enough to understand someone’s day to day” in order to make recommendations that will support their needs. Likewise, interpersonal skills, compassion, patience and understanding are critical to building the kind of relationships that will enable an L&D leader to create a collaborative environment, says Minthorn.

Connecting the Dots

With more organizations undergoing massive changes to better position themselves for future success, the learning and development function is further challenged–not only to retrain the workforce, but also to help the organization’s current and future leaders develop their capabilities for leading during times of transformative change. Perhaps that is best epitomized by New York-based Phillip Morris International. More than 170 years after London tobacconist Philip Morris opened his flagship shop, the world’s most successful cigarette company has decided to transform itself into a “science and technology-minded company, actively working towards a smoke-free future.”

Overcoming this “massive challenge” requires a highly personalized, individualized approach to learning and development, according to Charles Bendotti, senior vice president of people and culture. Critical to the endeavor is communication, he says, as a major transformation entails helping people “connect the dots” to determine whether they have a future in the new organization and what skills are needed to take them there.

“We have to move from being an organization where we tell people what they need to learn to one in which people share their learning together,” says Bendotti. “That requires knowing each person well enough in all aspects to clearly define what they need to develop in order to be successful.”

While Bendotti relies in part on conferences and conversations with his peers to help inform him of trends in the L&D space, he stresses that he is “very careful” when considering what strategies to employ at his organization. That’s especially true when it comes to technological solutions.

“What we are facing is very different from any other organization, so I’m not sure anyone can tell me what we need,” says Bendotti. “What might be important for Facebook or Google might be very different for PMI. It’s critical to do very introspective work to ask where we stand, where we want to go, where are the gaps and how can we move forward.”

Indeed, while much has been made of tech-enabled learning, mobile learning apps and the introduction of innovations like artificial intelligence to the learning and development space, L&D leaders must be careful not to become too enamored of the “bright, new, shiny thing,” according to Doug Lynch, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education in Los Angeles, managing director of StartED New York and author of Evidence Matters: The Penn Handbook for Evaluation in Workplace Learning. Rather, he says, they should focus on designing and facilitating increasingly individualized learning plans that combine an array of modalities.

At Iron Mountain, “roles and responsibilities continue to evolve,” according to Minthorn, requiring learning leaders to create more adept L&D processes to keep up with the changing environment. Increasingly, that means a blended approach that incorporates newer technologies, along with traditional learning experiences and good old-fashioned coaching.

“The blended learning experience gives people what they need that’s unique to their needs, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all model,” says Minthorn. “You have to reach all their senses, so we start with e-learning, which is an overview of what they are going to experience firsthand in experiential learning, followed by on-the-job training and then ongoing coaching with a leader. That’s critical to giving people the tools they need to be successful.”

According to Lynch, L&D leaders are often amazing at developing others, but not necessarily the most adept learners themselves. Bendotti agrees, equating the situation to the saying “the shoemaker always wears the worst shoes.”

“When you lead the learning function, you are very good at telling people what they should do, but you are not very good at learning yourself,” he says.

Throughout his career, Bendotti has avoided that fate by considering himself a perpetual student and being eager to learn. He accomplishes this goal of continuous learning by putting himself in “not normal” situations, such as travelling to different countries and immersing himself in diverse cultures and learning their values and philosophies, which he then applies to his professional life.

At Ultimate Software, Gentry says, her L&D team avoids the “cobbler’s children” scenario by employing the same rigorous learning approach it recommends to the workforce.

“We need our people leaders to be the best people leaders on the planet because we are growing quickly and it’s very difficult to maintain a relationship-driven, family-feeling culture with that kind of growth,” says Gentry. “We can’t very credibly coach them on being great leaders if we aren’t modeling great leadership ourselves.”


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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at