By actively engaging leaders in learning and leadership development, organizations can deliver relevant development to learners and give leaders valuable frontline insight.
For today’s leaders, the ability to develop talent across the organization is crucial. While senior leaders may already act as facilitators for sessions with their direct reports and share their expertise through the leader-as-teacher model, for many, that’s as far as their involvement goes. But there is a new role emerging for senior leaders: leaders as advocates for learning. This role demands even more commitment and capacity from leaders and also yields more significant results for the organization.
The leader who acts as an advocate for learning consistently positions learning as a core competency and integral part of the corporate strategy. Advocates visibly sponsor and promote development initiatives throughout the organization and help promote organizational learning by partnering with HR and the learning and development function. Leaders’ influence can extend to a role in knowledge sharing and management within their organizations.
When leaders across an organization take on this advocate role, the positive results — from a more productive sales force to more innovations from R&D — can be dramatic. During times when budgets are being stretched and morale is waning, there’s an opportunity for leaders to step up to the challenge and drive active learning throughout their organizations.
The Case for Senior Leaders as Advocates
In his book Learning in Action, David Garvin stresses the importance of building a more adaptable and flexible learning organization to be competitive. He cites research that supports executives devoting more of their time to teaching and training as a crucial element of creating a learning organization.
Garvin writes that this teaching role “provides a broad base of knowledge and understanding, gives purpose and meaning to organization members, and ensures commitment to common goals. But it is incomplete — especially in environments that are changing rapidly and unpredictably. To succeed in these settings, the focus must broaden from teaching to learning.”
When leaders directly impart the skills and lessons they’ve learned to the individuals on their teams, they bring learning closer to the business, give more credibility to the learning experience and make all participants more accountable. By sharing experiences both good and bad, senior leaders help their teams understand how to thrive within an organization’s culture and how best to deliver results. These leaders are in a unique position to drive learning across their organizations; yet, they often remain an untapped resource as learning advocates.
Senior leaders should be more involved in learning and leadership development because:
• Senior leaders naturally present learning experiences in the context of the business. This leads to more impactful learning and better results for the organization.
• Leader involvement raises the bar. Having senior leaders linked to or involved in learning initiatives typically increases the accountability of the participants. Sessions enjoy higher attendance rates of better-prepared and engaged participants.
• They can promote a learning culture. By leading by example, senior leaders can help teams be more receptive to change and help them take on new learning programs and business strategies more effectively. New initiatives will have a greater chance of success and will get off the ground more quickly.
• They can help with organizational knowledge management. As organizations try to mine the tacit knowledge and experiences that lie within their workforces, involving senior leaders directly in learning becomes a channel for unearthing and sharing that knowledge.
• It empowers employees and helps morale. When leaders make themselves accessible and demonstrate genuine interest in the organization and challenges faced by staff, they often hear comments from the field that they might not otherwise uncover. This gives senior management a glimpse into real organizational challenges and can lead to changes that directly benefit the individuals and the organization.
In one HR consulting firm, senior leaders co-moderated monthly sessions. Attendance and participation increased as a result, and current events and challenges were discussed openly and frankly. Participants felt that leaders shared their concerns on topics such as workplace stress and conflict resolution, and human resource development and senior leadership gained a better understanding of specific challenges faced by their constituencies. The firm rotated different executives as moderators, selecting them based on organizationally recognized strengths. The leaders were flattered and eager to participate, and attendees appreciated the senior management involvement.
Leader as Advocate: Four Opportunities for Senior Leaders
In the current business climate, leadership development and learning must be smart, business-focused and powerful. Senior leaders who are active advocates can make this happen. Here are four ways leaders can take on the advocate role:
In the traditional leader-as-teacher model, leaders guide training sessions on their areas of expertise. This method remains a critical and visible way for senior leaders to act as advocates for learning. Senior leaders are leading in-person, Web-based training sessions with managers across their organizations, for direct reports and broader audiences.
This model continues to grow. In a recent e-survey of leadership development and learning professionals conducted by Harvard Business Publishing, more than 70 percent of respondents said they expect to see more training and mentoring done by their leaders in the next 12 months.
A global technology company uses this model for its leadership development program. The organization relies exclusively on leaders and senior managers to cascade learning throughout the organization to reach managers at every level. The learning team created facilitator guides for the nontraditional facilitator to ensure learning is consistent across divisions and geographies. These facilitators are coached in facilitation skills and immersed in the culture, which values self-directed learning and leader as teacher.
Partners at a large financial services firm lead webinars in their realms of expertise for a new manager development program. Participants complete assigned prework for level-setting, review core concepts to check for understanding and then the partner tells a story or two. The participants then actively engage in a 20-minute question-and-answer session through voice or chat. This program gives new managers or recently promoted staff valuable face time with senior management. The timing of topics coincides with fiscal events such as budgeting and goals season, as well as performance reviews and a managing stress module just in time for the holidays.
Whether leaders play a central role or just weigh in at certain points, their input on learning initiatives can be incredibly valuable. Advocates who work closely with HR and learning will have the opportunity to review content and program design and the opportunity to suggest enhancements to help ensure the programs better address critical business needs.
The COO of a large hospitality company actively drove a program in which a video iPod was distributed to all GMs. He reviewed and selected the content and added up-front commentary to videos of industry executives distributed monthly to address current business challenges faced by the organization. As an added incentive, the hardware was given to the participants as a gift by the COO and the learning and development team.
As part of a larger learning initiative meant to create a common culture, the CEO of a publishing company weighed in on the design, core competency models and behaviors, and content selection for an internal Web site focused on communicating the benefits of working at the organization. The CEO’s interest and involvement helped make the site more prominent in the minds of managers and also ensured the site reflected an executive perspective. Based on the CEO’s input, stories from managers in the field were highlighted on the front page.
When your respected and highly visible leaders share a personal story, the individuals on the receiving end will find it more memorable and relevant than many other learning interactions. Leaders can use this powerful method as a way to add context to the topic and help people see the link between the learning and the business. Storytelling personalizes the learning experience.
As part of a soon-to-launch management development program, the president of a global manufacturing company will sit in on moderated Web sessions with new managers to provide color commentary and share his own experiences. The baton will then be passed to another executive staff member who will lead future sessions. The format uses storytelling and promotes universal access to the organization’s leadership.
When senior leaders evangelize key business and learning initiatives throughout the organization, people pay attention. What they say often is less important than what they do. They set the example.
A handful of executives at a large health care organization were asked to sit on a panel reviewing employee-created plans. The interdisciplinary teams going through a management development program were asked to find solutions to critical problems facing the organization. The teams formally presented business cases for their proposed solutions to the panel, and the winning projects were funded and put into action.
A publishing company is launching a change initiative around the implementation of a new ERP system. This new system will revolutionize the way performance management and development is organized. In addition to recruiting human resources development leads in the various businesses and functional areas, the company has recruited change champions who will become subject matter experts responsible for promoting adoption throughout the organization. The company will create a series of workshops to on-board these agents, and they will be supported by an application that contains change management content and tools. A collection of facilitation and discussion materials will make it easier for them to share content across the organization.
Engage Executives at the Organization
Not every leader will be a natural advocate for learning, and even those who are on-board need a compelling business case for why they should commit the time. Executives well-suited to this role are well-respected by their peers and teams, and are clear and consistent communicators who make time for their direct reports. Even an improbable candidate can make a positive impact if engaged appropriately and given the right coaching and resources.
How can you cultivate and encourage leaders to play the advocate role?
Show them business results. How is leadership development and learning impacting your business? How much more successful are programs that involve senior leaders? Compare your average attendance to the attendance of elective programs that have senior leaders’ participation.
Raise expectations. Make it a part of their performance management plans so they actively seek out opportunities to engage employees. Help them develop platform skills and the art of storytelling. If you can help leaders get more comfortable with delivering training, as well as with appearing vulnerable and taking some risk, the learning results will be much more powerful. Proposing long-term leader-HR pairings is one way to raise the comfort level for leaders when they participate in development initiatives.
Start with something small and see what happens. A client once told me she would ask an executive to stop in for five minutes to speak to groups of management trainees. Nearly every time, the five minutes stretched to 10, 15 or sometimes even an hour. Once senior leaders start getting direct feedback from managers and hearing about issues from frontline managers who are close to customers, they tend to want to get more involved with training and mentoring.
Encourage some healthy competition. Promote involvement of senior leaders in learning programs and share positive feedback from those in the programs in public forums to encourage more participation.
Senior leadership participation in employee development often is an underutilized resource. Most leaders typically welcome the opportunity to speak with employees, not only because it offers them a platform but because it allows them to connect with and better understand the issues, challenges and opportunities their organizations face.
Employees hail the opportunity to engage senior leadership to find out how they’ve made it to the top and to gain exposure. Senior leaders often uncover unexpected wisdom and creativity from their youngest or newest team members. The leader as advocate for learning is a win-win for the organization.